It hardly mattered that Hakeem al-Araibi didn’t make it on to the pitch for his homecoming match.
The Bahraini refugee, whose recent imprisonment in Thailand shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the intersection between human rights, diplomacy and sport, was always going to be the focus of Pascoe Vale’s first home game of the season.
And it was always going to be a celebration. Even as their opponents Bentleigh Greens put one, two and then three goals past the Pascoe Vale keeper, the atmosphere remained upbeat at the football ground in Melbourne’s multicultural northern suburbs.
In the limelight, Al-Araibi exuded a striking grace and calmness. “When I was in the jail, Craig Foster, he told me, many media, many people, they’re waiting for me,” he said in between photos with football fans. “I was excited to see how the people love me in Australia. It was a big surprise.”
They certainly loved him on Friday night. When he was presented to the crowd, there were young voices crying “We love you, Hakeem.”
Al-Araibi walked out on to an immaculate, sun-kissed pitch to toss the coin with Foster, the former Socceroos captain who most observers credit with securing his freedom. In the stands, meanwhile, a troupe moved to the drumbeat of dabke, an Arabic dance.
As he was during the campaign for Al-Araibi’s release, Foster was everywhere. Earlier on Friday, he had published an open letter to Australia’s politicians calling on them to honour Al-Araibi’s story by embracing a more humane policy towards refugees. It was a theme he hammered during speeches before Friday night’s game, at half-time, and when speaking to the Guardian.
“We are a game that was built by migrants and refugees,” Foster said. “Therefore it was natural for us to step forward and fight for Hakeem.
“[But] I didn’t know how Australia was going to react. The fact that Hakeem gained the support of all of Australia is a really powerful symbol.”
Foster did concede he was a “bit tired” but appeared visibly relieved that Al-Araibi was safe on Australian soil.
“It was the most emotionally intense experience I ever had,” Foster said. “I knew the risk that he was under. Some of those risks we couldn’t really articulate publicly. We were talking about the recurrence of torture but we thought actually it was going to be worse. We thought a life was at stake.
“There was also some [other risks] in the campaign. Because clearly if it had have gone wrong, we would have been, or I would have been blamed for pushing Thailand too far.”
Al-Araibi’s connection to football helped galvanise the campaign for his release, though some of those sitting in the stands hardly knew anything about the sport.
Madeleine Serle, who was instrumental in the #SaveHakeem campaign on social media, had never met Al-Araibi, and her attendance at the game was only the fourth time she was attending a football match.
She said she had seen Foster advocate for Al-Araibi on television and “was absolutely transformed”.
“I’ve got no idea what’s going on,” she said of the game, “but this is about the principle”.
Mariana Porras, 49, was drawn into the campaign by Jim Lawrence, 56, a football stalwart who has toured as a fan with the Socceroos.
Over two days, she had helped Lawrence create a enormous “Save Hakeem” banner on the living room floor that became a pre-game fixture at local football matches as people campaigned for his release.
On Friday night, Lawrence presented a new banner to the club: a portrait of Al-Araibi with a new message, “#SavedHakeem”.
In January, Pascoe Vale, a club in Australia’s second-tier National Premier League competition, chose to re-sign the defender and former Bahraini international. At the time, Al-Araibi was still in a Bangkok prison.
As far as gestures of loyalty in sport go, it was hard to top.
On Friday, Al-Araibi said he was “so grateful” that people had come to welcome him back, though would have preferred to be on the pitch. “I miss football,” he said. “When I was in the jail, I told the Australian embassy, I told everyone, ‘I just want to play. Bahrain, they want to kill me, they want to kill my future’.”
He trained twice last week, but felt “weak”. “I was tired because for three months I didn’t run. [But] I am working on my body. I will be stronger than before.”
Lou Tona, the Pascoe Vale club chairman, said it was “elated” that Al-Araibi was safe, and back in its ranks.
“He’s a very good player, we could do with him tonight to be honest with you,” Tona said just as Pascoe Vale conceded a penalty.
As the final whistle approached, the team, which had seemed sluggish for most of the match, appeared to rise out of a stupor. Two quick goals set up the potential for a fairytale, stoppage-time equaliser.
Instead, after a few squandered chances, a red card and a final Bentleigh goal, the game finished at 4-2.
It hardly mattered.