FIFA writes to all contestants urging them to ‘focus on the football’
The decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar was always controversial and as the competition approaches, temperatures have risen concerning the state’s human rights record and treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums and facilities, around 6,500 of whom have reportedly died. The FIFA president Gianni Infantino has written to the 32 competing nations asking them to ‘focus on the football’. He suggests further that they need ‘to respect all opinions and beliefs without handing out moral lessons.’ The FIFA General Secretary Fatma Samoura goes further and tells us that the food is great and ‘the tea is beautiful!’ She suggests, absurdly, that Qatar can be used as a ‘role model for other countries in the Gulf’.
The essential dispute is whether sport is a useful pressure point to improve the human rights of the host nations where events take place, or whether sport is simply being used to sanitise the reputations of dire regimes, in other words, sports washing. There is an argument for sporting events going to a country where the combination of visibility, media attention and the need to ‘put on a good face’ can have a positive effect on how individuals are treated. While this may be true in principle, it was hard to find such positive examples on a search through a range of sport-based campaign organisations who promote this idea such as the Centre for Sports and Human Rights. The IOC claimed to insert requirements into their contracts but the extent to which they outlast the actual competition has to be questioned.
Qatar has a range of problems on the human rights front. They include the kafala system which ties workers to their employers. We have mentioned the claim that around 6,500 have died building the facilities. The workers are barred from forming a trade union. FIFA has claimed that reforms have been introduced but there seems little sign of them in practice and enforcement seems minimal. Wage theft is common.
Women are treated poorly. The suffer under the guardianship system which means the permission of a male member of the family is needed to marry, travel or study abroad and divorced women are not permitted to be their children’s guardian.
Same sex relations are banned and are a crime. There is no freedom of expression.
FIFA’s statements seem to be at variance to the idea of sport having some kind of ambassadorial role. If the footballers are being asked not to wear armbands, nor to ‘hand out moral lessons’ as they put it and generally keep a low profile, where then is the pressure on the Qataris going to come from? They were joined by the UK’s foreign secretary James Cleverly MP who was quoted at saying, in connection with LGBT football fans heading for the competition, that they should be ‘respectful of the host nation’. Downing Street distanced themselves from this crass comment.
Another factor is how the competition will be reported. Sports reporting lives largely in a world of its own. The narrative is around how the home country is progressing, who is the favourite to win and facile interviews with the various participants about their performances on the field past and future. Life outside the stadium and hotel rooms are unlikely to get a mention. Will any of the sports reporters visit the squalid accommodation that the men who built the stadiums live in? Will the subservient status of women be mentioned? Since freedom of expression is substantially curtailed, none of this is likely to see the light of day. The reporters might reasonably argue we are here to comment on football not on social or human rights conditions.
There seems no escape from the fact that sport is being used by repressive or abusive regimes to enhance their reputations and the sports people are only too willing to play along. It’s not just football of course: tennis; boxing; golf; motorsport; cycling and athletics have all quite happily taken the money. The notion that sporting events are a force for good and the publicity they generate helps those abused by the regimes is fanciful at best. There seems little evidence of sustained benefit deriving from these major international sporting events. Claims are made but the power of money seems to trump any moral considerations and those with the power to make a difference are only too content to look the other way.
Sources: ITV News; HRW; Amnesty; Mirror; Daily Mail; UNSW Sidney