On the left, Alaa Hubail after getting released

The scars from Bahrain’s protests are still felt on the pitch

Aug 13th 2011

MOST football clubs in Bahrain fall loosely along sectarian lines. Al-Ahli, which won the kingdom’s top league title last year, was the exception. Based in Manama, the capital, it is owned by a wealthy Sunni merchant family. But most of its players and fans are Shia. “We are one family,” Fuad Kanoo, its chairman, grandly says. “We never thought about whether you are Sunni or Shia.” After sectarian strife engulfed Bahrain this year, however, a problem arose. Al-Ahli’s championship defence was on track in February, when thousands of mainly Shia protesters took to the streets demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni royal family. The government responded by instituting martial law, causing the football league to be suspended.

The club’s players took sides. A’ala and Mohammed Hubail, two Shia brothers who had starred in the national team, joined a march by hundreds of athletes calling for political change. Meanwhile, two Sunni Al-Ahli players joined the pro-government gangs that roamed the streets wielding clubs and pickaxe handles.

As the protests spread, the government’s patience ran out. On March 16th it sent in troops to crush the movement. In the following days, hundreds of people were arrested and at least 32 were killed.

Since then, Bahraini politics have stabilised somewhat. But Al-Ahli did not return to normal. The king’s son, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, led a government committee to root out athletes who had participated in the protests. It sacked or suspended over 150 Shia players, staff and referees, including six Al-Ahli footballers.

The Hubail brothers’ fate was even worse. On April 5th they were arrested while training. When they appeared in court, military police shook their hands, and some asked for autographs. But their experience behind bars was far less friendly. The brothers have refused to speak about it, and the Bahrain Football Association maintains that no players were mistreated. But their relatives, teammates and friends say that foreign men beat them viciously in prison. “They were tortured,” says one Al-Ahli player. “Everyone knows what happened to them.” In June Mohammed Hubail was sentenced to two years in jail. He was released on bail a few days later when FIFA, football’s international governing body, began making inquiries.

When the league resumed, Al-Ahli was without its six players. Its second-string team remained in contention until the last day, when, fittingly, it was defeated by Muharraq, a Sunni club. Mr Kanoo says he believes most players will be reinstated. But those facing criminal charges for protesting, including the Hubails, could be barred from the game. Just as Al-Ahli in its heyday was a microcosm of Bahrain’s integrated society, its woes today reflect the depth of the country’s new divisions.

www.economist.com

Related:

Human Rights First Urges FIFA, U.S. World Cup Team to Condemn Bahrain’s Attack on Athletes , July 2011 The Times: Bahrain's soccer stars tortured in custody , July 2011 Bahrain: Arrest, military trials, & suspension from sport activities, for athletes who practice their legitimate rights , July 2011 BYSHR Report: “Sports” defendant in Bahrain, because of freedom of opinion and expression , April 2011