Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa's decision to stand for the Fifa presidency has reignited questions over his role in the imprisonment and torture of leading Bahraini footballers.

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In a parallel universe Alaa Hubail is a national hero. He is celebrated as the player who led the line for a national team that became arguably the biggest David versus Goliath story football has ever seen.

After winning the Golden Boot at the 2004 Asian Cup – a tournament where the tiny Persian Gulf state of Bahrain finished fourth – Hubail’s goals fired his country to not one but two successive World Cup finals, in Germany and South Africa. With a population of under a million, they would likely remain the smallest country to ever qualify. Back home, a nation blighted by Islamic sectarianism would rejoice under one flag. Shia and Sunni alike would feel the same pride.

But fate, history, bad luck – call it what you like – had other plans for Hubail and Bahrain. This much is true: Bahrain’s second-highest international goalscorer did pick up the Golden Boot at the 2004 Asian Cup, but “Al Ahmar” (the red) lost to Trinidad & Tobago in the 2006 World Cup play-off by a single goal. Four years later, after stunning performances against regional giants Japan and Saudi Arabia, they reached the play-off again, only to lose to New Zealand, once more by a single goal.

Hubail had injured a cruciate ligament after the 0-0 draw against the Kiwis in Manama, missing the second leg. His then-coach, the Czech veteran Milan Macala, lamented what turned out to be a crucial loss, saying: “We will miss Alaa and I hope that he recovers soon.”

It is on such slim margins that heroes are made or broken. Now Hubail sits in a Bahraini prison cell, along with fellow national-team players, his brother Mohammed and 2009 Asian Player of the Year nominee Sayed Mohamed Adnan. After being sacked by his club side, Al Ahli of Manama, and the national team, he was arrested for taking part in the protests that began on Valentine’s Day 2011 and nearly brought down the Bahraini Al Khalifa royal family.

Three months of protests
The arrests were part of a crackdown following three months of protests against the regime – a Sunni royal family ruling over a majority Shia population who wanted more democracy and accountability. The royal family saw it as an Iranian-funded, Shia-inspired plot. Troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE poured over the border to maintain calm, fearing protests would spread to the Shia enclaves.

More than 30 protesters have been killed, hundreds of others spirited away for their part in the uprisings or suspended from their positions, including 150 sportsmen and officials. The most high profile were shamed on national TV, which labelled them “stray hyenas”. Hubail, who as a trained paramedic had treated injured protesters at the now infamous Pearl roundabout, was subjected to a 15-minute grilling about his “treachery” on state TV. He was on the phone, still behind bars.

Bahrain protests

Tens of thousands marched against the Bahraini Al Khalifa royal family.

 

“The violence and abuse is so huge. We have too much work. We can’t cope here. A lot of doctors, a lot of people have been targeted: soccer players, basketball players, teachers, unionists,” says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahraini Centre for Human Rights. Rajab was himself arrested in the middle of the night – on charges he had fabricated a picture showing a dead protester, allegedly killed by the army – and claimed he was tortured, threatened with rape and then released.

“The people who are in charge don’t care about international image,” he adds. “They are military people. All of the sport associations are headed by the royal family. We have 100 associations headed by the royal family.”

Yet despite the international outcry there has been silence from both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. Arresting footballers for exercising their democratic rights would appear to be a clear breach of the rules on political interference but the Bahraini FA have escaped punishment.

When contacted by World Soccer, a FIFA spokesman said: “FIFA has not yet received official information on this issue…FIFA, and the whole sporting movement, considers it crucial to defend the autonomy of sport and the independence of sporting bodies. The use and abuse of football for political purposes, in any shape or form is a practice which FIFA would actively seek to sanction, should the case fall under its jurisdiction and evidence be provided that is in conflict with the FIFA statutes.”

But nothing has happened. And the answer may lie in FIFA’s presidential election this June. Sepp Blatter has been challenged by the head of the AFC, Mohamed Bin Hammam, who is standing on a platform of change. Indeed, Bin Hammam wrote on his personal blog that “we need to create an environment where individuals are not reluctant to stand up for what they believe in”.

The AFC has remained silent on Bahrain. Despite repeated attempts, Bin Hammam hasn’t responded to our questions. But with each of FIFA’s associations having a vote in the presidential election, and with the result hanging in the balance, Bahrain may yet prove to be a crucial kingmaker.

In May 2009 the head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA), Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, who is also a senior member of the royal family, stood against Bin Hammam in a vicious election for a place on FIFA’s executive committee.

In an interview with World Soccer before the vote, Sheikh Salman said that he still counted Bin Hammam as a friend but that he “opposes what he advocates, which has been a form of dictatorship in his administration, a misuse of funds, breaching FIFA and AFC statutes and causing divisions within Asian football”.

Ironically, Salman described his own campaign as one for democratic principles. “This is what true democracy is all about when one individual is challenging another for a post because he believes he can do better,” he said.

Bin Hammam narrowly won the election, but 21 associations sided with Salman, who said: “I have congratulated the president but my message is clear. We have 21 countries unhappy…we have to ask why, and the president needs to win back their confidence.”

Twenty-one votes would come very handy in June, but that is a long way away. The arrests continue, and Bahrain’s footballers remain under threat for little more than expressing desire for a change in government. The BFA denied breaching any rules, telling The Times: “The suspension [of the footballers from Al Ahli] falls under misconduct, and the breaching of the rules and regulations of sporting clubs…not to engage in any political affairs.”

Whatever the truth, the most talented group of footballers in the 40 years since Bahrain’s independence has been damaged inexorably. When Macala prepared for the World Cup play-off against New Zealand, he spoke of how the national team had been a symbol of unity, like in Iraq.

“We do not talk of religion here,” he said.

Now, that symbol is gone, replaced by recrimination and resentment. “The silence of FIFA and the AFC raises a question,” says Rajab. “Either the Bahraini FA have a green signal or FIFA and the AFC accept such violence against footballers, who have rights like any other human to be a citizen. It is time for FIFA to raise its voice.

“The people of Bahrain look at FIFA and ask: ‘Where are you?’”

By James Montague

This feature originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of World Soccer.