'He'll Want To Play This Weekend': Hakeem's Clubmates Can't Wait To See Their 'Lion'
All going well, Hakeem al-Araibi will go from defending his life to defending goal within a matter of days.
When the former refugee touches down at Tullamarine this afternoon, freed after 70 days detention in Thailand, he will face a flurry of attention unlike anything he's ever experienced.
"I think he’ll cope all right," Pascoe Vale Football Club Chairman Lou Tona tells 10 daily of the frantic hours and days that lie ahead for the 25-year-old former Bahraini professional footballer, who had made his home in Australia before he was detained in Bangkok in November while on his honeymoon.
"He's got a lot of love and support at this club and in the wider community. Our first concern is to make sure his mental health is OK. That's where all our thoughts are all our efforts are going."
Pascoe Vale is a small, proud and fiercely competitive football club in northern Melbourne. Its senior men's team plays in the Victorian division of the National Premier League, one level below the A-League.
Al-Araibi is a defender, who Tona signed as soon as he got his residency here.
"He's a pretty gutsy defender, Tona said. "And the way he's defended himself in Thailand, speaking out about the injustice... it's funny how the way a person plays sport often reveals their character."
Al-Araibi fled Bahrain in 2013 and was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017. He originally earned the ire of his own government for speaking out against footballers who he alleges were persecuted and tortured under the Bahraini regime.
Despite his outspoken stance on injustices in his country of birth, Al-Araibi is far from the loudest bloke in the football team environment.
"He's a very quiet and respectful kid who's extremely well-respected for his humility," Tona says.
As club chairman and a man with lifelong involvement at the club his dad and uncles founded, Tona likes to walk through the team dressing room before and after games.
"You don't even know he's there," he says. "The boys give me a lot of stick and I enjoy that, I love it. But Hakeem just smirks and laughs. He doesn’t throw banter around the place. But once he's out on the park, he's like a lion."
Without making a fuss about it, the club has helped pay the bills for Al-Araibi, and stocked the fridge at the couple's modest apartment in Bundoora in Melbourne's north in anticipation of his return.
Tona is also deeply thankful for the support of Socceroos legend Craig Foster, and the mycause campaign and GoFundMe page which have attracted in excess of 30 thousand dollars in donations from everyday Australians.
"This has been a collective effort by 24 million Australians," he says.
The next step?
Well, after two months of being shackled, Tona reckons al-Araibi will be super keen to get straight back to football.
"Knowing Hakeem, he’ll probably want to get on the park this weekend."
As it happens, Pascoe Vale actually play a match this Thursday night, which might be a little soon. But Tona reckons he'll be back soon enough.
"He’ll come back to training whenever he’s ready and make himself available for selection.
Not that Tona believes his selection will be automatic. When the immediate outpouring of joy of his return is over, football realpolitick will kick in and the guys currently in the team will fight to keep their spots.
"I can assure you the boys love him, but they won’t give him a free ride!"