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How Hakeem Al-Araibi’s triumphant return to Australia demonstrates the beauty of soccer

It was a story that garnered international headlines. A story that gripped people across the globe, bringing them together in a show of solidarity. In a way, it even made us realise just how precious life can be.

Hakeem Al-Araibi’s story of perseverance, determination and ultimately his freedom was perhaps the most endearing, yet controversial stories of the year thus far.

From the months he spent in the Thai detention centre to his eventual release thanks to the support of millions, it was a roller coaster of emotions that ended on a huge high.

But it was a great way to show one thing.

Soccer is a great way of bringing people together.

Whether it be soccer fans from different clubs, nations or continents. Or players, former players and coaching staff members from different clubs. When we all acknowledge something significant is or has occurred, we all come together in a show of strength for our great sport.

And Hakeem’s case was no different.

From Australian soccer icon Craig Foster to Champions League winning and Ivorian legend Didier Drogba, people came together in a bid to free Hakeem, who was being unjustly stripped of his rights and freedom.

 

It’s advocation like this that was able to shine a light on an issue that some parties wanted to keep in the dark. An issue they hoped they could solve (in their eyes) with little to no media fanfare.

How wrong they were.

Now playing back at his beloved Pascoe Vale FC in the Victorian State League top division, Hakeem is living a life that he knows was so close to being brought to a screeching halt.

He is now able to share his experiences with others as a Community and Human Rights Advocate with the FFV. Through his insight and knowledge, he will be able to help those who may be in similar situations to him (refugees living in Australia).

https://www.sportingnews.com/au/football/news/hakeem-al-araibi-gets-new-job-with-football-victoria/5runc8epdetz1a4lza2n5vpxg

His story will also inspire others to help those in need. It goes to show that if everyone can show a little bit of support for someone or a group of people in need, those in power will take notice.

And for those who go above and beyond in their show of support, they get out what they put in. This is no truer than in the case of Craig Foster.

As soon as the story began, he devoted everything to ensuring Hakeem got released. Nothing else mattered more during that time. He took a stand and said that he and Australia would not rest until Hakeem was granted his release.

Now, Foster has received calls to be awarded for his bravery and hard work with the Australian of the Year award. Granted, he may not win, but he sure deserves to be recognised in some form.

What he did was nothing short of exemplary and again, it goes to show that soccer is a great way of bringing people together when someone or something is in need.

And that is the beauty of our wonderful sport.

Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

New A-Leagues, work still to be done

Australia’s top-flight A-Leagues is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

Australia’s top-flight football competition is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

The clubs are no longer driving from the back seat, and they have wasted no time and spared little expense in committing to a major makeover to Australia’s top-flight competitions, A-Leagues Men and Women.

A glossy new look, an inclusive new name that bundles the premier men’s and women’s competition, sleek new graphics, a bumper free-to-air deal as well as a new streaming service and dedicated football news platforms all represent solid wins for the Australian Professional Leagues ahead of their debut season on the back of a mountain of preparation that has gone into the promotion of the competition.

Whilst only the most naïve will have expected the efforts to deliver an instant return, the sobering numbers from the opening round of the 2021/22 A-Leagues Men season demonstrate just how much work lies ahead.

Not even the gloss of all the stellar exertion put into revamping the look and feel of the A-Leagues and the fantastic efforts that went into broadcasting the competition to Australia’s audience could completely deflect from the real issues that football continues to face in Australia.

Put simply, they are the same issues that have plagued the sport in Australia for decades, including infrastructure and failing to connect with every part of the Australian football fraternity.

The embarrassing relocation of Macarthur FC’s opening round clash with Wellington Phoenix due to the dire state of the pitch at Campbelltown Stadium will have resonated with hundreds, if not thousands of football administrators all over the country who rely on third parties to maintain their playing surfaces.

It’s one thing for a third-tier state league team to have to relocate a game due to a bad pitch.

