Hakeem saved - now can Australia save Asian football?


Taking the combined results of the Socceroos at the Asian Cup and Melbourne and Sydney in the Champions League, it is clear to see that 2019 in Asia has not been a happy one so far for Australia.

Indeed A-League clubs tend to struggle on the pitch against rivals from the north and the situation is not much better when it comes to recruitment and engagement.

Behind the scenes, officials have -- understandably at times -- often struggled to get a handle on Asian football politics.

There is also still a perception that Australia still sees its relationship with the giant continent too much on a transactional basis.

After 13 years as part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Australia is still struggling to find its place and voice.

Recent events have, however, shown where the country can lead the way and make a real difference in Asian football and not just when it comes to sports science and hosting major tournaments in a professional manner.

While Melbourne and Sydney struggled this week, the more important result was Hakeem Al-Araibi receiving Australian citizenship.

As surely everyone knows, the former Bahraini international fled his homeland to be granted refugee status by Canberra in 2014.

On honeymoon in Bangkok last November he was arrested by authorities and extradition proceedings were soon under way to send him back to Bahrain, a place where he said he had been tortured.

After a energetic and intelligent campaign that soon went global, led by former Socceroo captain Craig Foster, #savehakeem became #hakeemsaved.

It is hard to imagine anything similar happening in another Asian country. In large parts of the continent, football and politics are intertwined to an often painful and frustrating extent.

FFA officials have struggled with this in the past but the complexity, historical issues and self-interest does mean that Asian football leaders have been pretty backwards in coming forwards when it comes to doing the right thing purely for its own sake.

But when there was a football player in trouble in Asia, the Australian football community rallied itself, rallied a lot of others around the world and ended up securing the release of a man whose life looked to be in danger.

Would the equivalent have happened in even supposedly advanced football communities such as Japan and South Korea? You wouldn’t bet much yen and/or won on that happening.

The campaign to bring Hakeem back to his new home was not carried out for any perceived benefit but purely because it was the right thing to do.

An injustice had occurred and there were people desperate to do something about it and they were able to do so.

Sometimes football should take a stand. With events at the recent Asian Cup and with the presidential election campaign for the AFC which takes places next month showing that politics often takes precedence, the message that came rolling out of Australia in the past months is one that Asia needs to hear.

It doesn’t mean that all is perfect down under politically and that there is not plenty that can be learnt but this was a rare instance of people in Asian football standing up for what was right and getting the right result.

For a country that has struggled to find its place in its new neighbourhood, this is where the Australian football community can and should lead.

There needs to be more voices in the continental scene that push for justice and fairness.

Such concepts easily get lost in the daily grind of football politics. It would be tough, frustrating and often ineffective but that does not mean it should not and can not be done.

Australia does need to improve its Asian relationship on and off the pitch but when it comes issues such as human rights, equality and discrimination, the AFC has a leadership vacuum that needs to be filled.

The people who fought for Hakeem may find themselves called up again.

While #saveAFC may not become#AFCsaved, Asian football may end up heading in a slightly different direction.