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).


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.

Debate on the future of the game is essential to become a football nation

In regards to the conversation around Australian football right now, everything is on the table.

Despite the current times we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s refreshing to hear constructive debate around the future of the game.

Football is a game of opinions, after all. Everyone throws in their two cents, even more so when there are no domestic games to watch or participate in, at a grassroots or professional level.

The range of voices we have heard from in recent weeks, including former Socceroos and Matildas, current administrators, as well as past and present coaches, has given the footballing public a sense of belief that the game will finally focus on football first.

The in-depth discussions and dissections of what a Josip Skoko believes is best for the game, or what a Peter Filopoulos thinks, in such a transparent manner, is something we need more of to be a healthy football nation.

Most of these figures have spoken openly on what they think the new FFA CEO James Johnson must attempt to address, ranging from topics such as player development, junior fees, promotion and relegation and governance structures.

The overall consensus? Despite the last couple of years of largely negative press, if we address the long-standing issues of the game, it will have a positive future.

One of those issues is the disregard that was shown to NSL clubs when the A-League was established, despite all the positives they continued to contribute to the game, including youth development, traditional football culture and much more.

Former Socceroo Gary Cole told this publication recently that he felt “the history of Australian football, for a long time, kicked off in 2004.”

It resonated with me a while after. How could you not agree with Cole, in this case?

I was quite young when the NSL folded; most of my life, all I have known is the A-League.

‘Old soccer’ as Cole called it, was barely referred to and when it was, it had a negative or embarrassing connotation attached to it, during the opening years of the A-League and arguably still does now.

Why was this the case? It’s inexcusable. You can’t tell me now that the game has properly recognised our previous national competition or the clubs involved and the heroes of that era.

Younger generations can’t celebrate legends like Cole who paved the way for the likes of the Tim Cahills and Harry Kewells of the world, if they are not told who they were, who they played for and what they achieved.

Clubs like Cole’s Heidelberg United are central to one of the other pressing debates discussed by those in the game, a national second division.

Ex-Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer put forward his plan during a ‘State of Football’ chat with Optus Sport on Sunday, in which he outlined a region-based conference system for a national second division setup.

“It minimises travel costs, but creates a second tier, semi-professional, with a view in the future to lift it up,” he said.

“In Germany for example, the third division is regional. The top two teams, depending on the region, (size of) participation, go into a play-off for eventual promotion.

“Why can’t we create a similar structure?”

Will everyone agree with Schwarzer’s idea for the second division? Absolutely not.

But that’s beside the point. The more these matters are spoken about and debated, the urgency increases for administrators to take all views into account and move forward with plans to implement.

There are those who think some former Socceroos, without any administrative experience, are not best placed to make calls on the future of complex governance decisions within the Australian football system.

That’s a fair enough criticism, but that doesn’t mean their involvement in the discussion of the game’s future, through different online platforms and now FFA’s Starting XI panel, hasn’t already been effective and will continue to be so.

Their influential voices form part of the narrative from all corners of the game who now support a national second division, with a point being reached where no other option will be accepted.

Call me an optimist, despite the game’s governance track record over its history, with James Johnson at the helm, football can finally be its unique self and stand on its own two feet.

There is renewed confidence that decisions will be made in the best interests of the sport, not simply trying to replicate what rival codes do.

In the end however, while discussion and debate around the game’s future is important, it’s the actions that count.

Could COVID-19 stunt progress towards the Second Division?

The ongoing worldwide pandemic has seen the A-League, as well as all state competitions postpone their fixtures until further notice.

The current situation is bleak, with no timeframe set for when on-field competition can restart or whether the current season will be cancelled in favour of a fresh start next season.

The FFA has a lot on their plates right now and no-one would envy them right now. However, if they’re not careful enough, they could potentially set Australian soccer back several seasons.

The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but things won’t normalise for a long time. The health and safety of Australians is of the utmost priority and thankfully, the country hasn’t been as seriously affected as some.

In saying that, several aspects of the game in our country cannot be sacrificed and must not be put on the backburner.

The National Second Division was easily the most necessary adjustment to the elite level of our sport prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Obviously, these bizarre times have altered this. But when the dust settles, and it will, the FFA needs to act upon the National Second Division.

When life-changing events take place, it becomes second nature to drop whatever you’re doing and focus solely on the important matter at hand.

After a while, it becomes easy to forget on what you were originally focused on. Sometimes, it gets left in the rear-view mirror altogether and you never do a U-turn to find it.

The FFA cannot do this to their current plans on the National Second Division.

At the time of writing, no ‘set in stone’ plans currently exist for the FFA and the National Second Division. Nothing concrete has been put to paper.

On the flipside, it is known there are strong motivations to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible. Like a cheese wheel going down a hill.

Weird analogy, but the point remains. The FFA is acutely aware of how important the National Second Division is to the future of the A-League and the sport in Australia, as a whole.

It goes without saying what makes the European leagues so cutthroat and enviable to Australians.

The promotion and relegation, the seemingly endless divisions in countries like England, Germany and Spain. The possibility of playing against some of the best in the world, both domestically and in continental tournaments. The knowledge that if you’re not up to scratch, you can be out the door as quick as the snap of a finger.

Or as quick as a cheese wheel going down a hill. How’s that come up again?

