Juan Pablo Pino
By James M. Dorsey
Saudi religious police have arrested a Colombian soccer player in a Riyadh shopping mall for wearing a sleeveless shirt and having a tattoo showing of Jesus Christ on his arm.
In a letter to the Saudi General Youth Welfare Presidency that oversees sports in the deeply conservative kingdom, the police, the Saudi Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, demanded that strict directives be issued for foreign soccer players to wear long sleeves and ensure that any tattoos on their bodies are covered.
The arrest of Juan Pablo Pino is likely to make Saudi Arabia less attractive to foreign players at a time that the kingdom is developing for the first time a national sport strategy and like other Middle Eastern and North African soccer nations is looking to boost performance in advance of the region’s first hosting ever of the World Cup in 2022.
Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, bans other religions from practicing in the kingdom.
“A sleeveless shirt is a threat to Saudi’s society, and the tattoo is an insult to our local Muslims. It is a completely negative influence and would send the wrong message to Saudi youths who may imitate him,” the letter said.
The letter contained a photograph of Mr. Pino, citing him as a bad example, and called upon non-Muslim players in the Kingdom to strictly adhere to the directive and respect Saudi traditions and customs.
Mr. Pino is under contract to play for Saudi Arabia’s Al Nasr football club. He expressed in a statement “deep sadness” over the incident and said he did not intend to violate the laws of the country. He said he was in the mall “to buy Muslim clothes for his wife, so that she can go out in public dressed in a respectful manner.”
Last year, Al Hilal’s Romanian player Mirel Radoi kissed the cross he was wearing after scoring a goal. The episode outraged Saudi Muslims and caused a media outcry.
Despite his apology, Mr. Pino is believed to want Al Nasr to immediately release him from his contract but the efforts of the club’s Argentine coach Gustavo Costas, who faced a similar problem, appear to have been futile.
In an interview with Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, Mr. Costas said that as trainer of Peruvian team Alianza Lim he made the sign of the cross before every game, and wore a rosary around his neck. “Now I cannot do this in public, I can only do it in the locker room. If I made the sign of the cross publicly, the Saudis would kill or stone me,” Mr. Costas said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.