Boycott Qatar 2022? Now may be the time

ENGLAND and assorted others have now qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. No matter how big the PR budgets are, nobody is ever going to be over-convinced about the suitability of Qatar as a host. Two years on from the 2019 film made by Gary Neville, it’s still hard to be assured that “this could be a great World Cup”. 

England players take the knee before every game these days and they want to make a point, be it political or social. How, then, can they seriously travel to the Middle East to take part in a World Cup staged in a state that has a notorious human rights record? It is all very well issuing statements that the squad will review their position on Qatar before they go to the World Cup, but these are hollow gestures. If footballers want to be taken seriously, they have to show their displeasure at FIFA awarding Qatar the competition.

If any of the major countries withdrew, it could trigger a mass exodus. Let’s be frank, if one nation does it, the others will feel they have to follow otherwise they risk being seen as a supporter. That might not be the case, but the modern way, be it socially, politically, emotionally or financially, is “you’re either with us or against us”. They should all ask themselves, “would I visit Qatar on my own free will?” and the answer would probably be “I doubt it”.

There’s no question that Qatar will include some spectacular stadiums, state-of-the-art facilities, high technology and anything a fan would need, apart from freely-available alcohol. The fan parks will fill that need to some extent, but it does seem as though a couple of weeks in Qatar will come with lots of caveats.

The employment reforms promised in Qatar have, apparently stalled according to a report from Amnesty International, with thousands of migrant workers still victims of exploitation. The notorious Kafala system, which binds workers to their employer, continues to hold a huge influence. Workers have also had problems getting paid and have suffered from employers cancelling their residency permits.

Mark Dummett of Amnesty said: “Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, but its economy depends on the two million migrant workwers who live there…. By sending a clear signal that labour abuses will not be tolerated, penalising employers who break laws and protecting workers’ rights, Qatar could stage a tournament that we can all celebrate, but this has yet to be achieved.”

Amnesty is calling on Qatar to push through the full range of reforms it committed to implement and hold the perpetrators of worker abuse to account. As for FIFA, the governing body should conduct appropriate due diligence on human rights.

Interestingly, FIFA and the World Cup has its usual palette of high profile partners: Adidas, Coca-Coila, VISA, Hyundai and Macdonalds to name but a few. How do they feel about being associated with a competition that has been tainted since day one?

With this grubby backdrop, how can players who have [rightly] shown their intolerance of racism go to Qatar and help such a regime make World Cup 2022 a success? Moreover, how can they support FIFA for its somewhat dubious process of awarding the competition to them in the first place? The hypocrisy is really quite appalling and shows that football will easily elbow morality in the face if it is convenient.

Can an eleventh hour solution of some sort be found? If Qatar, for example, renounced its approach and proclaimed the World Cup as the start of something new, a sea change in the country’s social and political structure, that might help. But those that intend to go to the World Cup should ask themselves, do you care what happens in Qatar when the bunting comes down and the propaganda stops? In 1936, not everyone knew what was happening in Hitler’s Germany when the Olympics were held in Berlin, but in our time, we are aware of almost everything and therefore, to ignore is merely adopting the ostrich mentality.

Football thugs, vaccines and 2022

IT has been a dire couple of years for the world and a challenging period for football at all levels. And it seems to be getting worse for the beautiful game – violence off the pitch, financial chaos at many clubs, a lack of cooperation around covid vaccination and to cap it all, Qatar 2022 is drawing closer.

The return of thuggery

We shouldn’t be too surprised about the behaviour of Hungary’s fans at Wembley, but given they fought with police, how come only one arrest was made? The country has a leader, Victor Orban, who has been eroding Hungary’s democratic system by implementing an authoritarian regime that some critics call “soft facism”. At the same time, he has encouraged the construction of new football grounds and around 10 of Hungary’s top clubs are owned or run by his acolytes. The behaviour of the Hungarian fans was appalling, but we should not kid ourselves that they are the only bad news in the modern game – on the same night, Albanian fans threw bottles at Poland’s players and forced a 20 minute delay. We’ve also seen issues with Czech fans in their games with Rangers this season. But let’s not forget the events at Wembley during Euro 2020. 

Something has changed and it may be part of the economic cycle that became in 2008. There’s been an upturn in right wing sentiment and xenophobia, partly driven by macroeconomic conditions, protectionism, the global migrant crisis and political instability. Although in terms of the numbers involved (with the exception of the Euro final) we have not returned to the late 1970s and 1980s, there is something very sinister about it all. The penalties have to be harsher and proper searches have to take place outside stadiums. The last thing we need as the game opens up once more is the worst elements of the football experience coming to the fore. UEFA, Orban, FIFA, sort it out, please.

