Iran, Hassan Al-Araibi & Scotland’s Silly Season

by | Oct 14, 2019

A couple of football-related news stories, covered in these pages, were news again last week. Mark Murphy wrote about them then. By god, he’s going to write about them again now. Oh…and its silly season in Scotland. But that is hardly news, is it?

Women at Iranian football

A month and a day after the death of Iranian female football fan Sahar Khodayari, 3,500 Iranian women watched their men’s national team at Tehran’s Azadi (“liberty”) Stadium in a World Cup qualifier against Cambodia, the first time so many representatives of 49.5% of Earth’s human population had watched them live since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino called this “a very positive step forward.” He said Fifa was looking “more than ever towards a future where ALL girls and women wishing to attend football matches in Iran will be free to do so in a safe environment.” And 29-year-old Zahra Pashaei told the Associated Press news agency: “It’s an extraordinary feeling. For me, 22 or 23 years of longing and regret lies behind this.”

One thing the 3,500 didn’t regret was Cambodia being sh*t at football. Iran won 14-0. Unfortunately, the Azadi was sh*t at toilets, there being no need until now to provide any ladies’ loos in the 48-year-old stadium. And despite the progress that it represented, their presence is only a small step towards equal rights for Iran’s women fans.

The crowd was gender-segregated, with no formal announcement of women’s-section tickets, which nonetheless sold out at Glastonbury Festival-speed, and no opportunity to buy them at the far from sold-out stadium. And Amnesty International accused Iran of tokenism and cynical publicity-stunting “intended to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Khodayari’s tragic death.” Stats suggest so. The Azadi holds 78,000. So 3,500 is a 90+% under-representation of Iran’s female population. It was 22% of the (possibly inflated) 15,823 official attendance. But that exposed the discriminatory intent of the limit.

Khodayari’s death, the result of self-immolation after discovering she faced jail for trying to watch her team, Esteghlal, did indeed force football authorities’ hands. Fifa have struggled to counter accusations of lip-servicing inaction. President Gianni Infantino promised action after attending a March 2018 Iranian match outside which 35 women were arrested for trying to get inside.

Threatened footballing sanction (including World Cup suspension, which Iranian football literally cannot afford)  only became real when Khodayari’s death fixed unprecedented global glare on Iran. And doubts persist over the continuation of progress towards equal, BASIC rights for Iranian women fans when football inevitably glares elsewhere, despite Fifa’s social responsibility supremo, Joyce Cook, telling BBC Sport that they would not “turn our eyes away from this” (Fifa had observers at Thursday’s match).

Amnesty want “a full reversal of the ban,” calling anything less “an insult” to Khodayari’s memory and “an affront to the rights of all the women of Iran who have been courageously campaigning for the ban to be lifted.” And in an impassioned article, Guardian newspaper sportswriter Suzanne Wrack additionally called for “the removal of charges against women facing prosecution and the removal of criminal records” of all those already prosecuted for trying to enter Iranian grounds.

But there is no indication of any of the above or of women being let into club matches before Iran’s next home qualifier, against Hong Kong on 26th March. And it’s still a case of ‘women at football? Bloody hell’ for Iran’s still rather influential religious leadership.

Infantino said “history teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey,” but insisted “there can be no stopping or turning back now.” That still remains to be seen.

Hassan Al-Araibi

Eleven months after the detention of Australian-domiciled Bahraini refugee footballer Hassan Al-Araibi in Bangkok, the suspected dark role of Australian authorities, including international police organisation Interpol’s Australian branch, has been confirmed in damning e-mails obtained by Aussie broadcaster ABC, via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent immediately after Al-Araibi’s release in February but only now actioned.

In brief recap, Thailand was keen to facilitate Bahrain’s wish for court-related talks with Al-Araibi over trumped-up vandalism charges. And they detained him on arrival, at Bahrain’s behest. This was facilitated by Aussie Border Force (ABF) ‘blunders” which were covered up during investigations into the affair. ABF chief, Michael Outram, told Aussie senators in February that a “diligent” official “neglected to send an e-mail.” But apologising to Al-Araibi would mean “the outcome was entirely due to that error” on which he could only “speculate” The e-mails explain that stance. And not in a good way.

Bahrain issued an “Interpol Red Notice” on 8th November, alerting global law enforcement officials to track the movements of potential extradition targets. Aussie immigration officials had already told Al-Araibi he was safe to travel “everywhere, except Bahrain.” But Interpol in Aussie capital Canberra told the ABF of the notice, who thus tracked his arrival in Bangkok on 27th November.

The first FOI-acquired e-mail shows Interpol Canberra telling Interpol Bangkok and Bahrain that Al-Araibi was Bangkok-bound but not telling them he had a ‘refugee visa’ which invalidated the Red Notice. A second e-mail, at 9.06 am on 28th November, from Interpol Canberra’s ‘Fugitive Investigations’ unit said Al-Araibi had travelled on a “fraudulent” Bahrain passport. This claim was ‘fraudulent.’ And, at 10.01,  Australia’s Home Affairs Department (DHA) e-mailed Interpol to confirm the validity of his travel documentation.

