Exile springs to action in A-League – Bahrain Freedom Movement

Down 1-0, with a minute left in injury time, Brisbane’s Bahraini defender stood over a free kick outside the box. He stared through the wall, ran in and curled home a wonderful strike. Swish. One-all.

The 28-year-old ran to the corner, jogged on the spot, spun around and fell to his knees, drained by exhaustion and elation. He buried his face in his hands, before gesturing to the heavens. Halfway across the world, a friendship that politics and strife had threatened to tear apart, was about to be rekindled.


Hero … Mohamed Adnan is mobbed by teammates after rifling a late strike past Sydney goalkeeper Liam Reddy. Photo: Getty Images

”When I did the celebration, it was for my best friend Talal Yousef. He’s a Sunni [Muslim] and was captain of the national team. It’s like a message to him and other people that I still love you, you are still my friends,” Adnan said yesterday.

”When he saw that goal, he called me. He got my number and called me like nothing happened. He hadn’t found me for six months before I scored this goal. But when he sees me do that celebration, he said: ‘Yeah, Mohamed – he’s never changed’.”

Adnan may not have changed but events in his homeland have left Bahrain at odds with itself and the international community. Now he must decide if he will – or can – ever return.


Different goals … protesters in Bahrain react to an explosion as riot police open fire at Pearl Square. Photo: Reuters

At the beginning of February last year, Adnan’s life in Bahrain, the oil-rich island nation in the Persian Gulf, was the stuff of dreams. He was a football star with 79 appearances for his country and a nominee for the 2009 Asian Footballer of the Year.

But the winds of change that had swept through other Arab nations were beginning to hasten. In a chain-reaction of events, his cousin was killed – shot in the head during a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters – and he was forced to flee to safety, with his wife and daughter, to Australia, where he has found sanctuary in the A-League.

Adnan’s perceived crime was to be seen at peaceful protests in and around Pearl Square, the epicentre of demonstrations in the capital Manama. The Arab Spring had blossomed in Bahrain but was harshly suppressed by the Al Khalifa party, Sunni rulers of a Shiite majority.

By the end of the initial crackdown, some 40 people had been killed and hundreds arrested, including 150 athletes from a variety of sports, a list that featured some of Bahrain’s biggest names in football.

”My life was really good there. Everyone respected me; the police, the people. I can’t walk in the mall or city centre without signing for someone,” Adnan says. ”[Now] some of them hate me, some of them still love me.”

Adnan watched with interest as pro-democracy movements upturned governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet his road to Pearl Square was not one of protest at the government, but as part of an appeal to halt the violence engulfing the city.

In the area with a friend, murmurs of an athlete’s march were beginning to become louder. It was hoped the presence of some famous names would help the appeal for calm. Instead, they became targets for arrest, imprisonment and, in some case, beatings and torture.

”This [the Arab Spring] had never happened, all the countries saying to the King or government they want them to step down. Our situation was difficult; it was just to fix the government. Everybody wants a good life and that’s it,” Adnan says.

”It began on February 14, so when I go there it was February 23. I just go to bring some tea or eat. I was talking with my friend … Something happened – some people came to me and asked why doesn’t a sporting player come to the protest.

”My cousin is dead – he received one bullet in his head – I started thinking ‘why don’t we do something to stop this killing?’

”But I didn’t go there to say ‘because you killed my cousin, I go to protest’. I go because we don’t want any problems with each other. It doesn’t matter – Sunni, Shia, Christian – we don’t care. We just want to live as before and respect everyone.”

With the day passing peacefully, Adnan returned to his Al-Khor club in Qatar. But trouble began to brew in the following weeks. Players and athletes were made pariahs in the media, with some branded traitors on national television.

Charges against athletes were levelled, although those outstanding have recently been dropped in what was seen as an olive branch from the government. Even so, lawyers like Mohsen al-Alawi warn they could be reactivated at any moment.

The superstar Hubail brothers, Alaa and Mohamed, were arrested and jailed, along with Ali Saeed Abdullah, the national team goalkeeper and a close friend of Adnan.

Abdullah would later be forced into a public confession that painted Adnan as the orchestrator of the march, or at least the participation of the football stars. Incredibly, Adnan has forgiven his former teammate and remains in constant contact.

”I know some players, they told me in the jail they punished them just to say, ‘Mohamed, he did that. He asked us to come to the protest’.

”They did one interview on TV, one player, he said: ‘Mohamed he called me’. And he’s the best of friends. I’m not angry about him. I know they had punished him. Still I connect with him. I call him every week. He’s still my friend.”

Adnan was banished from the national side and warned not to return to Bahrain, where he could face incarceration, trial or worse.

”I received one call from my friend. He said: ‘Don’t come to my area’. I asked why? He said: ‘There are some people here, if they saw you, they will punish you, kill you or do something wrong’,” Adnan says.

He elected to seek refuge in Australia, travelling to Brisbane to stay with a friend before playing some club games for Oxley, in the city’s suburban west.

It was not long before Roar assistant Kenny Stead, who knew of Adnan from his time at Qatari club Al-Wakrah, organised a trial under Ange Postecoglou in July and, eventually, a one-year-deal that includes the Asian Champions League.

Life in Brisbane has been kind to Adnan and he has found his feet in the first team. Back in Bahrain, he can only wonder what could have been for his struggling national side.

Despite all that has unfolded, his heart remains in the Bahrain jersey. Once a force of unity in Bahrain, the national side has become a symbol of division since the dislocation caused by the protests and subsequent exclusions.

Slowly, that is beginning to change. Jailed players, like Ali Abdulwahab, are beginning to return to the fold. Should he be called upon, providing he is accepted by his teammates, Adnan says he is ready to play once again.

”I’d come back like that but it’s difficult. If I went back, I’d have to feel comfortable and feel like all the players are happy I’d come back to the national team. If Mohamad Adnan, he can change something to make Bahraini footballer better, it’s my pleasure to go back again,” he says.

”It doesn’t matter what’s happened. This is our country. This is my country. They need me.”

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