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In a special report from the Middle East, Omar Almasri explains how political interferences disrupted the progress of Bahraini football and set the nation back

SPECIAL REPORT
By Omar Almasri

2004, a year Bahrainis will never forget. In that year, China hosted Asia's biggest football tournament. It was the AFC Asian Cup and Bahrain, with its golden generation of players, shocked the entire continent by reaching the semi-finals frustrating the likes of China and Japan along the way.

With the continued progress and rise of Bahraini football, which included two consecutive World Cup play-offs, nothing looked to be stopping this momentum from pushing forward. But that was not to be case, as the nation was about to be hit with its biggest crisis since gaining independence in 1971.

After the successful downfalls of the oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, anti-government supporters and political activists flooded the social media networks with messages of a huge, pro-democracy protest and rally on February 14, 2011 in the now torn down, Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain.

Protesters at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain in 2011
What first started out as peaceful rallies calling for more government action and improvements, took an ugly turn for the worst. Three days into the protests, gunshots were fired at the Pearl Roundabout by government forces leaving four people dead and hundreds more injured, in a day now widely known as “Bloody Thursday”. 

After the upturn of events, protesters heightened their demands, calling for the end of Al Khalifa rule of the island – a demand not taken lightly by government supporters who took to the streets themselves organizing pro-government rallies near Al –Fateh Mosque, one of Bahrain’s most popular landmarks.

In the midst of all the turmoil and divide, football got involved. Fifa has long voiced that football and politics don't mix with each other but not in this case.

Pictures and videos of well-known and popular football players like Ala'a and Mohammed Hubail, and Sayed Mohammed Adnan, all Shias, joining the anti-government protests spread all over Bahraini forums and social media sites like wildfire, angering many who once idolized such figures labeling them as 'traitors' and 'criminals', and calling for their arrest.

"What was, and still is, ongoing for athletes in Bahrain, is a campaign organized by the Bahraini regime in revenge against the backdrop of these athletes participating in peaceful protests demanding democracy," Faisal Hayyat, a Bahraini sports journalist/critic and host of political satire show 'Sha7wal' who was among those arrested by the Bahraini government, informed this writer.

"One look at the list of these detained athletes reveal obnoxious, sectarian revenge, because all these athletes belong to a specific group - the Shiite community, the majority of which are pressing for democratic reforms and changes."

Amidst the outrage, Ala'a Hubail and his cousin, Mohammed Hubail, along with former national team keeper, Ali Saeed, were among over 160 sporting figures arrested with accusations ranging from kidnapping, attacking patrol officers, burning tires, providing protection for the wanted, killing a police officer, burning homes down among others.

"Many of these figures were arrested and detained without any substantive evidence against them," Hayyat explained.

"They were detained under arbitrary circumstances; forcibly taken from their homes unlawfully and without a search warrant, and providing dubious confessions coerced under appalling subjugation and mental and physical torture, facts later emphasized by the regime-endorsed Bassiouni Report."

In the meantime, Sayed Adnan, in fear of his safety, sought refuge in Australia, after his former club, Qatar's Al Khor,abruptly terminated his contract, eventually signing on with Brisbane Roar in the A-League.

Bahrain international Adnan became an exile
"This (the Arab Spring) had never happened, all the countries saying to the king or government they want them to step down. Our situation was difficult; it was just to fix the government. Everybody wants a good life and that's it," Adnan said in an interview with The Brisbane Times, which according to Times' sports editor Phil Lutton, he was "unwilling to do at first" due to the fraught and alarming situation at home.

"But I didn't go there to say 'because you killed my cousin, I go to protest'. I go because we don't want any problems with each other. It doesn't matter, Sunni, Shia, Christian, we don't care. We just want to live as before and respect everyone."

After Fifa pressure, the charges against Ala'a and Mohamed, and other sporting figures, were dropped and Ala'a left to ply his trade in Oman with Al Taleea.

”I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can,” Ala'a stated after his arrest in his hometown of Sitra.

“But I won’t forget the experience which I went through, for all my life. What happened to me was a cost of fame. Participating in the athletes’ rally was not a crime.”

The abuse and torture of Bahrain's footballers and athletes such as Alaa were put into question upon newly elected AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who allegedly played a major role in their abuse. Accusations which he refuted.
AFC President Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa
"The allegation is that his office was involved in pointing out soccer players who participated in protests; an allegation he has denied, " Middle East football expert James Dorsey explains.

"His assertion that sports and politics are separate is a fiction and a position held globally by sports executives that increasingly is being challenged. What is more difficult for him to confront is his failure to speak out on behalf of penalized players against the background of an independent, government endorsed investigation (Bassiouni Report) that concluded that there had been abuse."

Many human rights organizations, including Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), protested his candidacy in light of these allegations including the forceful demotion of Premier League sides Malkiya and Al Shabab to the second-tier, two clubs that had players attending protests, among others.

Despite the hardships, Hubail put up a respectable showing during his stint in Oman, and even harboured thoughts of a potential return to the Bahrain national team setup, when quizzed about it by Oman's Al Shabiba.

"Who doesn't think about representing his country?" he said. "It's an honor for any athlete to be a part of his or her nation, no matter which sport they play in. Besides, I didn't retire internationally like some have reported. But, in the end, it's up to the manager and I have to respect that."

Unfortunately, with the team undergoing transition and such, that wish may never come true.  Ala'a has recently returned to Bahrain and is back with his boyhood club, Sitra, where he will probably ply his trade for the remainder of his career. While Sayed Adnan, after a successful, title winning stint in Australia gaining cult hero status and another short spell in Kuwait, has returned to Qatar to sign for Al Arabi on a one year deal.

"Arresting some of your best players is never a good idea and as Bahrain were punching above their weight anyway by coming very close to qualifying for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, it was even worse," ESPNFC’s John Duerden stated.

"Qualification for the 2014 World Cup confirmed that the team is fading somewhat as a force. The 2013 Gulf Cup did nothing to dispel such feelings and there is a long road ahead for the national team. Only a united Bahrain has a chance of success and at the moment, the country is far from that."
Coach Anthony Hudson is focussing on the future

Hopefully, the recent win over Qatar in the qualifiers and hiring of the highly-rated Anthony Hudson as national team manager will prove to be the beginning of a fresh start and launch pad of a brighter future for the national side and the sport in general.

“I think the youth of Bahrain are very promising,” Hudson told this writer. “They have good ability, and great personalities and spirit. They want to learn and improve.”

Hudson continued with his glowing outlook, “I think Bahrain has a great future. The youth coming through are very exciting and with good coaching and the correct guidance they can become something special. There are many little 'issues' just like every other country; we are always trying to improve all areas so the work is ongoing. Our success in the GCC was fantastic, the players worked extremely hard, showed great discipline and character and were a pleasure to work with.”

But, in contrast, the hopes and prospects of political reforms and reconciliation - with the government imposing a ban on protests, inefficiency in implementing recommended "correlative actions" provided by those responsible for the Bassiouni Report - the BICI (Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry) - which are conferred by a number of organizations, including ADHRB (American for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain) and POMED (Project on Middle East Democracy), and their ongoing, relentless arrests and detainments of opposing figures and protesters to suppress dissent for even the most miniscule of accusations -  look rather dim, stuck - according to Al Wasat editor Mansoor Al Jamri - in a political "cul-de-sac".  

Follow Omar Almasri on Twitter @OAlmasri & www.o-posts.net

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