It’s another thing for it to happen in the top-flight. Put bluntly, it’s completely unacceptable.

The issue serves as an urgent reminder for the needs of football owned and operated infrastructure.

The sub-10,000 attendance figures at four out of six games highlight the top-flight’s ongoing struggles to get bums in seats and build genuine support for expansion sides.

Off the back of a championship-winning season, Melbourne City would have to be disappointed with a crowd of 7,213, whilst the 8,210 who turned out for Western United’s home game against Melbourne Victory were largely supporters of the away team.

The relocated 1-1 draw between Macarthur and Wellington attracted a touch over 1,000 people, with a contingent of the people in the ground having stuck around following the earlier F3 Derby between Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets – a fixture which was attended by less than 7,000 people.

They are numbers that must concern the clubs involved, regardless of the various mitigating circumstances that have been offered as explanations.

Macarthur’s relocation to Newcastle for the weekend was undoubtedly a major issue. However, excuses in Melbourne that with lockdown over, people have other priorities will not hold up in the long run.

The reality is that the pool of ‘new fans’ without attachment to an A-Leagues team or another club is dwindling in an extremely competitive market and this is not something that the APL will be able to expand its way out of.

For football and economic reasons, there is no denying that the A-Leagues needs more teams – as Adelaide United coach Carl Veart passionately advocated for last week. The methods for adding those teams is a critical component of the discussion moving forward.

There are clubs that exist today all over Australia that bring comparable, if not larger, crowds to Macarthur FC, Western United and at times Melbourne City.

Surely, at some point, these clubs deserve an opportunity. One of the biggest obstacles to making this happen is undoubtedly football’s first big problem – infrastructure.

Encouraging further investment in existing football infrastructure through the carrot of opportunities to access the top-flight could be a turnkey solution that will help solve both of football’s biggest issues.

The main short-term issue that was highlighted in round one was the varying quality of stream quality on Paramount+.

Personally, this was not something I experienced watching at least parts of every game via the Apple TV app on my television.

I did notice what seemed like a slightly reduced quality when simulcasting the Western United v Melbourne Victory game on my phone whilst watching the Sydney Derby on TV, but the second half seemed to be an improvement on the first.

Of course, it’s not all bad.

Technical streaming issues are nothing new when it comes to new services launching their live products.

We all remember the hugely frustrating buffering issues many users experienced when the Premier League first arrived on Optus Sport and the issues faced with the 2018 World Cup in times of peak demand.

Optus Sport rose to the challenges remarkably well and at this point, there’s no reason to doubt Paramount’s ability to do the same.

Elsewhere, a sell-out crowd packed into HBF Park to watch Perth Glory’s entertaining 1-1 draw against Adelaide United.

No doubt many of the 17,198 who attended the fixture were attracted to the game for the chance to get a glimpse of former Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool star Daniel Sturridge, highlighting the power of genuine marquees in attracting a crowd in Australia.

A healthy 23,118 at the Sydney derby at Commonwealth Bank stadium bodes well for two of the competition’s big teams in a crucial market, too.

The derby also attracted a free-to-air audience of 146,000. On face value alone, that’s not a hugely impressive number, but it is a number that bodes well for the competition according to industry experts, with well-known sports industry commentator @footyindustryAU suggesting that the number was “almost certainly” the highest-rated non-final A-League game in the last five years.

Like most things in life, the marketing gloss will never hide every flaw and the flaws don’t necessarily mean the world is coming to an end.

Round one 2021/22 represents progress and steps forward for Australian football.

The steps forward, however, are on a journey that still has miles to be walked.

Is the A-League prepared for sportswashing?

With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

This month, Newcastle United became the richest club in world football – due solely to majority ownership by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Wealth Fund. With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

World football has a problem with ‘sportswashing’ – which the Macmillan dictionary defines as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation” – as exemplified by the purchase of Newcastle United by the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government.

