Hakeem al-Araibi, freed from Thai prison, returns to Pascoe Vale: 'It's a very special moment'
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Drums, dancers and a dizzying amount of cameras greeted Hakeem al-Araibi on Friday night as the Bahraini refugee watched his semi-professional football club for the first time since his Thai extradition ordeal ended last week.
The large crowd, many wearing #HakeemSaved shirts, traveled from around the country to Pascoe Vale, in Melbourne's north, to celebrate with a footballer they had campaigned to have released from a Thai prison for more than two months.
"The celebrations have started and this is a special moment in my life," the 25-year-old told ESPN. "Many people fought for my case and they come to Pascoe Vale now just to see me. It's a very special moment.
"The people from Australia have been very important, they support me and fight for me. I have been in Australia for five years and I feel they care for me."
Former Socceroo and high-profile supporter Craig Foster said the outcome was a reminder of the power of sport after football stars Didier Drogba, Jamie Vardy and Gary Lineker also publicly called for al-Araibi's release.
"As soon as he was in trouble, it was natural that former players would step forward and fight for him," Foster told ESPN.
"As an ex-player I feel we have an obligation to help our community. We advocate for our game and we advocate for what our game can do for Australia. We also have to advocate for anyone in that community -- that might be clubs or fans or especially our brothers and sisters as players."
Al-Araibi didn't feature in the match due to a lack of fitness, but he hopes to be back on the pitch within a few weeks when he'll be out to catch the eye of an A-League club.