By Mahmoud Ahmad
THE recent group match between Saudi Arabia and Australia in the World Cup qualifier was no ordinary game. Australia rallied to stun the Saudis to draw level on points in the group with Saudis, only for both of them to be overhauled by Japan at the top of the group following a 1-1 draw with Iraq later. Apart from the group action of teams playing musical chairs at the top, there was one incident that also stood out like a sore thumb.
Keep in mind that the group encounter was set in Australia, and the Socceroos, on that occasion, paid respect to the victims of the recent London attacks, in which two female Australian victims were among those killed, with a minute of silence. The Saudi players did not reciprocate. The Saudi football players did not stand in silence for a minute in solidarity with the Australian team.
Since that day of the match, I have received many emails from people criticizing us for not sharing the moment of grief. Some of these emails contained harsh words, which I am not going to share here. Many of them accused us of lacking manners and sympathy, while some accused us of lacking in sporting spirit.
In one of the emails that I received, the reader commented, “The Saudi football team did not show basic good manners & respect when people showed respect for those who were killed & hurt in the recent barbaric acts in London & Manchester. It (the minute’s silence) may not have been their custom but, as guests, they could have demonstrated basic good manners & stood still. If not, do we take it they are all members of the same organization that terrorizes, kills & hurts children, adults, those with/without faith, including Muslims?
“These men ‘threw themselves into destruction’, either as suicide bomber or in a shoot-out. This is not what the Muslims in our country are wanting. Muslims in our country want peace. They like our country. When terrorists come to our country & kill their children or the children of their non-Muslim friends, they grieve. Let’s pray that, one day, Saudi will become a people who care about peace, equality & respect.”
Another reader questioned what was wrong with our team and why did they not observe a minute’s silence in memory of the victims. He said that these are normal protocols in football, or for that matter in any sport, where a team marks a minute’s silence in respect of victims or on the death of a sporting legend and this is not related to any religion, if Saudis are sensitive toward customs of other religions. He, wrote, that he feared that ignoring this global custom may indirectly indicate that the Saudi team blesses these terror acts. This is totally negative and they should avoid such shameful acts in the future.
One more reader commented that Saudi Arabia plays an important role in combating global terrorism and that Saudi Arabia was itself victim of terrorist activities. Whether the players did that on purpose or was unintentional, it, however, did damage the Kingdom’s reputation. Saudi Arabia needs to be on the same page and in line with the rest of the world.
I have to admit here that I did not see the match between Australia and Saudi Arabia but later discovered that the game did take an ugly turn. Besides losing, we were accused of all sorts of things. I have been following the Australian media to see their reaction. Some of them even went to the extreme of calling for a ban of the Saudi team from playing again in Australia.
I remember the Al-Ahli football team when they played against Barcelona in a friendly game in Qatar. They did stand silent for a moment as a mark of respect for the Brazilian team Chapecoense, whose players died in a plane crash in Colombia last year. What changed? This tradition of standing for a minute’s silence for victims or the death of a prominent figure has nothing to do with religion at all.
Saudi Arabia has condemned the London attack and stands in solidarity with all the countries that combat terrorism. Did anyone ask how would people react when they saw our players warming up when the whole stadium was standing in a minute’s silence for victims of terrorist attacks? It did put us in an embarrassing situation with the rest of the world watching and commenting. It was used against us and such action was explained by many as sympathizing with terrorists and not with victims, which is totally not true as our efforts to combat terrorism is visible for all to see.
At times when Saudi Arabia makes every effort, including carrying out campaigns, to correct the negative image that people have of our country, then come these people with such actions to damage everything. Now, once again, we are in a PR campaign to undo the damage done by such irresponsible act of our football players. All they needed was simply to stand in silence for a minute to show respect and solidarity. Respect for the victims of the terrorist activities and in support of the hosts and the world. But for this minute lapse, we would have not been in this defensive situation.
I can’t understand this lapse of our team, especially the defense that this custom is foreign to them. I remember, in our Saudi league matches, it was a custom for players from both teams to carry banners when there are health or social campaigns. The banner would indicate the need for awareness in the area of concern — a day for traffic department, trees week or even some social campaigns. No one stood up and objected during those times and called it a foreign culture and that it is not related to football.
Yes, we should be aware of our own culture and safeguard and perpetuate it. But we should also understand that we are living in a global village with an intermix of cultures. We should open up to other people’s cultures and understand them. If it infringes on our culture or religion, we should make others aware of the boundaries and this cultured dialogue will smooth the way forward. Especially, with the fact that our religion calls for tolerance and peace and this should help increase awareness among our people about the ways of the world.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org