Football Federation Australia criticised for supporting Sheikh Salman's re-election

A “shocked and disappointed” Hakeem al-Araibi has called on Football Federation Australia to justify its support of Sheikh Salman Ibrahim Al-Khalifa’s bid for re-election as Asian Football Confederation president.

FFA confirmed on Tuesday it will join with fellow ASEAN Football Federation nations in backing Sheikh Salman in the 6 April election in Malaysia, a move that has been labelled “sickening” and “difficult to understand” by the refugee footballer’s campaigners.

The decision to back the Bahraini royal family member comes in the wake of Al-Araibi’s detention in Thailand. The Bahraini-born Australian player was detained during his honeymoon in November and threatened with extradition to his country of birth.

“I was overwhelmed by the support I had from the Australian and Asian football communities who worked so hard to free me from unjust detention in Thailand,” Al-Araibi said.

Al-Arabi said he was “shocked and disappointed” that FFA decided to show support for Sheikh Salman, who he says oversaw his detention and alleged torture in Bahrain.

“The head of the FFA, Chris Nikou must address these concerns and ask serious questions about how they do not breach FFA’s own human rights policy, Al-Arabi said.

Craig Foster, the former Socceroos captain who spearheaded the campaign for Al-Araibi’s release, had earlier released a statement to convey his disappointment with FFA: “This is sickening given the circumstances that the nation, and football globally, has just witnessed in the case of Hakeem al-Araibi.

“That Australia could even contemplate voting for such a candidate makes a mockery of any discussion of fundamental values within the game. The conduct of Salman during the incarceration of Hakeem was unconscionable.”

Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union which also campaigned for Al-Araibi’s release, said it had noted “with deep concern” the decision to stand by Sheikh Salman.

PFA, the largest institutional stakeholder within the reformed FFA congress, said it had not been consulted on FFA’s stance, nor had it received a response from Fifa regarding the eligibility of candidates.

“The PFA is on record challenging the right of the incumbent to continue in the role of AFC president, let alone serve another term,” said PFA chief executive John Didulica.

“FFA’s support – without consulting with key members of the FFA congress – is difficult to understand given the unity of purpose the Australian football family recently displayed to help secure the freedom of Hakeem Al-Araibi.”

Al-Araibi was granted asylum and refugee status in Australia after fleeing Bahrain following his imprisonment and alleged torture there in 2012 after speaking out about persecution and torture of other footballers who had demonstrated against the ruling regime during the Bahraini uprising of 2011.

Sheikh Salman came under criticism during Al-Araibi’s detention for not using his position as AFC president to help an international effort for his release. Al-Araibi, who has since received Australian citizenship, returned to Australia in February after a concerted effort including FFA representation to secure his release.

FFA chairman Chris Nikou said the association was “acutely aware” of the concerns about Sheikh Salman’s association with the Al-Araibi affair.

“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 and we did this privately by lobbying those in positions of influence and ultimately, through the work of many, the right outcome was achieved,” Nikou said in a statement.

The decision to support Sheikh Salman was based on his previous work in the role. It was also felt by the ASEAN federations that the Bahraini was better credentialed than his opponents Mohamed Khalfan Al Romaithi from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar’s Saoud A.Aziz A Al-Mohannadi.

“Under the leadership of the Sheikh Salman, the size of the AFC Asian Cup has expanded, the Fifa World Cup qualification process has broadened, new football development initiatives have been introduced, prize money and subsidies for clubs participating in the AFC Champions League have increased and significantly improved terms were secured with AFC’s new marketing rights partner,” Nikou said.

PFA said it was waiting for Fifa and FFA to respond to its concerns and provide the basis upon which Sheikh Salman satisfied eligibility criteria for re-election.