On the opening day of the Asian Cup 2019, football lovers around the world must do what we always have in these moments, celebrate the extraordinary beauty of our wonderful game and the grandeur of skills on the field of play while trying to forget the conduct off the field from those who purport to uphold its values.
And who fail so miserably.
Because as we see presently with Ahmed Mansoor and Hakeem al-Araibi, the beauty of the play could not be further removed from the off field reality. As we watch great leaders of men carry their nations to glory, we despair at the lack of moral leadership in the administration of the game.
As Australia gathers to watch our beloved National Team seek further title glory, in which we have every right to feel uplifted watching our players and those of other nations conduct themselves with sportsmanship and to celebrate any achievement gained, we can only weep at the plight of those the tournament sweeps aside, who languish in incarceration out of sight of the cameras and hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
Football is about human dignity, respect between human beings and nations, about the inherent right of people the world over to achieve something great, whether fleeting in a solitary moment of brilliance on a field somewhere and nowhere, or over a career as a great of the game.
Our game has the most immense power which can be used to further the human race, protect the most vulnerable, set the highest standards of human interaction on field and off, to be a beacon of shared humanity in a world that is ever more divided. Or it can disregard those who most need its power, its force for positive change. Too often, there is no force left for the vulnerable, after it has been distributed among those who profit so heavily from the game’s eminence.
Football teaches us that in a team, every individual is equally important. No one should be left behind in the game of life. But how important are Ahmed Mansoor and Hakeem al-Araibi to our team of humanity?
Just days before the Asian Cup begins today in the UAE, for whom 2019 is the ‘Year of Tolerance’, Mansoor’s 10 year jail sentence in the UAE in contravention of his human rights to free speech was upheld.
Where is the tolerance for Mansoor and other human rights defenders? How can the AFC espouse the values of the game when Mansoor rots in jail, kilometres from where UAE’s rulers will, alongside AFC officials, take their ceremonial thrones and wave to the watching world?
Hakeem al-Araibi remains in detention in Thailand pending extradition to Bahrain contrary to his human rights. Unlike Mansoor, he is actually a footballer both as a former Bahrain international and now registered player in Australia. He is a 25 years old refugee and is facing a recurrence of torture if extradited.
Neither the President of the AFC and Vice President of FIFA, Sheikh Salman bin Al Khalifa nor the organising Confederation have made a single public comment in support of our sporting colleague during the now 40 days of his incarceration. Nothing to him, his lawyers, his young wife nor any public comments of advocacy.
They make nothing but a mockery of the values of the game, and the inherent rights it should espouse.
It would be a simple matter for the President of the AFC to call on tournament hosts the UAE to demonstrate their commitment to tolerance, a core value of football and release all human rights defenders and political prisoners, to publicly support the withdrawal of Bahrain’s extradition order against Hakeem and for the Thai Government to release him immediately.
This is the leadership the game craves, and the world needs.
The image of Ahmed and Hakeem in jail cells while the National Teams of the UAE and Bahrain open the Asian Cup 2019 and as Thailand begin their campaign on Monday, is a poignant one. They will have no crowds, no ninety minutes but a lifetime, no gilded thrones on which to sit or trophies to raise, no cameras to smile at the world.
Their Asian Cup is a battle for their most basic freedom and human rights.
In his recent public comments when announcing his candidacy for a third term in office, the AFC President said that ‘football has shown the power to bring nations together and to do good’.
So I ask you, and the AFC President as the whistle blows on the continental showpiece and Australia's attempt at repeat glory, where is the good for Ahmed and Hakeem?