Omar Almasri reports on how the conflict in Bahrain has impacted the country's sporting idols.
It was a hot, summer day in Jordan and I was watching the Asian Cup with some of my relatives the. The date was July 30th 2004 and I was watching Bahrain’s quarter-final meeting with Uzbekistan. In that match, I witnessed the sudden rise of a player who used to work in a hospital and suddenly become a celebrity overnight. That player scored a memorable brace and secured a historic semi-final berth for a country not well known for its football exploits. The player who lit up the competition was Ala’a Hubail.
I still remember that match vividly. Hubail ran his socks off that day, caused all sorts of problems to the Uzbek defence and not only did he score a brace, but he also cleared a shot off the line in extra time and scored the winning penalty in the shootout. He became the most-talked about person in all of Bahrain for his heroics, his name was chanted and sung all over the nation. He became a national idol and hero. Unfortunately, that was all to change.
Protests broke out on February 14, when the majority group in the country, Shi’as, led a march to the Pearl Roundabout, demanding more democracy, political rights and equality. It has since led to protests against the government (ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family) after the Pearl Roundabout Shootings three days later. This has sadly divided the nation into two halves, pro (Sunni) and anti (Shi’a)-government, with reports stating that around 34 people have been killed since the start of the demonstrations.
Ala’a, who comes from a Shi’a family, was reportedly arrested two weeks after the February march, along with his brother Mohammed Hubail, who has also represented Bahrain at the Asian Cup. Press reports are stating that his brother has been sentenced to 2 years in prison, whilst Ala’a is to face a trial behind closed doors.
Ala’a Hubail, the idol, role model and superstar is being shamed, disgraced, and banned by the Bahraini government and for what? For helping out the wounded during the protests and participating in anti-government demonstrations. Since when does helping someone out, someone who’s injured and needs treatment, and speaking your opinion, warrant an arrest and ban from playing football? Hubail, who served his country well for almost a decade (scoring 24 goals in 68 international appearances) is now being vilified and being labeled a “criminal and traitor” by the same people who supported him over the years.
This is a humiliating and degrading way of ending the career of one of Bahrain’s best-ever players, a player who has provided the nation with its finest sporting moments. He doesn’t deserve this treatment, this humiliation by the government. Yes, he probably protested against them, but is there a law against speaking your mind and displaying what you believe is right? It isn’t a crime to protest, it isn’t a crime to speak up and state your opinion.
This is what he said about his arrest, from his home in Sitra: "I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can.”
"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 Hubail brothers are not the only athletes facing trials or have been arrested. There are reports indicating that over 200 Bahraini athletes are currently in custody or being interrogated by the government. Some, like Ala’a, are facing trials behind closed doors.
Tariq Al-Farsani- A bodybuilding champion who won a gold medal in the 2002 Asian Games in the light-heavyweight division, as well as a silver medal in the World Bodybuilding Championships in 2008.
Ali Saeed- Former Bahrain National Team goalkeeper, who was also part of the squad in the 2004 Asian Cup. Saeed made 33 appearances for the national side.
Jaffar Abdulqader- Widely regarded as the best handball player in Bahrain, who helped them reach the 2011 World Cup in handball for the first time in its history.
Sayed Mohammed Adnan-Former Bahraini National Team defender, who was nominated for the 2009 Asian Player of the Year award, and has made 79 appearances for the national side. He has now left Bahrain to Australia and plays for Brisbane Roar.
My prayers not only go to arrested and persecuted athletes, but also to the victims who have fallen during the protests and still are to this day. I wish to see these athletes and sporting figures return to playing the sports that they love and for peace to return to my beloved Bahrain. I will always remember Ala’a for the great moments and matches he gave for Bahrain, he served his nation admirably and we should never forget that.
If you want to check on the updates of what’s going on in Bahrain, follow Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center For Human Rights on Twitter: @NABEELRAJAB.
Follow Omar on Twitter @OAlmasri.