Political pressure leaves sport searching for its soul

This week’s story about a British man who was arrested in the UAE after wearing a Qatari football shirt might give some people ideas, writes Tommy Martin.

Political pressure leaves sport searching for its soul

This week’s story about a British man who was arrested in the UAE after wearing a Qatari football shirt might give some people ideas, writes Tommy Martin.

Could the donning of Munster jerseys in south county Dublin be similarly policed, the region’s many zealous neighbourhood-watch groups redeployed as sinister enforcement squads?

The Kerry guy living in Cork brazenly wearing his county top on Patrick Street? Lock him up!

Culchie interlopers on Hill 16? Off to the Joy with them!

We can joke because our own sporting rivalries are not simmering on the complex geopolitical furnace on which relations between the UAE and Qatar currently sit (Bohs and Rovers notwithstanding).

Ali Issa Ahmad, 26, from Wolverhampton, was unaware of the UAE law against “showing sympathy” for Qatar when he donned that nation’s colours for an Asian Cup match against Iraq last month.

The law was passed during the 2017 diplomatic dispute involving Qatar and a number of its Gulf neighbours.

The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Eqypt, accused Qatar of funding terrorism, though many believe they simply thought the tiny peninsular state and future World Cup venue was getting too big for its boots.

Which is all fine and dandy, until you host the Asian Cup, as the UAE did this year, and Qatar are playing in it, and your hard-assed diplomatic stare-down gets mixed up with international football’s lovey-dovey, all-friends-together act.

Ahmad alleges he was pursued and roughed up by local heavies after the Qatar-Iraq match, and when he reported the incident to the local constabulary, he was summarily thrown in the slammer for wasting police time.

The resulting outcry has seen this incident become the latest collision of sport and politics to come to the attention of the great moral arbiter of our time: Gary Lineker’s Twitter account. As well as supporting Ahmad, Lineker also this week joined the legion of footballers campaigning online for the release of Hakeem Al-Araibi, the Australian semi-professional currently locked up in Thailand on foot of an extradition order from his native Bahrain.

Led by former Socceroo Craig Foster, Lineker, Didier Drogba, and Giorgio Chiellini are among the football figures tweeting the hashtag #SaveHakeem, the clicktivism cause célèbre which gathered momentum this week when Al-Araibi was paraded in chains in Bangkok ahead of a court hearing. Al-Araibi is wanted in Bahrain on charges of political vandalism, a crime he is unlikely to be guilty of given he was actually playing in a televised football match at the time.

He was granted asylum in Australia after claiming he was imprisoned and tortured during the brutal suppression that followed the 2011 Bahrain uprising, but was arrested while honeymooning in Thailand last November — Thailand has close ties with Bahrain, and is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Al-Araibi reckons his public criticism of Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman is behind the current bother: Sheikh Salman is president of the Asian Football Confederation and was running for Fifa president in 2016 when Al-Araibi accused him of helping to punish clubs and a large number of sportspeople in the 2011 crackdown.

Sheikh Salman was last seen presenting the medals at the Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi alongside Fifa’s top man Gianni Infantino. A powerful enemy, and no mistake.

Stories like these about the entanglement of Gulf state politics and western values have become an almost constant part of the sports news cycle. The term ‘sportswashing’ has been used to describe the accusation that feudal Arab kingdoms with shady human rights records are using their massive wealth to buy sporting influence and thereby launder their image to western eyes.

Whether it’s the success of Manchester City and PSG, the wellbeing of migrant workers building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, the fact that Qatar has the World Cup at all, the position of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Formula One’s roster, the degree to which golf and racing are indebted to Middle Eastern benefactors — it feels like sport is in a constant state of hand-wringing about the influence of Gulf states, but one which promptly stops when the cheque is being handed over.

Just last week the European Tour parked up its golf buggies in Saudi Arabia, a move which was heavily criticised following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy three months ago.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” said Justin Rose, one of the many players to accept a fat cheque to play in the Saudi Arabia International, clearly wrestling with his conscience about the Khashoggi murder. Sergio Garcia’s disqualification for hacking at a few greens drew more ire from the golf community than the decision to bolster a blood-stained regime.

Rose was articulating the view of many sportspeople, fans, and administrators when questioned on moral issues around sporting events: That being they really do not give a monkey’s. Freedom of expression and minority rights? Ooh, look at the shiny trophy!

Writing in the Guardian this week, Craig Foster reckoned the Al-Araibi case showed that “politics and the influence of money have seeped slowly into the arteries of global football, spreading like a virus until, one day, it flexes its authority and changes the foundations of a game. And a world.”

The counter-argument — often espoused in dreamy language by bigwigs from Fifa and the Olympic movement — is that sport can be a force for good on this front, gently encouraging naughty regimes to make nice if they want to play the game.

By this argument, engagement through sport forces repressive Gulf states towards more tolerant behaviour, with the campaign for worker rights in Qatar being held as an example.

Those campaigning for Hakeem Al-Araibi see his as a test case as to whether sport can maintain the traditional western humanitarian values of which it likes to boast when they are directly challenged by power and influence. But sport is so entwined with those same forces that it’s more likely both will go on shaping each other, wrestling away under the desert sky for a lucrative prize pot, oblivious to the controversy generated by outraged online campaigns. Gary’s Twitter account will be busy.

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