FIFA will surely fear an 11th hour boycott of Qatar

FOOTBALL can be a peculiar game. On one hand, people get outraged about the most trivial of matters and are ready to appoint scapegoats, sack managers and jeer opponents, yet the really serious issues are often ignored.

With less than six months before the controversial Qatar World Cup, there’s no sign of a concerted protest or plan of action to demonstrate the global disgust at the Gulf state’s human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.

Players talk of using a “platform” to send their message, but in truth, there is probably not a single player who would sacrifice the chance to play in the World Cup. The lack of cojones is incredible. Whatever happened to the days of non-aggressive action, where key athletes boycotted the Olympics and countries made a stand?

Premier League players are still taking the knee, still wearing rainbows on their sleeve and declaring their affiliation with just causes. That’s not to criticise their feelings on major topics, but while they will show their support for as nation that has been invaded and violated, they will also quickly line-up to align themselves with the military.

Qatar 2022, as a World Cup, is already tainted beyond belief. The process of awarding the competition in the first place, the state’s politics and social climate, which goes against so many of football’s values and aspirations, and not to mention the environment, make it an inappropriate venue. We all know the score by now.

The hypocrisy goes on; some of the Welsh national team’s staff have openly stated they will not go to Qatar, yet the team will not boycott the event, using that word “platform” as a ticket for non-action. In all probability, and this also applies to England, it would seem probable that the teams will be visible in their messaging other than a carefully-scripted letter full of platitudes and the bleeding obvious. Interestingly, some sponsors of national teams – such as Belgium and Netherlands, have take away their support.

Today, the prospect of a nation acting alone to express its concern is unlikely, but what would happen if a major country did withdraw? It could be a case of a collapsing deck of cards. Why? Because if, for example, Germany decided not to go, any team remaining on the aeroplane would be seen as supporters of Qatar. It would become contagious, with other countries following the example led by that first withdrawal.

Regardless of political stance, the situation in Qatar cannot possibly be seen in any way; acceptable. Amnesty International is calling for FIFA to contribute to workers’ compensation from the proceeds of the competition. When you consider the amount spent on the World Cup some (US$ 200 billion) and the total FIFA anticipates to generate (US$ 6 billion), then the call for around US$ 400 million to make its way to compensation deals seems reasonable.

Let’s not forget how difficult life can be for migrant workers in Qatar. “We work from January to January, Sunday to Sunday. No days off. If you absent yourself, they will deduct two or more days wages,” said one worker.

This is just one example of the hard-line regime. But in this age of increasing acceptance and inclusion, Qatar still lags behind. Homosexuality is illegal and can earn you seven years imprisonment, women are supressed in many ways and are effectively punished for divorce by having their children taken out of their care and freedom of expression is prohibited.

Against this backdrop, it is not only teams that should swerve clear of Qatar, supporters should also consider the wisdom of attending the World Cup. If they have values and believe in freedom of speech and personal choice, they should think again. Many will not, of course and will pour money into an economy that is built on slave labour, discrimination and autocracy. When we will ever learn?

Soccer City: Doha – controversial World Cup base

QATAR’s World Cup is rapidly approaching and there will doubtless be renewed protests about FIFA’s choice of host before the competition kicks off in November. Football is supposedly the most popular sport in Qatar and the national team was crowned Asian champions back in 2019, beating Japan in the United Arab Emirates. Doha, the capital, dominates local football, hardly surprising given around 80% of the country’s population resides there.

The western perception of Qatar has not been positive, hence the strength of feeling about their hosting the World Cup. While some might claim there is an element of Islamophobia about this, it is predominantly down to Qatar’s human rights record. Other critics of 2022 merely believe that a country with an average temperature of 28 degrees and a summer peak approaching 50 is far from being an ideal place to hold a major competition. The only way it could really happen was by moving away from the traditional summer calendar for the World Cup and staging it in the European winter, which will bring major disruption to domestic league programmes. The stadiums will have technology to ensure players and spectators are comfortable – we’ve come a long way since Mexico was viewed as a dangerous place for the Olympics and World Cup due to the altitude and climate.

