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 back in 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 said, 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 said.
“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.”
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.
Unknown player v royal
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.
Meanwhile the Bahraini royal, who in 2016 failed in his bid to run football’s world body Fifa, has repeatedly denied claims of complicity in human rights violations during a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at home.
Foster believes leaders like Sheikh Salman represent the growing negative influence of money and politics in football at the expense of its stated values of humanity and tolerance.
Refugees and Aussie football
“The sport of football being the global sport teaches us about humanitarian values,” Foster said.
“But it’s only in these moments when we are really tested as to whether we really believe in those values.”
Foster’s relentlessness also stems from another cause close to his heart – refugees.
Having seen firsthand the huge contributions migrants have made to growing football into a national sport, the Amnesty International ambassador for refugees believes he has a duty to help Araibi and others like him.
While Canberra has in recent years developed a reputation for harsh policies against asylum-seekers arriving by boat, the Araibi case sparked a strong groundswell of support among football fans and the wider community.
It encouraged Foster to keep going even as fatigue sets in after months of campaigning.
“It’s tiring, it’s exhausting emotionally and physically but so what? Hakeem’s sitting in a cell with 50 other people and he’s sleeping on a concrete floor,” Foster said.
“We are fighting a cause that we believe in very strongly . . . don’t underestimate the power of saving this young man and forcing sport to better recognise and uphold human rights in the future.”
So what does he make of Araibi’s release and imminent return to Australia?
“We are just warming up,” he tweeted defiantly on Tuesday “whilst a blow has been struck, a great battle lies ahead”.