At the same time Akram Afif was coolly converting the penalty that landed Qatar a first ever continental title, a Bahraini footballer named Hakeem Al-Araibi was sitting in a hot concrete cell at the Bangkok Remand Prison.

No doubt the Asian Football Confederation would prefer no one connected the two events, but that would belie the spirit of an organisation that has always preferred to play politics over football.

By now just about everyone in the football community knows Al-Araibi’s story. The young refugee, who lives in Melbourne, was detained en route to his honeymoon in Bangkok and faces extradition to his native Bahrain, where he was allegedly tortured after being arrested in November 2012 after speaking out against authorities. It’s a case that has made headlines around the world.

And if the sight of dozens of protesters gathering in Sydney and Melbourne to demand the release of Al-Araibi represented the best of football’s ability to bring people together, then the scenes at the Asian Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi were a reminder of the way football is used as a political pawn to drive people apart.

The sight of Emirati fans throwing shoes at the Qataris – a genuinely offensive insult in Middle Eastern culture – was entirely predictable. Why wouldn’t it be when the Abu Dhabi Sports Council bought all remaining tickets available as soon as the United Arab Emirates qualified?

They gave them away for free as a supposed reward to their loyal fans, but of course the move prevented Qatari fans of any hope of snapping up a ticket to watch their team’s historic semi-final.

Not that there were reportedly many Qataris around anyway. The UAE cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017 and the two nations have been engaged in a tense regional standoff ever since.

So it was no surprise to see Almoez Ali showered with shoes upon scoring a spectacular second goal in Qatar’s 4-0 rout of the Emiratis, nor was hearing the Qatari national anthem drowned out by a cacophony of jeers before kick-off.

How does any of this exemplify the tournament slogan of “Bringing Asia Together?” It didn’t seem to matter at the 2019 Asian Cup, where playing politics always seemed more important than playing football.

That has long been the case within Asian football. And the news that the AFC had summarily dismissed questions over whether Almoez Ali and teammate Bassam Al-Rawi’s were even eligible to play for Qatar should also raise eyebrows.

Questions swept under the carpet

Ali, who scored an astonishing nine goals in the tournament, was originally born in Sudan, while Al-Rawi – who scored the winning goal to knock Iraq out of the tournament – was born in Baghdad.

Both are long-time representatives of the Qatari national team, yet when legitimate questions arose around their eligibility to play for Qatar – culminating in the UAE launching an official protest following their semi-final defeat – the AFC dismissed those complaints without so much as a word of explanation.

It was Australian journalist Scott McIntyre who did much of the digging into Ali’s and Al-Rawi’s eligibility issues, yet many Australians still struggle to understand the region’s cultural and geopolitical nuances.

Regrettably, that naivety could in some ways hurt al-Araibi’s chances of escaping from his Thai prison nightmare any time soon. 

Bahraini officials are, not surprisingly, incensed at the global spotlight currently being shone on their regime, and it’s unlikely Thai officials are pleased by the scrutiny either. In a culture where saving face is of critical importance, the daily outrage from a growing army of foreign critics is unlikely to generate much sympathy in Bangkok.

Which is to say nothing of the Australian government’s involvement in the affair. Despite al-Araibi being granted refugee status, it was Australia’s own Department of Home Affairs who tipped off Thai authorities that he was travelling to Bangkok under an erroneously issued Interpol Red Notice.

Hakeem Al-Araibi led out of a prison van in shackles today in Bangkok. Photo: Yahya Alhadid

Repressive regimes? Bureaucratic incompetence? Mysterious decision-making? Sometimes it hard to know where the story of Asian football ends and the Australian federal government begins. 

But as for the actual football, the Asian Cup was fantastic – on the pitch, at least. It’s not often a pariah state like Qatar transforms into a feel-good underdog story.

And perhaps the best thing about Qatar winning the 2019 Asian Cup is the fact it will have embarrassed at least a section of the Asian Football Confederation.

They deserve to be embarrassed. What should have been a showcase of the continent’s best football once again became a platform for certain oligarchies to play politics.

But none of that matters in the context of the real issue currently plaguing the Asian game. It involves the fate of a former Bahrain international who was granted refugee status in Australia, and only one gesture can resolve it.


South Hobart and Pascoe Vale football clubs (Hakeem Al-Araibi's club) in Hobart, 2 February.

Photo courtesy South Hobart FC

Main picture: (L-R): Sheikh Hamad of Qatar, President of Qatar FA and member of the Qatar Royal Family; Shaikh Salman of Bahrain, President of the AFC and member of the Qatar Royal Family; Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA; and the Vice-President of the UAE's Local Organisining Committee at the Asian Cup Final.

Categories: Opinion | Asia | Local

2019 asian cup, qatar, bahrain, uae, #savehakeem

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