Sheikh Salman: What The FFA?

The fall-out from the case of Bahraini international footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi continues.

Questions need asking of Fifa because…well…Fifa. Likewise certain Australian politicians. Queensland senator Fraser Anning’s repugnant post-Christchurch massacre comments surprised no-one who’d supported Al-Araibi. He/it already had a reputation for extremism even among right-wing extremists. And after Al-Araibi’s release, it condemned “excessive use of government resources” on “one criminal Muslim so-called refugee” and efforts “to recover just one Muslim blow-in.”

But one key question needs asking of the Football Federation of Australia (FFA). What the FFA?

Last Monday, they announced their support for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidential re-election candidacy of Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa. The man held responsible by reasoned observers of the Al-Araibi scandal FOR the Al-Araibi scandal. Major players in the campaign to release Al-Araibi…and Al-Araibi himself, have asked how the FFA could do this, especially FOUR DAYS after Al-Araibi became an Australian citizen. The answer? Dismally. Predictably. Money.

Under Fifa president Gianni Infantino, the same corruptions of Fifa’s sloganized purpose, ‘for the good of the game,’ which besmirched predecessor presidencies have continued. But in plainer sight. Major Fifa initiatives, e.g. the expanded World Club Cup and 48-team World Cup finals, are naked money-grabs. And in such circumstances, the FFA had no problem formally endorsing “Shaikh (sic) Salman” as “the best-credentialed candidate to continue to lead the development of (Asian) football.”

FFA chairman and AFC Executive Committee (ExCo) seat-seeker Chris Nikou ‘explained’: “The Asian Cup has expanded, the World Cup qualification process has broadened, new football development initiatives have been introduced, prizemoney and subsidies for AFC Champions League clubs have increased and significantly improved terms were secured with AFC’s new marketing rights partner.” As popular beat combo Puff Daddy & the Family once said, “it’s all about the Benjamins.”

Nikou claimed the FFA were “acutely aware” of “some concern regarding the role of the AFC” in the Al-Araibi scandal. But the statement merely hyped the FFA’s role in securing Al-Araibi’s release, ignoring the fact that the “some concern” was Salman, not the confederation. And it was instructive to hear him assess Australia’s “fragile” situation in the AFC, admitting that “pardon the expression, we are pushing shit uphill. We have good friends and support to the east, but we’re not that well liked to the west.” And no better way to be “well liked to the west” than to endorse Salman.

Condemnation of the FFA was inevitable and inevitably and eloquently led by the #SaveHakeem campaign driving force, ex-Aussie team captain Craig Foster. In a formal statement, he wondered how “Australia could even contemplate voting for such a candidate. (It) makes a mockery of any discussion of fundamental values within the game, of a commitment to human rights within football, the protection of players and of advocating for the highest of standards of sports governance.” Cross, he was.

During an extensive radio interview last Tuesday, Foster said: “It’s really deflating to even be having to talk about it. It’s inexplicable. It came as a real shock to everyone, including, I understand, almost all of the Congress members. The values we were fighting for (in the #SaveHakeem campaign) have been completely cast aside. He snorted at FFA claims of “working behind the scenes” with  #SaveHakeem campaigners (drawing a disbelieving snort too from his interviewer): “I had to go to Fifa and a number of organisations to get action from THEM. So, whatever phone calls (the FFA) said they were making didn’t happen or were completely ineffectual.

“That our game can legitimise this guy is extraordinary. He is implicated, not just in Hakeem’s case, but many prior cases. Aside from the statement this is making to millions of Australians, it’s difficult to believe in (our) game or our sport governance if we are capable of casting a vote for this person.

“The game got into trouble because it was politically driven and driven by self-interest. But sport demonstrated during the Hakeem campaign (that it) is about more than just money. There’s got to be some fundamental principles, surely? We’ve lost immense credibility in terms of sport governance with this decision. And people who were involved in the campaign are saying ‘that can’t be right,”

Foster was already on the AFC’s and Fifa’s case for deeming Salman eligible to stand at all. In a 14th March letter to Fifa Secretary-General Fatma Samoura, he focused on Salman’s Fifa vice-presidency and “three matters (which) should be of deep concern to the global football community, and to Fifa, and may negatively impact the integrity and reputation of football worldwide.”

The first was Salman’s oft-documented, equally oft denied, involvement in the Bahrain government’s  2011 “crackdown on athletes, including footballers.” Foster included in this “any failure to protect and promote the human rights of Bahraini National Team players including Mr Hakeem Al-Araibi by then President of the Bahrain Football Association, Sheikh Salman.”

The third was Salman’s failure to “uphold Fifa Human Rights Policy in refusing, as President of the AFC and Fifa Vice-President, to advocate for” Araibi’s release  between his detention on “27th November 2018 and the public recusal from the obligations of the Presidency in an AFC statement of 26th January.”

Al-Araibi’s case was widely considered the ‘first test’ of Fifa’s shiny, new (May 2017) Human Rights Policy, designed to meet its statutory commitment to respect “all internationally-recognised human rights” and to “strive to promote” their “protection.” The policy covered, inter alia, “Fifa-recognised regional confederations.” And Fifa committed to “exercise its leverage where necessary, in connection with adverse human rights impacts arising through its business relationships,” which wasn’t far off word-for-word what Fifa/Salman did NOT do to respect, promote or protect Al-Araibi’s rights.

