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Saudi Soccer Apologizes After Team Skips Tribute To London Rampage Victims

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation issued an apology after its national team provoked outrage in Australia by not formally participating in a moment of silence for London rampage victims.

Ahead of a World Cup qualifying match on Thursday in North Adelaide, the Australian players lined up in a row, put their arms around one another and stood silently in memory of the eight people killed on Saturday.

Members of the Saudi team largely appeared to disregard the tribute, with some milling around the field. One player appeared to bend down and tie his shoe, which can be seen in a video from Euronews.

Saudi Arabia's federation hasn't specifically explained why its team did not participate. But in a statement carried by The Associated Press, Football Federation Australia said it was told by the Saudi team prior to the game that its players did not plan to take part for cultural reasons.

"Both the (Asian Football Confederation) and the Saudi team agreed that the minute of silence could be held," the FFA said in a statement, as quoted by the AP. "The FFA was 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."

This has drawn sharp criticism. As Australian politician Anthony Albanesetold Channel Nine's Today Show: "That was a disgraceful lack of respect not just for the two Australians killed, one of whom was a young South Australian, but also all of those victims of that terror attack in London."

In a statement, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation said it "deeply regrets and unreservedly apologises for any offense caused by the failure of some members of the representative team of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to formally observe the one minute's silence."

It added that 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."

FIFA has said it would not discipline the team over the controversy, as Reuters reported. Soccer's governing body said, "After reviewing the match report and images of the said match, we can confirm that there are no grounds to take disciplinary action."

The Saudi team lost the Thursday night game against Australia, 3-2.

Since the incident, several examples have emerged of Saudi teams appearing to participate in similar tributes.

In Doha, Qatar, in December, Al-Ahli Saudi FC joined FC Barcelona in observing a moment of silence honoring members of a Brazilian soccer team killed in a plane crash, according to the BBC.

Before a 2016 match in Qatar, members of Saudi club Al-Ahli Saudi FC (right) did join FC Barcelona in observing a moment of silence.
AK BijuRaj / Getty Images
Getty Images
Before a 2016 match in Qatar, members of Saudi club Al-Ahli Saudi FC (right) did join FC Barcelona in observing a moment of silence.

The broadcaster also reported that "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."

So is this kind of commemoration actually against Saudi culture?

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells The Two-Way that ultraconservative Salafi clerics like those in Saudi Arabia "would be opposed to minutes of silence since they'd consider it a bida'a or 'innovation' " to the way early Muslims practiced the faith.

He adds: "That doesn't mean the Saudi football team has to follow suit, but it's hard for me to imagine a state-sponsored activity of any sort directly contradicting the state's religious establishment's ultraconservative version of Islam."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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