By Samuel Pennifold
Football, the beautiful game, is by far and away the single most popular sport in the world. The game has an incomparable emotional hold over the world like nothing else. But at this World Cup, the love of fans everywhere is being played off with the legacy of corruption at FIFA, and a race to the bottom to criticise sportswashing and the trampling of human and LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar. This begs the questions; should we play in this World Cup? Should we watch this World Cup? And if I do watch this World Cup is it possible to do so in protest?
Football should be a global game; every continent, country, and culture should have equal and deserving opportunity to host international football matches and a World Cup – there is no universal reason why the Arab world and an Islamic country should not host a World Cup. Qatar is no exception to this, the history of nations to host the World Cup is after all not a clean one. Previous World Cups have been hosted by military juntas in Argentina and fascist leaders in Italy. Football is of course not alone in these problems, the 1936 Olympics were hosted in Nazi Germany. So even as the late great Jesse Owens, took home four gold medals for the US, it was Hitler who looked out over the scene.
Though as is often the case with the shrinking attention spans of people everywhere, previous cases of sportwashing have slowly crept away from our collective consciousness of what the Olympics and World Cup are. Our memory tells us that the World Cup is a celebration of all that is great about community, passion, and the nations participating in them. We do not remember the turn against Moacir Barbosa and the racism he experienced after Brazil lost the 1930 World Cup final to Uruguay; rather the inspiration a young Pelé would experience at the sight of seeing his father cry for Brazil, and how this would drive Pelé to come to embody the Brazilian flair and dominance we remember today. In many ways, the World Cup is a history of human failures as much as it is one of human success and triumph. Like the people who create it, the World Cup is a flawed entity.
But the political and moral outcry ahead of this year’s World Cup seems strikingly harsher and louder than before previous World Cups, why? Because World Cups are a temperature check of global geopolitical tension, and the world is on edge.
The effects of Coronavirus are hanging around like a bad flu. National leaders are struggling to unite around tackling climate change, even as we face the dire consequences of our inaction. We are all feeling the sharp pain of an imminent global recession driven by Putin’s aggression. And we are finding it ever more difficult to come together as political societies in the face of these growing issues. In many ways, the political and moral outcry of this World Cup is then a reflection of these rising global tensions and their impacts on all of us. Things that were once all so easy to enjoy have become minefields of complex social dynamics and interactions.
Qatar, however, is not just bearing the brunt of these challenges and changes in global attitudes as more and more people become prone to shouting matches in limited characters. There are well-founded and legitimate issues with this World Cup.
First, why is the World Cup in Qatar? The answer lies somewhere between a decades-long culmination of corruption in FIFA and the efforts of the Qatari state to use its massive natural gas and oil wealth to bribe football officials from around the world, and efforts to grow the game in parts of the world in which it has otherwise been neglected. We are yet to find out if the ends justifies the means for this World Cup.
Second, why is the World Cup being played now as opposed to the usual middle-of-the-year time slot? Well, after Qatar bought the World Cup, which is par for the course, they promised they would be able to build next-generation air-conditioned stadiums. Allowing players and fans to avoid the sweaty realities of the harsh Qatari summer. This was much harder and costlier than had been envisioned, and ultimately there was no other choice but for the World Cup to be hosted in the relatively colder months of November and December in Qatar.
Third, this World Cup has been built on the backs and blood of modern-day slaves. Conflicting numbers exist over how many people exactly have died. But at least 6500 is the party line of the opposition to this World Cup, as reported by the Guardian. Though, as Le Monde explains, it is difficult to accurately attribute an exact number of deaths to the World Cup. This is due, in part, to some estimates including cases of deaths of migrant workers on projects not directly related to the World Cup – hardly a glowing defence of Qatari labour laws – though potentially indirectly caused World Cup because of a construction boom in Qatar often attributed to the World Cup. A lack of autopsies for migrant workers following their deaths. And subpar record keeping by the embassies of migrant workers who have died. What is clear though is that people have died. Regardless of the number one death would be one too many, and the suspected thousands represent a serious tragedy.
Fourth, Qatar has an abysmal human rights record and LGBQT+ rights are close to non-existent in the country. This has been the most criticised issue of the World Cup, and the largest reason why many people have called for boycotts and protests of the World Cup. But it has also sparked intense debate about the imposing of secular and western value systems on Islamic countries. Multiple European nations had signed up for the Dutch OneLove campaign, where the captains of each nation would wear a rainbow armband. Such a move would be against FIFA rules. However, this week the France captain, Hugo Lloris, said he would not wear the armband as “when we are in France, when we welcome foreigners, we often want them to follow our rules, to respect our culture, and I will do the same when I go to Qatar, quite simply”, “I can agree or disagree with their ideas, but I have to show respect” finished Lloris. It is, of course, true in a growing number of European countries, including France and Switzerland where Islamic face coverings for women such as the Burqa are banned in public, regardless of if women choose to wear one anyway.
Much of this criticism, often from western media outlets and states, has been turned back on to those delivering it. Indeed, the likes of the US and the UK do not have spotless human and LGBTQ+ rights records, homosexuality was still illegal at the 1966 World Cup held and won by England (it was legalised for women and decriminalised for men in 1967 in England and Wales). Though such an attitude to suggest states like the US and UK cannot be critical of Qatar is indicative of a race-to-the-bottom mentality that all too easily allows issues to go unchallenged. We aren’t competing to be the worst. People in glass houses can throw stones because perhaps what we build to replace it will be better.
As we stand on the verge of the World Cup, FIFA and its current malign president, Gianni Infantino, have pleaded with teams to not protest. I suggest players, fans, and the media do the exact opposite. Make as much noise as possible, and do not just direct this noise at Qatar but at ourselves. Football, and sport at large, should be a tool for change – and we need to use it. At no other time in the four-year World Cup cycle are so many people watching the same thing. This World Cup can be a chance to support those in Qatar who protest every day and potentially risk their lives for change. The World Cup is also a chance for introspection. In the UK it is a chance to highlight why we need to provide more support for economically and racially marginalised communities because when we do these people such as Rashford and Henderson can truly become the best of us. In the US it is a chance to highlight the assault on women’s rights. Every country going to the World Cup has its issues and so often they can be shown through the beautiful game.
So, watch the World Cup, or don’t watch the World Cup. It does not matter, that is not the issue. The hosts have made their money, and the money lost from fans not watching is insignificant for the multi-million and billion-dollar advertising companies for whom the World Cup is nothing more than an economic exercise. What we must do is keep talking, keep protesting, and keep on striving for better. Unlike 1936 and 1978, we need to make sure the tragedies of this World Cup have not swept away from our collective consciousness. History tells us this is truly the World Cup, but we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past this time. We must use this World Cup as a turning point when we finally, like we are in so many other places, acknowledge the politics of it and use this to produce meaningful and effective change.