The president of Inter Milan, Steven Zhang, underlined the highs that Inter Milan reached last season despite being runners-up in the Europa League and finishing second in Serie A.
It was a celebration of the power of football on Friday night as released footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi returned to his home ground on match day for the first time.
With Craig Foster and a small army of photographers in support, Hakeem’s beaming smile reminded all that people-power can transcend regimes.
Hakeem’s two-and-a-half month detention in Thailand caught the attention of the global football community. A former Bahraini international and Pascoe Vale centreback living in Australia on a protection visa, Hakeem was unduly detained while on his honeymoon.
His plight became a human rights issue for football governing bodies, like FIFA, who include human rights in their charters.
But it took Craig Foster to take responsibility and stand up on Hakeem’s side. Foster has evolved since the FFA board spill from SBS soothsayer to football and human rights activist, and lead the campaign to have Hakeem released.[related_category category=”soccer”]
On February 11 the Thai Attorney General bowed to international pressure and allowed him to return to his friends and family in Australia, and Pascoe Vale.
Pascoe Vale FC (or Paco to locals) is a more than 50 years old club with a multicultural past representing one of the more diverse local communities in Melbourne (with a stadium based in a neighbouring suburb of Fawkner).
The area is a symbol of the northern expansion of Melbourne that kicked off in earnest in the post-war migrations from Europe, and increased exponentially in recent decades as Middle eastern, African and Asian migrants made Melbourne their home.
It was the perfect setting for a night that celebrated the collective interest over states and borders.
One of the great pleasures of an NPL fixture is the new and unique tuckshop options. Paco’s generic chips and barbequed meat options underlined their broad church culture (and was the only downside of the night!).
Hakeem and Fozzie first emerged in the pre-game to make their way onto the pitch and thank the club and the crowd. Their entrance was met by a troop of dancers and musicians performing what one assumes was Bahraini folk music.
They thrilled the crowd with the sort of enthusiasm and tempo most football fans dream of on the pitch.
Hakeem and Fozzie then joined the two teams in the middle of the park to reinforce the message that football communities have the power to make a difference.
At halftime, with Bentleigh in command with a two-goal lead and what felt like 80 per cent possession, the crowd rallied around an impromptu stage where Foster spoke of the power of Pascoe Vale and their desperation to fight for their friend and teammate.
He thanked the FFV for their support, and then inspired all in attendance with his command and passion for the football community.
In a time when fewer and fewer real leaders (political or sporting) are standing up, Foster’s performance underlined what, and who, we are missing out on at the FFA.
But then the mic was given to the man we turned out to see. Almost inaudible at times with a mic whose levels weren’t properly checked – a reminder of the semi professional nature of the NPL back offices – Hakeem thanked the Australian people and announced that his plan for the future was to show us who he really was.
The country had rallied around him as a symbol of persecution, but hadn’t had a chance to see him as a man and a player.
“I want to show them [Australians] who is Hakeem,” he said to enthusiastic cheers.
On the field his teammates seemed desperate for more Hakeem! Or in the least some centreback support. The end score was 4-2 to Bentleigh after a mini-comeback from Paco to make it 3-2 before the Greens got a late fourth.
The 2000 capacity grandstand was maybe two-thirds full with a sea of fans at ground level, enjoying the atmosphere and occasional chance to high five Fozzie or Francis Awaritefe.
It was a night to celebrate the power and joy of football, and that we did.