One of the most jarring things is actually how casually it’s being said. After England and a series of other countries confirmed their place at the 2022 World Cup, the talk was naturally of “going to Qatar” as if that isn’t the utterly absurd prospect it seemed right up to December 2010.
That normalisation is of course key to sportswashing. A core idea is that these countries and their vehicles become such a part of everyday conversation that everyone forgets to keep asking questions.
And yet it still doesn’t sound right, because so much of it remains wrong.
There’s first of all the nature of how this World Cup bidding process was won, and all the questions around that.
There’s then that very sportswashing intention. This is football’s greatest show again being used for nakedly political purposes; like Argentina 1978; like Italy 1934.
Finally, and most pressingly, there’s the inherent nature of this World Cup.
It is quite a galling thought that it will be impossible to go to this tournament and be untouched by an infrastructure that is – to be blunt – stained by blood. The rates of “unexplained” deaths among construction workers – generally of South Asian and sub-Saharan African nationalities – are so high that it’s impossible to say how many have died as a result of negligence, and this deeply troubling pattern of deaths cannot be delinked from the abusive Kafala system that a UN report said “raises serious concerns of structural racial discrimination against non-nationals in Qatar”. This is exactly what taking the knee is supposed to be about.
This is all amid “indentured or coercive labour conditions”, according to that same UN report, that recall “the historical reliance on enslaved and coerced labour in the region”. On Tuesday morning, mere hours after England’s qualification, Amnesty released a report stating that labour reforms have “stagnated”. In other words, for all the lip service, not nearly enough is being done. Kafala may have been abolished in law but, as Amnesty’s report on Tuesday illustrates, it is very much alive in practice.
There is then the fact that all this is taking place in a country where both male homosexuality and campaigning for LGBT rights is illegal. Australia’s Josh Cavallo, the world’s only openly gay top-flight men’s footballer, has already said he would be “scared” to play in Qatar.
It feels like it should be a non-starter for an international sports event to be held in a country where some humans are discriminated against by law, but this is where football is. That is where its great show is going.
It is of course possible you just skimmed your eyes over the above because it’s relaying of the same problems with nothing different being done.
That is precisely why it is all the more important to repeat them now, as so many teams confirm their place in Qatar.
Some, like the England players, will soon have meetings to discuss how to handle all this. It is why it is of paramount importance to keep the most pressing issues on top of the agenda.
It has already long been decided by most NGOs and human rights groups that calling for a boycott is too far, and would also be to squander the opportunity for change offered by football’s immense power. There is similarly the inherent unfairness of players having to make huge career calls – particularly for what is potentially a once-a-lifetime privilege like the World Cup – because of decisions made by federations way above their heads. That doesn’t absolve them of facing up to the reality of all this, though, no matter how gleaming the facilities.
It is fair to say that there are so many problems around Qatar that it can feel a bit abstract and blurred for players.
Gareth Southgate touched on this when asked about the human rights issues in his press conference after the San Marino game. The PR line up to now has been that it would be premature for England to discuss any of it before they’ve qualified. That logic was arguably misplaced in any case, but has now run its course.
Southgate did at least start to address it, even if there was a lot of equivocation to his answer.
“I’ve been in some conversations as part of an FA delegation with people in Qatar, trying to get a better understanding of exactly the situation. We’ll obviously take the time to inform the players a bit more about what’s going on.
“We have to be certain who we’re speaking to, and what issues are important.”
As open as those statements are, there is a fair bit to unpick. Uefa and national federations have already been criticised within NGOs and human rights groups for not yet involving bodies like Amnesty in discussions.
“If you’re mainly talking to people in Qatar,” Fair Square’s Nick McGeehan argues, “you’re only getting one side of the story.”
There is a fear that has fostered a complacent idea within football that progress is being made, and the players need only make the vaguest of statements appealing to human rights concerns – as has pretty much been the case so far.
That would be a waste.
The players have a real power here. Football has a real power here. It is why Southgate’s statement that they need to figure out “what issues are important” is maybe more pertinent than he yet realises. While labour reforms and superior implementation of laws are issues where Qatar’s PR machine can very effectively muddy the waters, there is one area where Qatar’s failures are so clear that players can have huge influence.
Qatar currently isn’t investigating migrant worker deaths, and as a direct result of this, families not only get no answers as to why their relatives died but are denied proper compensation for their loss.
“This is one thing what players and federations can make a simple call for and where their voice could really make a difference,” McGeehan continues. “Investigation and compensation.
“It’s where the message can be strong. Why are these deaths not being investigated. Why is there no compensation?”
“Changes here would genuinely transform the lives of those kids who have lost families. It is achievable. It is a clear and simple message, that can generate momentum, and bring action. It is something that can potentially transform the lives of thousands of people.”
It should not transform the perception of this World Cup, but it is one area where players can bring genuine change; where football can actually be some force for good.
Right now, the next staging of its greatest tournament looks rather stained.
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