The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) “deeply regrets and unreservedly apologises” to the relatives of the victims of the London attack on 3 June for not observing a minute of silence before the start of the match with Australia.
“The players did not intend any disrespect to the memories of the victims or to cause upset to their families,” said that press release. The “Saudi Arabian Football Federation condemns all acts of terrorism and extremism,” it added.
Saudi Arabia’s national football team yesterday played against Australia in Adelaide in a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Before the match, the referee asked for a minute of silence at the request of the Football Federation Australia (FFA) in memory of the victims of the recent London Bridge attack.
The Australia team lined up for the moment, holding arms. By contrast, Saudi players took up positions on the pitch.
The incident became an international cause celebre when images of the Saudi players moving around on the pitch were picked up by major news media (including non-sport related) as well as social media.
Most Internet users slammed the Saudis for being insensitive, and failing to show respect for the victims and the pain of their relatives. Some politicians criticised the Saudis.
An Australian lawmaker called the footballers’ behaviour “disgraceful”. This is not about culture,” said MP Anthony Albanese. “This is about a lack of respect and I thought it was disgraceful.”
Two Australians, Kirsty Boden and Sara Zelenak, were among the eight victims of the terror attack.
Football officials waded into the controversy saying that Saudi officials had briefed them in advance that their players would not observe the minute of silence because the “tradition was not in keeping with Saudi culture”. Within a few hours, Saudi football officials in Saudi Arabia made an “unreserved” apology on Friday.
However, one silver lining broke through the mask of indifference or cultural relativism of the Saudi football federation. One Saudi player, Salman al-Faraj (pictured wearing number seven), stood apart from his teammates, near the centre circle, head bowed, joining the Australian players, the spectators and the country, in the solemn moment of sorrow and remembrance.
Of course, it is only one player, but for some commentators he represented the strength of the individual against the indifference, discipline, and “cultural traditions” of the rest of the team, like others who oppose group rules, state or religious directives, a bit like the tank man in Tiananmen Square.