Foster smelled rats and conflicts of interest in Salman’s inactivities. And he told Samoura “on 28th January” of his concerns over a “potential relationship” between Salman’s recusal and the “submission of formal extradition documents on 25th January” by Bahrain’s government (finance minister: Sheikh Salman). Co-incidence? Foster clearly wondered. And he wondered too about “the relevance to this matter” of the AFC only publicly supporting Al-Araibi “three days after Salman’s recusal.”

But the second…woooh. Had those who ruled on Salman’s election eligibility “any knowledge of direct or indirect involvement and possible breaches of the Fifa Code of Ethics by (Salman) (Candidate #1) in the ‘Scheme to gain control of the AFC and influence Fifa’ in the case of USA v Lai, April 2017.”

Guam FA president and veteran AFC ExCo member Richard Lai was indicted in the infamous 2015 Fifa corruption scandal. Salman isn’t named in Lai’s 21-page US Justice Department indictment but he is clearly ‘Candidate #1.’ And the schemers (‘conspirators’) supported his (narrowly failed) candidacy for Fifa’s ExCo at the AFC’s 2009 Congress.

They aimed “to diminish” then-AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam’s “power and influence over the AFC and Fifa, (to) gain control of the AFC by ensuring that their allies obtained positions of leadership…and to influence Fifa, including through the election of AFC representatives to the Fifa ExCo.” They were “ultimately successful, as Candidate #1 eventually was elected president of the AFC and a member of the Fifa ExCo.” The indictment doesn’t give Salman a role in the scheme, despite hum being its ultimate, major beneficiary. Still, Foster must have thought ‘there’s no harm in asking.’

Professional Football Australia (PFA), Australia’s players’ union, also had “deep concerns” about candidate eligibility. On March 13th, they asked Fifa’s Governance and Review Committee for “the reasons in writing for the decision to deem eligible” the presidential candidates, by 18th March, and “that those reasons be made publicly available.”  But they “had not received a response” before the FFA endorsed Salman and “despite the PFA being the largest institutional stakeholder within the reformed FFA Congress, the FFA Board did not consult” them about it.

The Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights’ Fatima Yazbek said the AFC “clearly” breached their statutory obligation to “protect and promote all human rights.” Amnesty International’s Tim O’Connor said Nikou “must ask how (Salman’s actions) do not breach the FFA’s human rights policy,” while accusing the FFA of “prioritising financial growth over standing up for what’s right.” And, most damningly, Al-Araibi was “shocked” at the FFA’s supporting someone “who oversaw my detention and torture. How can he be a ‘fit and proper’ leader for football in our region?”

The 6th April election itself became a farce last week. Qatari AFC vice-president Saud Aziz Al-Mohannadi and United Arab Emirates Sport Authority chairman Mohamed Khalfan Al-Romaithi passed the AFC’s eligibility ‘checks.’ Qatar and the UAE are currently fierce geopolitical enemies. Hence, the Qatar/UAE Asian Cup semi-final in the UAE descending into a mass shoe-throwing as Qatar won 4-0. Infantino can detect a potential Nobel Peace Prize in expanding 2022’s Qatar World Cup to the UAE. But such is this enmity that, despite being its Organising Committee chair, Al-Mohannadi was barred from the finals.

Meanwhile, fears that the candidates offered little more than not BEING Salman weren’t assuaged by Al-Romaithi’s not-at-all-dodgy withdrawal from the race on Thursday. His manifesto, “Making Football Fair,” pledged “$320m in sponsorship,” bribing “boosting the annual investment across all 47 Member Associations by at least $2m and developing significantly women’s and youth football.” And, he said, out loud: “my candidacy from the start was not to seek a position.”

He assumed a position for Salman, though. Despite criticising the AFC’s lack of independence during his ‘campaign,’ Al-Romaithi emerged from a weekend ‘visit’ by Salman, gushing sycophancy from all orifices, thanking him  “for visiting the UAE” and for his “programme that reflects my vision of developing the game in the largest continent in the world. I am pleased by the efforts of Sheikh Salman to benefit from the programme and achieve its goals.”

Salman ejaculated too, thanking Al Romaithi “for his reception, and for the fraternal spirit he showed us during our meeting. Strong and honourable competition brought our goals and visions together in the best interest of Asian football. I also thank him for supporting me and for his ambitious election programme, which will help advance Asian football.”

But it was clear who made an offer that couldn’t be refused. With Al-Romaithi neutered and Al-Mohannadi reported as a “non-factor in the race” when he’s reported at all, Salman’s re-election was a certainty without FFA endorsement. Which makes the FFA’s prostitution of their soul all the more galling.

Another popular beat combo, Rage Against the Machine (diverse cultural references? We got ‘em) once asked: “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?” Well…no better place for the FFA than not endorsing a man whose silence threatened an Aussie citizen’s life. No better time than right after said citizen’s life was saved, despite that silence. Sadly, the FFA listen to the wrong popular beat combo.