Qatar is determined to give the World Cup its best shot, however, and their own team will go into the competition as Asian champions. But World Cup officials feel very aggrieved that sentiment has been so negative and point to the countless investigations that have taken place looking into the hosting process and any signs of corruption. There are issues that just won’t go away no matter how much they complain, such as the treatment of migrant workers and zero tolerance towards homosexuality, but unless something dramatic happens, Qatar 2022 is going ahead.

Doha, understandably, is the centre of the Qatar economy and is the headquarters of Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and RasGas. Oil and natural gas are the major industries of Qatar and the country is a top four producer of the latter. Unsurprisingly, Qatar is one of the worst places in the world for air pollution and one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per person.

Doha clubs have won 40 of the 57 seasons of the Qatar Stars League. The most successful team, Al-Sadd, has been the club of the upper classes in Qatar. Founded in 1969, they have been champions 16 times and have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 1989 and 2011. Little wonder their nickname is Al Zaeem, which means “the boss”. The Qatar squad that won the Asian Cup included nine players from Al-Sadd.

Al-Sadd have just won the league for the second successive season and finished unbeaten, as they did in 2021. They won 20 of their 22 games and scored 80 goals, conceding just 24. They started the campaign managed by Barcelona legend Xavi, who left Al-Sadd to rejoin his old club in November 2021. His replacement was Javi Gracia and the Spanish connection also includes Santi Cazorla, the former Arsenal and Villareal midfielder. The prize for winning the Qatar Stars League is the Falcon Shield, which may sound like a superhero tool, but underlines the popularity and importance of falconry in the region – it is the national bird of Qatar.

Al-Arabi, founded in 1952, is the second oldest club in Qatar and their crest features a ceremonial falcon. They’ve been champions seven times, although you have to go back to 1997 for the last time they won the title. Their fans are very passionate, especially when they come up against their closest rivals, Al-Rayyan.

Al-Sadd’s big rivals are Al-Duhail, known as the “Red Knights” and only founded in 2009 as Lekhwiya. The club, apparently, has the biggest playing budget in Qatar. Included in their squad is former Tottenham defender and Belgian international Toby Alderweireld. Al-Duhail finished runners-up to Al-Saad in the league but held their Doha rivals to two draws. They also knocked Al-Saad out of the Emir Cup at the semi-final stage. Al-Duhail have long been considered the club of the working class people and have won the Qatar Stars League seven times, the most recent being in 2019-20. Another Doha club who haven’t won the league for a long time are Al-Ahli, a relatively well supported outfit who claim to be the oldest club in Qatar. Founded in 1950, their trophy cabinet has never been full, the only major prize they’ve won is the Emir Cup, which they have lifted four times. Qatar SC, based at Doha’s Suheim bin Hamad Stadium, dates back to 1961 from a merger of two clubs and have won the league three times, the most recent success in 2003.

There will be three stadiums in Doha that will be used for the World Cup: the innovative Stadium 974, constructed from recycled shipping containers with a capacity of 40,000; the Al-Thumama, another 40,000 arena inspired by the taqiyah hat; and the recently converted Khalifa International Stadium. All are very eye-catching designs and in the case of the 974, after the World Cup it will be dismantled and sent to Africa. The construction process has not been without its problems, though, as there have been a number of deaths among the workforce, the exact details of which vary from witness to witness. This has been one of the main arguments against Qatar hosting the tournament.

We are told Qatar is a football-mad country, but the crowds for the Qatar Stars League are poor and issues such as climate have been cited as a deterrent.  In 2019-20, for example, Al-Sadd averaged around 1,500 and Al-Gharafi just 266. Qatar, the nation, clearly has an interest, as seen with the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain and other club sponsorship deals. They’ve made progress in encouraging women’s football and have installed academies to develop young talent, but no matter how many well-known names they engage to tell everyone the World Cup is going to be great, not everyone is buying it. 

Qatar 2022: The time for protest may have gone

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. 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA Images