The trouble with dictators, despots and royalty across the world is that they surround themselves with fawning fools who are too afraid or too servile to tell their masters the truth. Friends and supporters are usually bought and paid for; it has been that way for centuries and will no doubt remain so.
Whenever human rights issues are raised, the messengers are usually swatted away with contempt or thrown into the nearest prison. That’s a very effective way to silence your enemies, although in the case of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi his jails are bursting at the seams, leaving him with the problem of where to put the growing army of political dissenters.
Meanwhile, in the “civilised West”, when there are billion-dollar arms deals to be won in the Middle East there is an awkward wall of silence from the supposed champions of international law and human rights. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, is a long-time friend of the Saudis; earlier this year he was urged to end his “shameful” silence over the mass execution of 47 prisoners in the kingdom. He ignored calls for a reassessment of Britain’s close relationship with the Gulf monarchy and his government continued to demonstrate that when there’s money at stake on the table, human rights take second place.
However, it’s not just power games and politics wherein morals, ethics and justice are twisted to suit agendas. The lucrative, corrupt world of sport provides another arena where human rights are seen as a minor obstacle to making money.
So it was good to hear that a Bahraini royal, Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, got a well-deserved metaphorical kicking as he tried to become the head of FIFA and represent the beautiful game around the world. His success in the election for president of football’s governing body was almost a forgone conclusion since he appeared to have the support of most nations in Africa and Asia and the backing of one of sport’s biggest power brokers to land him the top job.
Indeed, so sure were FIFA officials, delegates and observers that he was the man to lead the organisation out of its current swamp of corruption, that they told Associated Press about surveys of voters and confederations which indicated that Shaikh Salman could win a majority on the first ballot. That a member of Bahrain’s royal family would rely on being elected in a democratic secret ballot was a delicious irony, proving once more that the beautiful game is anything but predictable.
Japan, South Korea, China, North Korea, Hong Kong, Guam, Taiwan, Macau and Mongolia — who together make up the East Asian Football Federation – said that they would vote for the Bahraini in the five-man election but it wasn’t enough. A second round was needed and, to the surprise of many, Gianni Infantino, the Swiss general secretary of UEFA — the governing body of football in Europe — emerged as the winner, replacing the disgraced Sepp Blatter as president of FIFA after 18 years at the helm.
No one would have been more shocked at this result than the Bahraini royal himself. “FIFA must regain its status as a trusted, professional and solidly managed organisation that respects the needs and circumstances of each association and guides us – with a high level of honesty and decency – to a new future,” wrote Shaikh Salman on his website. “My track record,” he continued without a hint of irony, “demonstrates that I can be relied upon to serve associations and the global football community with distinction and to lead FIFA through this critical transition… My colleagues in the football community have credited me with playing a leading role in stabilising, rebuilding and unifying the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).”
All of this came from a man responsible, in part, for the arrest, torture and detention of many Bahraini footballers and other sports personalities who are locked-up in prisons across the tiny gulf state. Human Rights Watch, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, have all accused him of “complicity in crimes against humanity” for allegedly heading a committee that identified 150 athletes, including international footballers, involved in pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, many of whom were later imprisoned and tortured.
One of the athletes who was rounded up was the Bahrain national football team’s leading goal scorer A’ala Hubail, who was interrogated on state television before being detained and tortured. Can anyone imagine that happening to Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?
Shaikh Salman denied the allegations, but the Bahraini State News Agency is on record as saying that he was in charge of quashing the anti-democracy protests at the start of the February 2011 uprising in Bahrain. His denial is thus a bit of an own goal.
Who on earth, it must be asked, told Shaikh Salman that it would be a good idea for him to run for the FIFA presidency, especially when athletes are still locked up on his watch? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that every royal court usually has a jester. Given that FIFA had apparently provided formal clearance for the shaikh to run for the presidency, it suggests that the organisation still has a long way to go before it can restore its own damaged reputation.
Of course, it’s not just in Bahrain that some footballers and their supporters face persecution; Palestine’s national team is oppressed so much by Israel that it is virtually impossible for players from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to meet for regular training. The Zionist regime has even confiscated vital training equipment and arrested players for spurious reasons in recent months.
“I want to work with all of you together in order to restore and rebuild a new era of FIFA where we can again put football at the centre of the stage,” declared Infantino in his acceptance speech. “FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over. We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency.” The organisation needs respect, he stressed. “We’re going to win back this respect through hard work and commitment, and we’re going to make sure we can finally focus on this wonderful game.” One can only hope that the new FIFA president is sincere in his pledge.
Beaten opponent Shaikh Salman, meanwhile, said that the Asian Football Confederation would look forward to working with the new-look FIFA and its president to reform world football’s governing body and to “reinstate football’s credibility globally”. His advisers should tell him to do the decent thing and also release all of the athletes rotting in Bahrain’s jails, and then fall on his own sword and resign from the AFC altogether. It would be the honourable thing to do.
Perhaps his jesters could then get him to sit down with other Arab leaders to watch last week’s match between Palestine and Algeria to understand why football is called the “beautiful game”. When those 22 players took to the pitch a few days ago in front of their magnificent supporters, they gave the world a lesson in why millions of us enjoy the sport. Tens of thousands of Algerian fans cheered for Palestine instead of their own side during the friendly match, which the Palestinian team won 1-0. The fans cheered for the visitors, filling the 5 Juillet 1962 Stadium in Algiers with Palestinian flags and a show of solidarity rarely seen in the Arab world today. “If Palestine was bordering Algeria,” one fan told Algeria’s Echourouk TV, “then not only would we have gone there, but [Palestine] would have been liberated [from Israeli occupation] a long time ago.”
In the besieged Gaza Strip, Palestinian football fans watched the match on public screens, and some carried Algerian flags in appreciation of the North African nation’s support. The social media networks exploded into a mass love-in between Algeria and Palestine; @moh_Fayoumi, for example, tweeted a photo of himself carrying a Palestinian flag with the word “Algeria” on it.
These supporters might not have the power and influence of the likes of Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, but last week they not only gave us a lesson in why the game of football is beautiful, they also gave a master class in Arab solidarity. What a goal!