IT WAS a week of sad and shocking images for football.
From the murky depths of the cold sea that separates France and England came a chilling photograph, shot remotely, of the crumpled plane that crashed Jan. 21 as it was flying Emiliano Sala to a new career in the English Premier League, killing the Argentine forward and pilot David Ibbotson.
And on the other side of the world, in Thailand, TV cameras were on hand to film the pained, shuffling gait of imprisoned refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in leg irons and bare feet, as he fought efforts in court to extradite him to Bahrain. The defender who was granted safe haven in Australia after fleeing a 10-year prison sentence in Bahrain in 2014 is terrified that he’ll be tortured if returned to the kingdom with a well-documented history of abuses.
Piling on the pain in football’s already tough week was a fire that torched the sleeping quarters of a football academy in Brazil on Friday, killing 10 people and injuring three.
In both the untimely death of 28-year-old Sala and al-Araibi’s battle for freedom, there have been emotional and impactful responses from football, heartening demonstrations of soul and decency from the world’s most popular sport, often so fixated by money. In mourning for Sala and campaigning for al-Araibi, there also have been signs that football and footballers are learning to leverage their power and reach for causes other than themselves, flashes of social conscience that should be nourished.
Had Sala not been a footballer, his body may never have been found. But fellow players, coaches and thousands of others poured donations into a campaign by his family to fund the search that located the wrecked light aircraft in the English Channel. The pilot is still missing, presumed dead.
This weekend, Sala will be honored with a minute of applause at all matches in the top two leagues in France, where his play had caught the eye of Cardiff City, the Premier League club now mourning its new recruit. Nantes, which sold him, says it plans to retire his No. 9 jersey in memory of his 3½ seasons with the French club.
But as footballers and fans say goodbye to Sala, knowing that their generosity and support helped offer closure to his grieving family, they have everything still to do for al-Araibi.
Detained Nov. 27 at the start of what was meant to be a honeymoon in Thailand, the former Bahrain national team player is wanted back in the kingdom for an arson attack on a police station in 2012 for which he was sentenced in absentia.
Campaigners believe the case was bogus and have unearthed footage they say supports his claim that he was playing in a televised match at the time. They doubt Bahrain’s statements that he would be fairly treated if returned. That is partly because al-Araibi says he was tortured in custody before he fled Bahrain, telling The New York Times in 2016 that an officer “beat my legs really hard, saying: ‘You will not play football again. We will destroy your future.’”
Sounds familiar: Even a Bahrain government-ordered investigation reported deaths from torture in 2011 and said detainees were electrocuted, beaten on the soles of their feet, otherwise abused and reported being squeezed into tiny cells, sexually assaulted and other horrors.