MOST football clubs in Bahrain fall loosely along sectarian lines. Al-Ahli, which won the kingdom’s top league title last year, was the exception. Based in Manama, the capital, it is owned by a wealthy Sunni merchant family. But most of its players and fans are Shia. “We are one family,” Fuad Kanoo, its chairman, grandly says. “We never thought about whether you are Sunni or Shia.”
After sectarian strife engulfed Bahrain this year, however, a problem arose. Al-Ahli’s championship defence was on track in February, when thousands of mainly Shia protesters took to the streets demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni royal family. The government responded by instituting martial law, causing the football league to be suspended.
The club’s players took sides. A’ala and Mohammed Hubail, two Shia brothers who had starred in the national team, joined a march by hundreds of athletes calling for political change. Meanwhile, two Sunni Al-Ahli players joined the pro-government gangs that roamed the streets wielding clubs and pickaxe handles.
As the protests spread, the government’s patience ran out. On March 16th it sent in troops to crush the movement. In the following days, hundreds of people were arrested and at least 32 were killed.
Since then, Bahraini politics have stabilised somewhat. But Al-Ahli did not return to normal. The king’s son, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, led a government committee to root out athletes who had participated in the protests. It sacked or suspended over 150 Shia players, staff and referees, including six Al-Ahli footballers. [read more]