The selfishness of the myopic player

Apparently, two-thirds of all Premier League footballers have not had the covid-19 vaccine. A mix of complacency, misguided indestructibility and misinformation have hindered the vaccination process, even though some prominent players from the past have died from covid-related illness. Some players have been spouting anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, much to the disgust of their clubs. Have they forgotten that football has been played in empty stadiums and fans have been unable to attend until the vaccine was rolled out and adopted? The problem is, a lot of players are social media addicts and there is a her mentality among dressing rooms. Pat Nevin, a former player with a social conscience, is not impressed: “Football players have had so many benefits over this period of time. Everyone has bent over backwards to get football back on. To not then be vaccinated and help secure other people’s safety as well as their own, I’m gobsmacked, I’m really upset about it.” Perhaps it is time for fans to show their feelings about players who have refused to be vaccinated?

The hypocrisy of Qatar 2022

Denmark and Germany booked their place for the 2022 World Cup but their players are far from comfortable about the competition being held in Qatar. Denmark captain Simon Kjaer has publicly stated that the Danish squad are emphatically against the World Cup being hosted there but will leave the politics to the DBU (Danish FA) to deal with. In theory, England’s players should boycott the competition given they have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their zero tolerance approach to racism by taking the knee. Yet if they felt that strongly, surely they should refuse to play in a nation that has a poor human rights record? Hypocrisy, of course, is no stranger to football, as we saw this past week in Newcastle. Being owned by a state that executed almost 200 people in 2019 is one thing, but celebrating it takes the discomfort to a new level. Time and time again, football lets itself down.

Russian football’s soul doesn’t need to be in a dark place 

OVER the past couple of weeks, Russia’s Spartak Moscow were ushered out of the UEFA Champions League and Sochi and Rubin Kazan eliminated from the UEFA Conference League. While Spartak are able to seek refuge in the Europa League, the others go back to their domestic football programme to consider what might have been. Meanwhile, 2021 champions Zenit are still in the Champions League and Moscow’s Lokomotiv will compete in the Europe alongside Spartak.

For a country that is the world’s largest, with 145 million people, Russia’s football seems pretty dismal. True, Zenit are Champions League regulars, but they do have the mighty Gazprom behind them. Of the current Premier League constitution, 10 clubs have some form of state-ownership and six are privately-owned (CSKA, Spartak, Rubin, Sochi, Dynamo and Krasnodar). Some clubs are still burdened by the Soviet legacy of local government control, which brings with it financial and bureaucratic hurdles. It is such a varied mix that nobody ever talks about even playing fields in Russia, it is the survival of the fittest and at the moment, Russian football doesn’t look healthy. 

There is, of course, a cloud hanging over Russian sport in the form of a ban that will prevent the nation from playing in the 2022 World Cup under their own name. If they do manage to qualify, and it is by no means a certainty, then they will have to play under a neutral flag, whatever that means. Russia are currently 41st in the FIFA rankings. In July, they appointed Valery Karpin as their coach in a bid to secure a place in Qatar in some shape or form. If he fails, he may not be in the job for long.

Russian clubs, in terms of financial strength, should be in better shape. In 2019-20, the combined income of Russia’s clubs totalled € 877 million, which was more than Turkey, Netherlands and Portugal, the other leading leagues outside the big five. It should also be noted Russia’s economy is the fifth largest in Europe.

Like many leagues, the gambling industry has shown a liking for Russian football and around half the clubs in the Russian Premier League have some connection with betting companies. Others are sponsored by the oil or gas sector or financial services, such as Dynamo Moscow (VTB Bank).

The new president of the Russian Football Union, Aleksandr Dyukov, has a nine-year plan to energise Russian football. He talks of better club participation in Europe and improved rankings for the national team. But the problems surrounding Russia are manifold, not least the very restrictive foreign player limits, which might have had honourable intentions but merely make Russian teams uncompetitive. Dyukov is not an advocate of the limit, which currently allows clubs to have eight foreigners in their squad. 

Removing the limit will bring Russia more in line with the rest of Europe, but clubs also need to benefit from overseas investment and move away from state ownership. Furthermore, they need to monetise their academies to produce a conveyor belt of talent that can be developed at home for their own teams – thus avoiding expensive transfer fees – or sold in the market. Many clubs across Europe, notably in Portugal and the Netherlands, have become very adept at player trading – Russia is in the same bracket as these countries and could become a major nursery for training and nurturing young talent. At present there are fewer than a dozen Russian players in the top five European leagues, while most of their exports go to Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. In total, there are under 200 Russians playing abroad, lower than countries like Ukraine and Croatia.

There is an argument that the globalisation of football has created so many imbalances, but it is either a case of join the party or be left out in the cold. At present, Russia is trailing behind, but it has the raw materials to become a force in football, as the old Soviet Union was when it was at its peak. But it will surely need nine years to get it right, for huge units take their time to turn. With its vast population, enthusiasm for football and strong heritage, Russian football should be in a far better place. Will anyone be patient enough for the long haul?