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World Cup 2022 – Opinion: Qatar boycott campaign is chance for football to save its soul


Even the most passionate advocates of a boycott of the Qatar 2022 World Cup know that the tournament will take place in the emirate a year and a half from now, and that it is likely that none of the nations which will have qualified for it will turn their invitation down – unless Norway, currently 4th of UEFA’s Group G, manage to scrape through and then decide to stay away.

This begs the question: why, then, call for a boycott which stands close to no chance of being successful?

The answer to this is simple. In this particular case, what matters the most, apart from highlighting the appalling human cost of building the infrastructure needed to host the World Cup and welcome a projected 1.5m fans in the autumn of 2022, is the process itself.

For those who initiated the movement in Denmark and Norway, the success of their campaign would not be measured by the number of countries – if any – that would refuse to take part in a tainted tournament. Rather, it would be judged on how the movement would spread, first at home, then to other countries; and, in this regard, the campaign has already exceeded initial expectations. The boycott is now the subject of a growing debate in most of Europe, and it is only a question of time before it spreads further.

Its aim is to force football, and that is all of football: fans, players, clubs, officials, FAs, confederations and, above all, FIFA, to look at themselves and at what they have become, how they have allowed, and sometimes encouraged, football to turn into a vehicle for sportswashing, a sport which will sacrifice its moral integrity for the sake of a few millions more, whilst, in the same breath, pretending to promote human dignity, advocate fairness and equality, stand for human rights, everywhere. That’s what the slogans and the t-shirts say, anyway.

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But whether we like it or not, in 2021 as in 1978, when the Mundial took place in Argentina, the award of a major sporting event to a country, any country, also constitutes a vindication of its regime, a recognition that it is at least, if not a model, a valid and valued actor in the concert of nations. This is exactly why Qatar bid for the 2020 Olympics before moving on to football, and why it has organised a bewildering number of sporting events across almost all disciplines since identifying sport as the best means to polish its image and promote itself (and why neighbouring countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have done exactly the same).
Qatar’s image needed a lot of polishing. This absolute monarchy is also a de facto apartheid state, in which the migrant workers which compose 88% of the population enjoy close to no civic rights and are exploited in conditions which NGOs have referred to as a modern-day slavery. A hugely impactful investigation by The Guardian established that – at least – 6,500 deaths had occurred in the migrant workforce since Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup on 2 December 2010.
It is worth reminding that the number of migrant workers present in the emirate has doubled since that date, to illustrate how it is impossible to separate what is directly linked to football from what is not. Hotels are needed as well as stadiums. Transport links. Shops. Restaurants. A whole new infrastructure, of which the new town of Lusail City (with a projected population of 200,000) will be the most spectacular asset. Football and the World Cup constitute the basis of this project of renewal. It is in itself an admirably ambitious vision: the shame is that it requires the actual sacrifice of thousands of lives, and the hardship endured by millions more, who will never be allowed to partake in its benefits, save for a monthly salary of potentially as low as $250 in a country where the nominal annual GDP per capita is of $66,000.
Joshua Kimmich, happy as he was to sport a ‘HUMAN RIGHTS’ t-shirt before Germany’s WC qualifiers two weeks ago, said that the boycott campaign was happening “ten years too late”. He was not wrong; but he was not right either. It is too late to prevent the event from taking place; but it is not too late to make sure that when it does, the right questions are asked, and, especially, that the same mistake is not made twice.

Human rights NGOs were quick to flag the glaring flaws in Qatar’s candidacy before FIFA’s Executive Committee succumbed to heaven knows what temptations and gave it their seal of approval in 2010. Hardly anyone echoed their warnings, as hardly anyone believed Qatar could be chosen. Then it was, as Kimmich said, too late for the kind of campaign which would have seen FAs deciding to give the tournament a miss – but not too late for the kind of campaign which is happening now, which is entirely different from the threats of boycott made towards Russia 2018 after the Salisbury poisonings.

Then, the United Kingdom was at the forefront of what was a reaction of established powers towards a rogue Kremlin conducting state-sponsored assassination attempts on their soil. This is different. This is not one of these boycotts to which the Olympic Games have been subjected on a number of occasions, the consequence of tit-for-tat diplomacy. This is a campaign which started from the grassroots, and originated in one of the very rare countries – Norway – where fans genuinely can control what is happening at their federation’s level.

On 20 June, a specially-convened extraordinary General Assembly should sanction Norway’s decision to say ‘no’ to Qatar 2022, regardless of what the Norwegian FA’s officials would like to happen. The fans are in favour of the boycott, and so are the country’s most popular and most titled clubs, such as Viking, Brann and Rosenborg. It is likely that no-one else will follow suit. But a precedent will have been set. Fans will have made a first step towards reclaiming what should always remain their football. Qatar – once again, the regime, not the country – will know that they will be under scrutiny like never before, and there will be other fights to fight, other campaigns to organise, to make sure that it will not happen again. That, next time, it will not be ‘too late’.

As, next time, in 2030, FIFA has opened the door for China to bid for the World Cup. What little soul there is left in football can still be saved.



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