On 7 December, 10 days after the Australian refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi was arrested at Bangkok airport, the former Socceroos captain Craig Foster sent a letter to the president and secretary general of Fifa reminding them that they had a human rights policy.
“I am sure that all in our global football family are delighted that Fifa have committed to the protection of basic human rights across its global football activities,” he wrote.
The letter itself was not a remarkable move for Foster, a long-time players’ advocate and human rights and refugee ambassador for Amnesty International who frequently uses his position as chief football presenter at SBS to criticise unethical practices in the game.
Then he called in his networks. Past players, current players, international captains, coaches, sports journalists, human rights advocates, politicians, podcasters, bloggers, community clubs: the “global football family”; mobilised behind a hashtag of #SaveHakeem.
In January, Foster travelled to Switzerland to personally lobby Fifa secretary general Fatma Samoura on behalf of al-Araibi, who had been an international player for Bahrain before fleeing to Australia and being convicted in absentia on a widely discredited vandalism charge.
Fifa sent a representative to al-Araibi’s court hearing last week, and joined the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in urging Thailand to allow al-Araibi to return to Australia.
By the time al-Araibi’s release was secured on Monday night, the nominations were in. Foster should be Australian of the year. He could probably even be prime minister, if he wanted.
Foster himself has downplayed his role, saying that he was just a high-profile figure, not the driving force.
“There was a huge coalition of people right around the world … It was a really amazing effort,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.
Among those singing his praises are the prime minister, Scott Morrison, the foreign minister, Marise Payne, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Labor frontbenchers Penny Wong and Mark Dreyfus.
But Foster has already outlined another agenda. In an open letter on Tuesday he issued a warning to both the Australian government and the governing bodies of international sport that “we are just warming up”.
“This was a fight for the soul of sport and, whilst a blow has been struck, a great battle lies ahead,” he said. “First step was to save Hakeem’s life, the next is to hold the game accountable to its response or lack thereof, and to ensure all those in positions of governance that were willing to sacrifice the life of one player while occupying positions of influence and prestige, whether in football, the Olympic movement, or any other sport, are expunged.”
He also criticised Australia’s record on asylum seekers, saying: “Australia must do better than we have in recent years.”
Foster was born in Lismore in northern New South Wales and moved to Sydney in the 1980s, making his debut at Sydney United in 1988.
He was on the international Australian side from 1996 to 2000 and has been a commentator for SBS since 2002, making him one of the most recognisable voices in Australian sport.
In November he was the highest-profile candidate to take over as the chair of Football Federation Australia, but withdrew his nomination despite strong community support because he didn’t have the backing of key stakeholders. That position was won by Chris Nikou.
His success in organising the #SaveHakeem campaign has reopened public criticism of that decision.
Foster says in his open letter that the Australian government should “commit to more humane policies for all the ‘Hakeems’ who come into Australia’s care. Our nation has a big heart, we saw just how big in the past few months, and we need to carry this compassion forward.”
He says “Australia needs to look at how we treat every human being that comes to these shores, irrespective of how they arrive. I have committed to many throughout this campaign, including the UN, that I would work to this end when Hakeem was free and I intend to do so.”