For Bahrain's soccer team, shades of Saddam Hussein's Iraq

A short ESPN documentary focuses on the torture of soccer-team athletes in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, for their faith and political beliefs.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
Iran's Javad Nekonam (l.) and Bahrain's Abdulla Omar fight for the ball during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match at Tehran's Azadi stadium last month.

It's been a little over 10 months since the tragic suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia started a wave of Arab uprisings that swept three dictators from power. From his death came hope that real change was coming to Arab nations led by corrupt, unaccountable strongmen, and that old ways of doing business in the region for countries like the US were about to be discarded.

But for all the changes, autocrats continue to hang on. The scale of the crackdown by Bashar al-Assad in Syria is truly horrific, with the body count creeping upward daily. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi is gone, but securing just, accountable government is far from assured. In Egypt, the military that Hosni Mubarak relied on to keep power is still calling the political shots, raising worries about fundamental political change there as well.

The US has praised the region's revolutions, and called for democracy for the region. But in practice, the foreign policy practices of the past remain in place. President Obama's administration has urged the US Congress not to tie military aid to Egypt to democratic reform there (I wrote on thisĀ yesterday) and remains as close as ever to Saudi Arabia's monarchy.

In the case of Bahrain, whose ruling Khalifa family has successfully quelled democracy protests with intimidation, arrests, and torture, it's also mostly business as usual. The country is the home port for the US 5th Fleet, its Sunni monarchy is close to Saudi Arabia's (which helped put down Bahrain's uprising), and it remains viewed by US policymakers as a useful US ally in efforts to contain Iran.

To be sure, there is some unease. Last month, the US postponed a $50 million arms sale pending results of a Bahraini investigation into human rights abuses that put down the country's uprising in February and March. But security ties remain close.

A few days ago, ESPN looked at calls for political change in Bahrain through the lens of sport, and it's not a pretty picture (I've embedded the video below). The story of Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, former stars of Bahrain's national football team now living in exile, reminded me of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where athletes lived in constant fear of Saddam and his sons. Iraq, like Bahrain, has a Shiite majority. And, like Bahrain, Saddam's Iraq was ruled by a Sunni leader who blithely ignored the wishes of the majority of his population.

Such situations corrupt everything. In Iraq, national players were tortured and jailed for poor performances. Many promising Shiite players never got a chance at the national team because of their fate. Now, in a smaller way, Bahrain is emulating Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, brothers and national-team stars, are now living in the shadows, kicked off the national team and humiliated. After being arrested and, according to them, beaten in a Bahraini government detention center, they were also fired from the professional clubs. Why? They joined a democracy protest last February. Like most Bahrainis, they are Shiites, and were angry at the monarchy. Alaa is probably the country's greatest-ever player, with 21 goals for his country. Of his detention, he told ESPN: "We were living in a nightmare of fear and horror."

The two men have been sentenced to two years in jail. They were released after three months in jail, and remain free on appeal.

It seems everyone around sports in Bahrain -- which also hosts Formula 1 races -- now wants to return to business as usual. Peter Taylor, the Englishman now coaching the national team, took up his job last summer. Typically, national team coaches scour the backgrounds and records of the players eligible for the side they're coaching, But Mr. Taylor said he's never heard of Alaa.

"I don't know who you're talking about," Taylor told ESPN, when asked what the effect of not having Alaa Hubail available to play was having on his efforts.

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