Saudi football chiefs apologise over London attack tribute

A minute's silence for victims of London attacks Image copyright Reuters
Image caption At least one Saudi player stood still, but most of the team did not

Saudi football chiefs have apologised after their national team elected not to take part in a minute's silence for victims of the London Bridge attack.

Australian players linked arms as a sign of respect before Thursday's World Cup qualifying match at Adelaide Oval.

Saudi players took up field positions and some continued to stretch.

Football officials said they had been told in advance that the "tradition was not in keeping with Saudi culture". An Australian MP called it "disgraceful".

Football's world body Fifa says the Saudi team will not face sanctions. It said it had reviewed what had happened and judged that there were "no grounds to take disciplinary action".

Eight people were killed and 48 injured on Saturday when three men drove into pedestrians on London Bridge, before abandoning the vehicle and stabbing people in the surrounding area.

Two Australians, Kirsty Boden and Sara Zelenak, were among the eight victims of the terror attack.

'No disrespect intended'

Australian football officials said the Saudi team had agreed a minute's silence could be held.

But officials were "further advised by Saudi team officials that this tradition was not in keeping with Saudi culture and they would move to their side of the field and respect our custom whilst taking their own positions on the field", a statement from Football Federation Australia said.

During the silence, as the Australian team lined up, most Saudi players dispersed to take up their positions on the pitch. Number 7 Salman Al Faraj, appeared to stand still. Two other players are also pictured standing with their hands behind their back.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation made an "unreserved" apology on Friday.

"The players did not intend any disrespect to the memories of the victims or to cause upset to their families, friends or any individual affected by the atrocity," it said in a statement.

"The Saudi Arabian Football Federation condemns all acts of terrorism and extremism and extends its sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims and to the government and people of the United Kingdom."

Is it really against Saudi culture?

The observance of moments of silence has been for years a subject of religious disagreement between moderate Muslim clerics, who do not object to it and consider it to be an appropriate expression of respect for the deceased, and hard-line Salafi clerics who believe that it is religiously prohibited.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, minutes of silence are not uncommon at football matches to pay tribute to the victims of natural disasters, or individuals who have died.

And despite the Saudi team's actions in Adelaide, it has emerged that Saudi sportsmen too have observed moments of silence in the past.

This suggests the controversy might be linked to current tensions in domestic Saudi politics, says Sajjad Rizvi, an associate professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The decision was widely criticised in Australia

Several Australian politicians have criticised the Saudi team.

"This is not about culture," one MP, Anthony Albanese, told the local Nine network. "This is about a lack of respect and I thought it was disgraceful."

Asked about the incident, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had not seen the footage, adding: "The whole world... is united in condemnation of that terrorist attack and terrorism generally."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Teams observe one minute of silence during the match between FC Barcelona and Al-Ahli Saudi FC on 13 December 2016 in Doha, Qatar

Saudi sportsmen have observed silences in the past. Players from Al-Ahli Saudi FC observed one minute of silence before the Qatar Airways Cup match with FC Barcelona on 13 December 2016 in Doha, Qatar, in memory of players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense who died in a plane crash on 28 November.

Saudi male handball players also held a minute's silence before a match against Germany in January 2015 to remember the late king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

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