With the World Cup commencing in just a few weeks, it seems this year might bring something a little more complicated than the summer nights sipping pints and cheering on our nations. However, there is a disconnect between FIFA and Qatar’s claims it will be the “best ever” and the concerns brought to light by football associations, players, charities and fans alike.
The timing is, quite frankly, nuts. Since the Cup starts just a week after the Premier League draws to a halt, players who have earned their place to represent their nation, can be prevented by as little as a 10-day injury. One need look no further than Man U’s Raphaël Varane to see how this has affected players. The French defender came off in a flood of tears after tearing his hamstring in a draw against Chelsea last month. In the words of commentator Jamie Carragher, this mid-season placement is an “absolute disgrace”.
This raises questions about why the 92-year-old summer tournament, is a winter event this year. Qatar initially offered to hold the event in the summer in air-conditioned stadia which was never going to happen. Even in ‘winter’, playing conditions will be tough. This points to one thing: corruption. A US indictment unsealed in 2020 revealed that two presidents of South American football federations accepted bribes to vote for Qatar. Furthermore, after France’s supporting vote, Qatar Sports Investments purchased PSG Football club and a Qatari firm bought a French energy and waste company. Yet French cities are refusing to screen matches in public areas, see the disconnect?
We might wonder why Qatar is so interested in hosting. Is it that bothered about making sure its team, which has never qualified since independence in 1971, can play (only to get knocked out at the group stage)? They are likely aiming for what has recently been coined as ‘sportswashing’. To give but one example, we can consider the takeover of Newcastle United last year, when the club bought by a Saudi Arabian entity for £305 million. This has provided Saudi Arabia with an influential position in English football and an opportunity to upgrade its public image and distract from its recent authoritarian abuses. It doesn’t take long to see why Qatar would also find this attractive.
Already international television crews have been banned from filming on residential properties, private businesses, government buildings, etc. Nothing other than the glistening games can be shown on our screens. This isn’t new of course and only last year a group of Norwegian journalists investigating migrant worker conditions were detained for 36 hours. This raises questions over how football institutions, players and fans should respond – whose responsibility it is to make sure football’s purpose doesn’t become soft power.
There are two main things players are currently protesting. First, is the criminalisation of homosexuality in Qatar, with punishments including fines, prison sentences of up to seven years and the death penalty. England’s Harry Kane and nine other captains plan to wear rainbow armbands – with England and Wales to set to defy FIFA if they are banned*. Australia’s Socceroos also recently released a video urging Qatar to decriminalise homosexuality, which has only been explicitly backed by Belgium and Denmark. We might want to consider that homosexuality is illegal in seven other countries competing.
Second, is the fact that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died working on the construction of the tournament according to a report by The Guardian in 2021. Qatar has since released records claiming just 37 people have died on-site, 3 of which were “work-related.” Since Qatar was awarded the games in 2010, migrants have built 7 new stadiums, an airport, roads and around 100 hotels. FIFA has a lot to answer for since they did not impose any conditions for Qatar to improve its labour welfare. An international campaign with the slogan #PayUpFIFA has risen in consequence. The EUFA working group has also been formed: a collective of nations publicly calling for a migrant compensation fund and the construction of a migrant workers’ centre in Qatar.
We might consider the actions of the players this year too little too late. During the qualifiers, Germany and Norway wore t-shirts displaying the message “HUMAN RIGHTS” and the Netherlands soon followed suit. Denmark’s team is also set to wear ‘protest jerseys’ that camouflage the badges because kit-provider Hummel “does not wish to be visible” in a competition that “has cost thousands of lives”. The European Football Federation promised more was coming that “just wearing a t-shirt”. What has come is rainbow ‘One Love’ armbands which are, quite literally, less than a t-shirt.
FIFA has dealt with the wave of protests by sending a letter to all the competing nations, imploring them to “let football take stage” and to not let the sport “be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”. This isn’t accurate and ignores the long tradition of athlete activism, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the 1968 Olympics to England’s Marcus Rashford combatting child hunger in the UK. The Qatari Cup chief Nasser Al Khater has asked people to “be respectful of the culture.” This is valid. Islamophobia and racism are rife and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line when it comes to holding one culture accountable to your own culture’s ideas of right and wrong. Nevertheless, ‘keep your nose out’ isn’t a defence when we are talking about 6,500 deaths going un-investigated and fans fearful of the country’s systemic (police) brutality against LGBTQ+ people.
Overall, the World Cup symbolise our incredible diversity and our common humanity. This is precisely why we can’t let authoritarian regimes hijack it or let FIFA appoint hosts without any accountability. The first step is to make this a World Cup to remember so we can look back at the notorious “2022 Qatar humiliation” – unlike the “2008 Beijing success”. Let’s remember this as we make our way to the pubs, layers on and pints in hand.
*Information correct at time of writing.