Collectivism kicks goals for justice, says former Socceroos captain Craig Foster

There were calls for former Socceroo captain Craig Foster to be named Australian of the Year, even prime minister, after he saved the life of a young refugee footballer from Melbourne detained in Bangkok on trumped-up charges laid by the country he fled, Bahrain.

Hakeem al-Araibi had been an international player for Bahrain before fleeing to Australia and being convicted in absentia on a widely discredited vandalism charge. He was arrested while in Thailand.

Foster downplayed his role as a driving force in gaining Hakeem’s release, and defers to the campaign of his union, the Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), pointing out that the 25-year-old player was not a member and, in fact, was ineligible to join the association.

In his guest address to Federation’s Annual Conference, Foster drew a parallel with the PFA and principles of Federation. “They’re the values that we’re talking about in this room,” he told delegates on the final morning of Conference.

“Our players union stepped forward immediately, irrespective of that fact [he could not be a member], and committed immense resources to saving this young colleague of ours.

“No one asked — not the Socceroos, not the Matildas, not the legends of our game, not our life members — whether Hakeem was or could be a member. We saw him as a member of our community, and as a member of our country.”

He said the PFA not only stood for the rights and conditions of its member players, but to “grow the social dividend of football in this country”.

“Supporting refugees, supporting vulnerable people, supporting marginalised and disadvantaged students are all part of those values,” he said.

“We went to FIFA, with both our union and our Australian values, and demanded a meeting … Getting these organisms, getting these political structures, to move for one individual, who lacks the power, who lacks the voice, is usually a tremendous challenge.”

Foster, a long-time players’ advocate and human rights and refugee ambassador for Amnesty International as well as SBS football analyst, and the players union garnered the help of FIFA and the Australian Government to gain Hakeem’s release in February this year after 14 days in custody.

“That’s the difference; strong unions, people who believe in helping others and fighting for great causes,” Foster said.

“It is not about us, it has everything to do with people like Hakeem, everything to do with your students and everything to do with public education sector.”

He said the FPA was also leading the charge on a global scale for gender equality and equal pay for women footballers, whose World Cup-winning prize money was doubled to $60 million this year while the men’s game had their winner’s cheque lifted from $350 million to $450 million.

“They [the FPA] fought for a kid, they’re fighting for women; that’s what a union is, that’s what collectivism is,” he said.

Foster, who was raised in Lismore and attended Goonellabah Public School and Kadina High School, is an outspoken advocate of public education and its worth for society.

“While choices are laudable, the foundation of any successful society must surely be that every child has the choice to attend an outstanding public school with well-paid and respected teachers, adequate infrastructure and a long-term government commitment to sustainable growth,” he told Conference.

“I was immensely fortunate to attend such schools that provided everything we needed whether our interests were, like me, through sport or the arts, academia or science, and this is a gift I want every child to have in this country.”

— Scott Coomber