There isn’t as much accountability for poor performance in Australian soccer. If you finish bottom in the A-League, there’s no real punishment. Some seasons can be a real lottery.

The point of all this? To ensure the FFA doesn’t allow COVID-19 to halt their plans on the National Second Division.

They can be excused for ignoring other issues right now, some just simply aren’t essential. But the future of Australian soccer is one of the most essential issues for them.

Let’s say for arguments sake that the FFA planned to introduce the National Second Division at the start of the 2022-23 A-League season.

Let’s also say that the COVID-19 pandemic happened in another universe, allowing them a near uninterrupted 18-24 months to figure out a setup for the National Second Division.

With their current motives to get the National Second Division started, it’s more than plausible that it could become a reality in that timeframe.

However, we live in the universe where COVID-19 has wreaked havoc upon the world and these plans have been temporarily put to the side.

It’s foreseeable that the FFA will allow things to completely settle before they resume planning on the National Second Division.

That is easily one of the biggest mistake they could make at that time, when it comes.

They can’t afford to delay any longer. If they push plans back to 2024-25 or even longer down the line, the game in this country will suffer even more.

We can’t imagine having to make these tough decisions during this time such as cutting or furloughing staff amongst other things.

But if they make the decision to delay the National Second Division plans, they’ll regret it sooner than they think.

We’re hopeful this is not the case.

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Will Australia now finally put football ahead of power and pettiness?

Ange Postecoglou’s comments on ABC’s Offsiders Program in regards to putting Australian football first, were compelling and accurate.

The former Socceroo mentor and now coach of Yokohama F Marinos in the J-League was explicit, precise and curt when commenting on the necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the Australian game. For Postecoglou, it is an opportunity to do something rarely seen. That being, an active positioning of football well above all the vested interests and personalities that for decades appear to have thought themselves bigger than the game itself.

The former South Melbourne player stated, “Never forget what your prime product is and your product is the sport……..If you devalue the sport, you can save as much money as you want, eventually that devaluation is going to cost you.”

For Australian football, the reference to money is the hottest topic of conversation right now. Foxtel appears to have reneged on its most recent payment due to FFA, with A$12.5 million yet to hit the savings account of the governing body.

With three years to run on a broadcast deal that was signed in 2016 and valued at A$346 million, the media giant is within inches of walking away and leaving Australia’s elite professional league without a host broadcaster.

That deal was originally cheered home in 2016 by then Chief Executive David Gallop, yet in the years that followed, little was done to advance, promote and forward the game by the powers at be. Postecoglou was on the sidelines in a coaching capacity with the Socceroos for some of that time and his comments were no doubt directed towards those whom he sees as having failed to keep football as the focus.

No doubt FFA were jubilant each and every time the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup and the subsequent financial windfall that came their way. However, little effort was made to bring the domestic game together as one. Despite increased awareness of and interest in NPL competitions around the land, the governing body baulked time after time when it came to making the essential leap to full promotion and relegation across the country.

Essentially, Postecoglou’s words ring true to all those who have observed the first 15 years of the A-League competition. Efforts were made to expand the game from the elite level and little done to engage with the grass roots and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who showed little interest in the top tier competition.

By providing pathways for clubs to advance in league play and the ensuing incentive provided for players not directly involved in the rather limited junior and developmental systems of the ten A-League clubs, football in Australia has the potential to become interconnected and united; something of which Postecoglou is well aware.

Instead, the elite men’s competition had a few highs, many lows and ended up treading water over the last five years with little change, growth or development. High hopes were placed on expansion and Western United have made anything but a weak start to their existence. However, with the financial realities of COVID-19 hitting home, it is now likely we will see some A-League clubs fold or tread close to extinction.

A third Sydney team was looking shaky in its infancy and with the current climate now leading to seven of the eleven A-League clubs unable to pay players and staff, their birth seems unlikely; most probably postponed indefinitely until the football landscape becomes a little easier to read.

Postecoglou’s comments were almost certainly a less than cloaked attack on many Australian football relics whose failures of the past are common knowledge; the men involved in the failed final days of an NSL competition that fell victim to infighting and power struggles that served no purpose to the game.

They were also undoubtedly a direct attack on the lack of vision shown by the FFA in recent history; a governing body hampered by risk aversion and people possessing little knowledge of football.

Mark Schwarzer alluded to those power struggles when he called for the abolition of state federations on April 20, citing them as the “biggest problem in Australian football” due to a reluctance to relinquish power and influence.

Both Postecoglou and Schwarzer know the landscape all too well and have been to places that very few Australian footballers and/or managers have even dreamt. Something tells me that we should be listening to them as an industry and taking the advice of people with knowledge that extends far beyond our shores.

FFA boss James Johnson shares such knowledge and experience and it will be interesting to see how he incorporates their advice with that formed by the ‘Starting XI’ think tank he has assembled in an effort to guide the game through the problems created by the pandemic.

Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko, Clare Polkinghorne, Ron Smith, Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon, Frank Farina, Heather Garriock, Vicki Linton, Joey Peters, and Connie Selby will no doubt have strong opinions.

Whether they have the nous and vision to right what currently looks like a sinking A-League ship after Foxtel’s clear intention to walk away is unclear. Hoping they do should be the wish of each and every football fan in Australia.

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