FIFA looks at investigating Bahrain for government interference in soccer


World soccer body FIFA has asked Bahrain for full details of the detention in early April of Bahraini soccer players during anti-government protests earlier this year in preparation of an investigation into whether the government has interfered politically in the sport.

Disclosure of the request comes two months after three national team players were detained and some 150 others athletes, coaches and referees were suspended for their alleged support of the protests. FIFA said the request was made in May.

One of the soccer players, Mohammed Hubail, was sentenced this week to two years in prison on charges of attempting to topple the Bahraini monarchy and having links to a foreign terrorist organization.

Bahrain backed by its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies has asserted that the demonstrations were instigated by Iran in a bid to destabilize the island and sow sectarian discord.

Mr. Hubail was tried behind closed doors in a Bahraini special security court set up under martial law imposed in March to quell Shiite-led demonstrations against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. Eight of his co-defendants were jailed for life while 10 others were sentenced to 15 years each.

Mr. Hubail’s soccer playing brother, Alaa, also went on trial this week in the same court for his participation in the demonstrations. Alaa is reported to have worked as a medic during the demonstrations.

A FIFA investigation could affect the chances of Bahrain Football Association (BFA) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, to succeed disgraced Qatari national Mohamed Bin Hammam as head of the powerful Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Sheikh Salman is widely viewed as the frontrunner for the job.

Mr. Bin Hammam was suspended in May following the launch of a FIFA investigation into allegations that he had sought to bribe Caribbean soccer officials to secure their vote for his candidacy in FIFA presidential elections early this month. Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before his suspension.

FIFA could suspend Bahrain if an investigation were to conclude that the government had intervened for political reasons in the Gulf island’s soccer. It could also could jeopardize Bahrain’s participation in the next round of Asian Olympic qualifiers which begins in September

The proceedings against the Hubail brothers were conducted on the same day that Bahrain’s Under 23 team advanced in qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics by defeating Palestine in Ramallah.

The BFA said in April that six clubs had withdrawn from domestic leagues following the protests and the arrests. BFA Vice President Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa said at the time that the clubs had withdrawn because of “pressure from Shiite political groups.”

Three of the clubs as well as a Bahraini human right group claimed however that the clubs from mostly Shiite villages had not withdrawn voluntarily but had been suspended for two years and fined $20,000. The group, Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said the clubs had been suspended because they had stopped playing during the protests because they felt it was too dangerous and also in honor of protesters killed in the government’s crackdown.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])