SYDNEY (Reuters) – Former Socceroo Craig Foster has described as “sickening” the support of Australia and the ASEAN bloc of countries for the re-election of Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa.
Earlier this year, Foster led a campaign calling for footballer Hakeem al-Araibi to be freed from prison in Thailand and allowed to return to Australia rather than be extradited to Bahrain, where he had been sentenced to 10 years for vandalism.
Al-Araibi was released last month under the weight of huge international pressure and is now an Australian citizen but the AFC and Bahraini Sheikh Salman were roundly criticised, not least by Foster, for their inaction on the case.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) on Monday issued a statement confirming it had agreed to back Sheikh Salman in the April 6 election along with the 11 Southeast Asian countries who also make up the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF).
“This is sickening given the circumstances that the nation, and football globally, has just witnessed in the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. The conduct of Salman during the incarceration of Hakeem was unconscionable …” Foster said in a statement.
“That Australia could even contemplate voting for such a candidate makes a mockery of any discussions of fundamental values within the game, of a commitment to human rights within football, the protection of players or of advocating for the highest of standards of sports governance.”
United Arab Emirates sports chief Mohammed Khalfan al-Romaithi and Qatar’s Saoud Al-Mohannadi will go up against Sheikh Salman, who is seeking a third term in office, in the vote at the AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur.
The AFC’s first statement on the al-Araibi affair, beyond saying it was working with FIFA to try to resolve the case, came when it announced Sheikh Salman had been recused from all involvement in West Asian affairs for the previous 18 months.
The FFA said it had decided, along with the other members of the AFF, that Sheikh Salman was “the best credentialed candidate” for the post, although Australia’s backing would need to be confirmed by the body’s board before the vote.
A statement on Monday said the FFA were aware that there was some concern in Australia at the role of the AFC after the Al-Araibi case.
“During this time we were in regular dialogue with the AFC, FIFA and the Australian government to ensure appropriate steps were taken to support efforts for Hakeem’s release,” FFA chairman Chris Nikou was quoted as saying.
“We did this privately by lobbying those in positions of influence and ultimately, through the work of many, the right outcome was achieved.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)