Football Federation Australia has cancelled a planned Under-23s training trip to Thailand in the first instance of sporting sanctions being imposed against the Asian country amid growing calls for the release of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold said Australian national teams stood with Al-Araibi, who faces a further two months in a Thai jail before discovering his fate. He is fighting an extradition order to send him back to Bahrain, where he fears he will be imprisoned and tortured, as he alleges occurred in 2012.
Preliminary plans had been put in place by FFA last year to play a friendly against China in Bangkok as part of the Olyroos’ preparations for the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers to be held in Cambodia in March, but alternatives are now being sought.
“On our return from the recent AFC Asian Cup we reassessed our plans due to the ongoing detainment of Australian footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in a Thai prison,” Arnold said.
“We are in the process of rearranging our pre-tournament camp in another Asian nation. Australia’s national teams are united in their support for Hakeem al-Araibi and we call on the community to continue to campaign for his release.”
The move comes amid increasing pressure on Thailand to release Al-Araibi and allow him to return to Australia, where he plays semi-professional football for Victorian side Pascoe Vale. Supporters of Al-Araibi have stepped up calls for sanctions and boycotts – primarily imposed by world sporting bodies such as Fifa and the International Olympic Committee – against Bahrain and Thailand.
On Tuesday, Australia Super Rugby club Melbourne Rebels faced stiff backlash on social media after announcing a sponsorship deal with Thai Airways. The club was accused of being “tone deaf” and “failing to “read the room”.
It later apologised “unreservedly” for any offence caused and said the club stood in full support of Al-Araibi’s cause and will use its new relationship to engage with the airline directly.
There have also been calls to boycott Thailand in a bid to affect its tourism industry.
On Tuesday FFA pledged $10,000 to kick-start fundraising efforts to help continue the global advocacy campaign to return Al-Araibi to Australia.
The Olyroos were scheduled to arrive for the training camp in Bangkok on 11 March, ahead of two friendly games on 14 and 17 March. They were then to fly to Cambodia for the qualifying tournament.
Al-Araibi, barefoot and in shackles, appeared at the Ratchadaphisek criminal court on Monday, when he was given 60 days to prepare a defence to Bahrain’s extradition order.
The Bahraini government bases its extradition request on an act of vandalism which occurred when, or very shortly after, he was playing in a televised football match, but Al-Araibi believes it is attempted political retribution.
It has been confirmed the Thai authorities have the power to release Al-Araibi and return him to Australia at any time before the 60-day deadline.