This same government assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consul in 2019, and now they have been allowed to purchase a football club in the world’s most-watched sporting league to rehabilitate their reputation on the world stage.

The World Cup in Qatar might be the biggest sportswashing event of all. The host nation of the 2022 tournament has a horrid reputation with human rights abuse, and over 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since the World Cup was announced, with the total number likely significantly higher.

Countries like Australia will have no qualms sending their national teams – helping legitimise Qatar on the world stage and sportswashing away the human rights abuse and death toll that the event has created.

Australian football – and the A-League – will face a reckoning with sportswashing in the future, the question is how can it be combated?

Australian football has fought its fights against possibly malicious owners, both domestically and foreign. Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler promised the world, but left the Gold Coast without a club – and the Newcastle Jets penniless respectively.

Clive Palmer left Gold Coast United in ruin.

Foreign owners have also done their damage. On January 4, 2021, Martin Lee’s ownership of the Jets was terminated after he failed to inject any money into the club since October 2019, while also failing to pay any of the club’s debts.

ABC’s Four Corners revealed a director – Joko Driyono – for the company that owns the Brisbane Roar with the Bakrie family – was jailed for 18 months for match-fixing Indonesian football matches.

According to Indonesian business records, he remains the president director of Pelita Jaya Cronus, the holding company for Brisbane Roar.

Joko Driyono, director of Brisbane Roar’s holding company, spent 18 months in jail for match-fixing.

Does the ownership model of the A-League create accountability for owners, and do Australia’s corporate regulators do enough to ensure that malicious owners can’t drive clubs into the ground for personal profit or gain?

Take the Martin Lee example. Under the current franchise model of the A-League, he has no personal liability for the debt accrued by his ownership, and faced no repercussions for running the club into the ground before the A-League took back the license.

Former Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee was forced to hand back the club’s license.

He simply abandoned the club after it was no longer of use to his business interests in Australia, and returned to his home country.

The A-League must avoid this as an example, while also ensuring that promises of rich domestic benefactors are balanced against the likelihood that it could be too good to be true.

The current franchise model does have its advantages, in regards to the Australian Professional Leagues having the power to take back the license of a runaway club like in the case of Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, or when an owner fails to inject money like Martin Lee.

Currently, the vast majority of NPL clubs are run by a board of directors who are personally liable if funds go missing, or the club goes into severe debt.

Melbourne Victory is the only publicly listed company in the A-League, and that ownership model brings responsibility to shareholders and liability for directors.

Foreign investment at the A-League is at an all-time high, with five of the 12 clubs being either foreign-owned or controlled.

One club, Adelaide United, has its ownership completely hidden from the public. The Australian footballing community currently has no idea who finances the only professional club in South Australia.

A transparent fit and fairness test must be implemented for A-League ownership, one that keeps potential malicious actors away from the game, while protecting fans and clubs.

One way to achieve this would be to ask corporate regulators to take a more hands-on approach with A-League entities during the purchasing of a license.

The downside of this approach would be that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is capable of auditing companies’ finances, but foreign entities like Martin Lee’s businesses and Pelita Jaya Cronus can easily circumvent scrutiny.

Personal liability for owners and directors would force them to create sustainable businesses. While it might scare away some bad investors, those with good intentions will embrace the concept of a more stable A-League.

Another way to combat sportswashing would be to introduce the truly membership-based model championed by clubs in Germany.

The 50+1 model means that the majority of the club must be owned by local fans of the clubs, and if this was pursued in the A-League it would grant huge protections against owners who don’t act in the best intentions for the club long-term.

The Australian Professional Leagues need to ensure that those who want to invest in Australian football are doing so for the right reasons, instead of purely personal gain.

A true fit and fairness test, one that examines whether the owner is financially, ethically, and morally capable of owning an A-League team (or second division team) with the utmost accountability will be one of the best investment’s the APL can make for Australian football.

Without it, it will be a wild wasteland of Palmers, Tinklers, and Lees for years to come.

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