Sydney (AFP) – Ex-Socceroos captain Craig Foster was capped 29 times for his country, but believes the fight to free Hakeem al-Araibi was the most important battle of his life and vital for saving football’s soul.
The young Bahraini footballer and refugee is on his way back to Australia from detention in Bangkok and it is largely thanks to player-turned-commentator Foster.
When the Thai authorities arrested the 25-year-old defender on his honeymoon and looked set to deport him to his native Bahrain — where he feared facing torture and prison — Foster used his considerable public platform to cause a stink.
This, Foster told AFP, was not just about Australia keeping its word to offer a young man refuge from persecution, but about the fate of football itself.
The 49-year-old believes it is the start the process of redeeming the soul of sport from the “sordid” grip of big money and politics.
“It was clear to us in football that this kid was in serious trouble, because football was never going to come to his aid,” Foster told AFP.
“Modern sport will always take the most politically expedient path over the human rights of one single, unknown, unloved athlete — unless we fight like we are doing now.”
– Unknown player v royal –
Foster is renowned in sports-mad Australia for his outspoken views about local football, and recently launched a campaign to join the board of governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA) before withdrawing his candidacy.
So his dogged efforts to rally support for Araibi — including flying to Switzerland to meet world governing body FIFA — is little surprise to local fans.
But this is the first time the salt-and-pepper-haired pundit has entered the world of geopolitics.
“None of us have ever done anything like this before, it’s completely new,” Foster said after visiting the imprisoned Araibi to deliver messages of support.
The visit touched Foster personally.
“When I met him it was very emotional because I saw a kid who’s terrified for his life and I’ve never ever actually been confronted by that before.”
At the heart of the case are two people — Araibi, a semi-pro footballer who was barely known in Australia; and Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, from Bahrain’s powerful ruling family.
Araibi was wanted for damaging a police station in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring protests, but the former national youth footballer insists the case is bogus and tied to his previous criticism of Sheikh Salman.