FIFA HANDING the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was never going to be an easy fit, but the football community has had a decade to get used to the idea and to formulate its complaints, actions and spirit of disapproval. Nothing has changed, Qatar is still an uncomfortable gig but the first point of angst – the timing and climate – has really been solved. We can actually thank covid-19 for demonstrating that the football calendar can be moved and adjusted.
But the elephant in the room is, and has always been, the suitability of Qatar as the venue for a global football competition along with the country’s poor human rights record. In an age when players have been taking a knee in support of anti-racism, the prospect of those same people travelling to a country where racism, sexism and homophobia are rife, has clearly hit a raw nerve. Now, some 10 years after Qatar was dubiously awarded the right to play mine host, the protests have started.
Is it too late? Certainly, if major football nations had a problem with Qatar, they should have made it heard a lot sooner and more vigorously. Qatar were not narrow winners in the selection process, they won the final round of votes 14 to 8, squeezing past the United States. Regardless of stories about bribery and corruption, FIFA should have been aware of possible global resistance. Surely they didn’t expect to roll it through without a hitch?
If, for example, countries like England, Germany, Spain or Italy, not to mention Argentina and Brazil, made a stand, FIFA would surely have to act? A World Cup robbed of the top nations on the planet would be grossly devalued and the commercial appeal would be seriously diluted. But would they have the courage to confront FIFA? It is doubtful. Nobody would want to upset FIFA for fear of reprisals. Furthermore, football has shown, time and time again, that everyone, from clubs to fans, is afraid of missing out or losing their place at the table.
Football may be a huge worldwide industry, but it is also a drug that people cannot get enough of. Take the pricing system at top level football in Britain. Clubs ask their fans to pay exhorbitant admission prices and they moan, but they do not show their displeasure in the most effective way – with their feet. Why? Because they know that if they don’t attend, there is always someone in the lengthy queue to take their place.
Likewise, the whole subject of human rights is one that has largely been ignored. If people cared about the issue enough, they would surely boycott clubs that are owned or sponsored by regimes or companies who don’t know how to treat people properly. For every supporter group with political affiliations or with a social cause agenda, there are millions of fans who only want to see their club compete financially and, above all, win at all costs. Why else would fans tolerate successful teams who play negative, soul-destroying football, or cheer hired millionaires running around the pitch that have little affinity with the club they play for?
Why would club owners who have reputations for ill-treating employees be applauded because they fund the success that keeps the masses happy? Put simply, the devotion to a club is the most important thing to many supporters, they don’t want to think about how they got there, how their club owner generated his or her money and the political stance of the state they might represent.
Qatar is not actually the worst place in the world for human rights, but it is way behind the bulk of the top footballing nations in terms of freedom, personal and economic rights and civil liberties. The recent report by the United Nations highlighted the historical reliance on enslaved labour, but it is hard to establish exactly how many workers have died or sustained injuries in the building of the World Cup campus. Qatar has two million migrant workers, many of whom operate under the Kafala system which prevents movement between jobs. The figures relating to deaths range from 6,500 to 34, depending on who is giving you the statistics.
Aside from FIFA, who claim they will not permit non-sporting protests, the World Cup’s corporate partners cannot be happy with the situation. Whether they like it or not, they will be indelibly linked to Qatar 2022 and the gathering storm. Even though major companies have mission statements that champion human rights and fair play, some have included this as part of their corporate mantra only after being accused of bad practice.
We have seen in recent years, that football will grab cash wherever it can, often looking the other way when there are moral issues at stake. The close association between the Premier League and the gambling industry, although a concern, pales into insignificance when compared to World Cups being played in countries considered to be “not free”.
Of course, we have been here before. Boycotts are not new to the World Cup, either. African nations withdrew for 1966 and Russia pulled out of a play-off for 1974 as they were facing Chile in a stadium of ill repute. But this is a little different as there are no secrets in the modern world, there is no dark corner of the host city that the regime can easily hide its crimes and misdemeanours. There will always be a social media posting that unveils skullduggery.
But as Joshua Kimmich of Bayern Munich said, protests may be “10 years too late”. Global indifference has been the general story of the past decade, but now the qualifiers are underway, people are looking beyond the distraction of the pandemic and focusing on the injustice. Qatar has certainly made steps in building its football presence, but even if Paris Saint-Germain win the Champions League playing carefree, wondrous football and Qatar 2022 becomes a resounding success, the inquest will rage on. The precedent it could set is really quite troublesome.
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