But this e-mail went unread for FIVE days. Senators were told in February that the sender of the original e-mail had “ceased duty,” suggesting an odd, short working day if their ‘out-of-office auto-reply’ was on before a 10.01 e-mail arrived. And, more sinisterly, by 11.20 an official at the DHA’s dystopian-sounding ‘Character and Cancellation branch’ was pressing Interpol Canberra to “disclose the Red Notice for the purposes of visa cancellation.”

Al-Araibi’s plight was now attracting media attention. Which, further e-mails reveal, was what poked Aussie authorities into proper action. Interpol’s France-based Legal Affairs Office (OLA) e-mailed Interpol Canberra on 30th November, having themselves been alerted by media reports. Only then was Al-Araibi’s refugee visa checked and confirmed. And within a day, the Red Notice was rescinded. But Thailand was now detaining Al-Araibi because of Bahraini extradition proceedings. And he was only released after considerable global campaigning, in which football authorities were minimally involved.

These revelations are more an exposure of Australia’s grim political attitude towards refugees and immigrants, than a football story. “I don’t know what this means,” Al-Araibi told ABC when they showed him the first e-mail above. “They don’t like refugees, or don’t like me?” But they remain a reminder that while the ‘power’ of football was ultimately mobilised to good effect, football’s intermittent insistence on its powers-that-be avoiding political action can be the very wrong way forward indeed.

Scotland’s silly season

Following on from Ian’s ‘silly season’ article last Friday, two more examples of football-related silliness re-entered the news last week.

Rangers

Four-and-a-half years after Rangers International Football Club chairman Dave King improperly acted in concert with other parties to become the PLC’s largest shareholder, the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, a.k.a. the Takeover Panel (TP), has issued a ferocious final ruling on those improper actions.

King has received a four-year ban on involvement in transactions under the TP’s jurisdiction, known as “cold-shouldering,” for his contempt (legal and personal) for company takeover law, only the fourth time in half-a-century that the Panel has issued such a damning sanction. But despite vast evidence to the complete contrary, Scotland’s Football Association (SFA) has accepted his fitness and propriety as a club director. The ruling has forced them to at least be seen to re-evaluate this, at their next board meeting. Yet there’s nothing in it about King which should be news to any authority exercising that authority without fear or favour…ah…

Scotland’s football media has, natch, maintained the sham of King’s fitness and propriety, punting a pro-King narrative at the expense of facts and proper analysis. King’s biggest fans are even trumpeting the ruling as a victory. Which begs the question as to why he entered a dispute with the TP, if even their ultimate sanction was a win. The Daily Record ‘newspaper’ wasn’t asking of course. Their immediate story on the ruling quoted more extensively from King’s statement in response, which was reproduced in full, uncritically, elsewhere.

Those with a ‘disregard’ for King’s business propriety see the ruling as another nail in Rangers’ financial coffin, after consistent, costly court defeat to the Sports Direct retail group. However, this ignores the limited nature of the ruling and the fact, stressed within it, that the ruling, against King, leaves Rangers unscathed directly. Indirectly, however, matters may be different. King’s business reputation, shredded by Sports Direct and marmalized by the TP, can’t but harm Rangers. I hope he stays. But those wishing to rid Rangers of this turbulent, toxic tax-cheat are now well-armed.

Celtic

Last month, Celtic, for approximately the umpteenth time, were fined by Uefa for their fans setting off pyrotechnics at a Uefa-organised match, August’s Europa League tie against AIK Stockholm. This fine £11,000, made an approximate total of umpteen thousand pounds over umpteen matches. Yet the flares flared again during the 3rd October tie against CFR Cluj. As a result, Uefa’s control, ethics and disciplinary body will address the issue, for approximately the umpteenth time, on Thursday. “Celtic fans’ pyrotechnics” is probably now on their meetings’ agenda template.

The club’s latest, despairing statement expressed “real disappointment and frustration” at having to “appeal again for this behaviour to stop.” The “serious safety concerns” were “obvious.” The “numerous financial penalties placed on Celtic continue to come out of the pockets of supporters.” And fans were warned of “further very serious repercussions which could have hugely detrimental consequences for the club,” perhaps ill-advisedly using so many big words, given the intellectual incapacity of its target audience.

“No pyro, no party,” the recalcitrant fans say. But if there’s anymore ‘pyro,’ the party, such as it is in the Europa League, may be over for them and their club. Even the Rangers fans, for now at least, have grasped that their racist behaviour in song has to stop at European games, for the good of the club (it would be nice if they’d stop it because it IS racist but, hey, small steps). So why Celtic fans can’t put the Pyro away I do not know. That stuff is dangerous. And should Uefa decide to take damaging, drastic action this Thursday, you’ll not be hearing any complaints from me.