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Human rights

Football’s power to fight injustice spurs ex-Socceroos skipper and human rights activist Craig Foster

  • Australian broadcaster is calling for the release of Bahrain footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from a Thai jail
  • Former Hong Kong-based player feels an obligation to give something back to football
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 10:45pm

Craig Foster wields football as a weapon. He uses it to fight injustice, to preserve human rights and to ease suffering in his native Australia and around the world.

And if he ever doubted just how powerful this sport can be, he only needs to recall the heartbreaking words of a young African refugee who had lost everything – fleeing his war-torn homeland after his parents, sibling and other members of his family were killed.

“He was involved in a football programme over a period of time. He was very, very quiet and said very little,” said Foster. “He was in a new country and was experiencing psychological difficulties, which is totally understandable.

AFC ‘working with Fifa’ on case of Bahraini refugee footballer held in Thailand as ex-Hong Kong player demands his release

“When he was asked why he liked the programme, he simply said: ‘The only thing that still exists in my life is football. It is the only thing that hasn’t been taken away from me’. And he was crying when he said it.

“Those comments make you realise what our game can give people, why young people are so passionate about it and what it can give to kids who have nothing else. It’s a tool to allow them to make new friends, allow them to have some joy in a life that is often so joyless.”

The former Socceroos captain who played for Hong Kong’s Ernest Borel in the early ’90s is a broadcaster in Australia and also works for Amnesty International as a human rights and refugee ambassador.

He is among the most vocal of activists in calling out human rights transgressions in football and sport and is one of the many prominent figures fighting for the release of Bahrain’s Hakeem al-Araibi, an Australia-based refugee footballer who is in a Thai jail awaiting extradition to his home country where he fears torture and persecution.

AFC must be held to account if Bahraini refugee player is extradited from Thailand, says ex-Socceroos captain Craig Foster

Foster and human rights activists around the world, particularly expatriate Bahrainis, are daily swamping social media to raise awareness of Al-Araibi’s case. The 49-year-old has also written directly to the one man who has the power and influence to free the young player – Asian Football Club president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa.

Sheikh Salman is a member of the Bahrain royal family and, in 2016, was publicly criticised by Al-Araibi, who accused him of involvement in the persecution of athletes during the Arab spring.

Since retiring as a player in 2002, Foster became involved in social issues related to football, working with disadvantaged, minority and indigenous communities in a variety of programmes.

“I spent years working with kids,” said Foster, who is about to complete a degree in law. “I’ve seen people from war-torn regions of the world and understand their psychology and the social challenges they face, and been trying to integrate them into Australian society.

“I’m just finishing my law degree, which has given me some further insight into the challenges of human rights and international refugee law. I feel strongly about these issues and in football, we are at an advantage because we are the most diverse, multicultural community in Australia.

“Australian football is built on a vast range of migrant communities. It is a game that is built on values of inclusion and tolerance. It is a common language for the world and this is very much the case in Australia.

“So I spent 15 years working with kids in communities and as I’ve grown older I’ve simply migrated to seeking to be able to make deeper change in people’s lives.”

Foster, who played for Portsmouth and Crystal Palace in England and also had a stint in Singapore, said he felt an obligation to give something back to the sport.

As an ex-player and a broadcaster with the SBS organisation in Australia, Foster is in an ideal position to reach out to the masses. At the same time, he puts his contribution to social issues in perspective, admitting that he is in a position of comfort compared with activists whose lives are on the line in their efforts to effect change.

“Being in a position of prominence, especially as a broadcaster, I feel very strongly that we have an obligation to give back to the game of soccer, which has given us so much,” said Foster.

“Of course, you can’t fight every battle, but there are key ones which take a huge amount time. But the people I have immense respect for are the human rights defenders in their countries.

“In Australia we have serious human rights issues, with indigenous Australians and also in terms of refugees and arrivals.

“There are some countries where the challenges are greater and people are risking their lives. These are really amazing people and I’m just trying to add my voice.

“Those who are in a public position by virtue of being able to kick a ball have an obligation to give back to society and the older I get the more I feel that responsibility.”