World Cup Opening Ceremony in Doha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  World Cup Opening Ceremony in Doha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons World Cup Opening Ceremony in Doha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons World Cup Opening Ceremony in Doha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From Fifa to the national teams, football has failed to stand up against injustice on human rights, argues Terina Hine

Overshadowed from the beginning by allegations of corruption and bribery, the 2022 football World Cup has finally kicked off. But rather than the sport itself reducing controversy, events around the opening matches have intensified it.

The English team, when challenged about playing a tournament in a country where migrants are routinely abused, where women cannot exercise basic rights without permission from male guardians, and where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment or death, insisted that the games were a platform from which such human-rights abuses could be challenged. Gareth Southgate said in March that he hoped the team would ‘use their voice’ and speak out against injustice.

Now their voices have been silenced. The small but clearly significant gesture of team captains wearing One Love armbands was abandoned at the first challenge. Wales and England, along with Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands had chosen the rainbow armbands to ‘speak out’ against human-rights abuses in Qatar. But in the end even an armband was too much. At the eleventh hour, under threat by Fifa of a sporting penalty, the captains caved in.

This spineless decision came just over a day after five people were murdered and 25 injured by a homophobic gunman who open fired in a LGBT nightclub in Colorado Springs, USA, and when footballs’ own LGBT+ supporters have stayed away from the World Cup for fear of their safety.

We already knew Fifa has no balls when it comes to Qatar. With only two days’ notice, AB InBev, the brewer of Budweiser, and sponsor of Fifa for the last 25 years to the tune of a billion dollars, was told that it would not be permitted to sell beer inside the stadiums in a clear contractual breach. Fifa put out a brief statement, with a barbed aside that fans could cope without beer for a few hours.

During the twelve years since Qatar won its World Cup bid, sixteen of the 22 Fifa executive members have been fined, suspended or formally charged with corruption. Supposedly, the organisation is under new management, but after the weekend’s bizarre ‘I am Spartacus’ performance by Fifa’s head, Gianni Infantino, and the recent contractual U-turns, it is clear that there remains something deeply dysfunctional at the heart of football’s governing body.

It is also totally out of touch with the fans. After all, it is not everyone who is unable to get a drink at the Qatar stadiums; those lucky enough to afford a seat in the £20,000+ hospitality boxes are promised ‘soft drinks, beers, Champagne, sommelier-selected wines, and premium spirits’, both ‘before, during and after’ the game.

Following the armband decision, fans from the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) put out a statement saying they felt ‘betrayed’, that Fifa is ‘an organisation that has shown its true values by giving the yellow card to players and the red card to tolerance.’ The 3LionsPride LGBT+ supporters’ group also put out a statement in which they said Fifa’s decision was ‘more than disappointing’, and that the body was suppressing free speech and tolerance. Fifa have spent years saying the World Cup is for everyone, but it clearly is not.

Protest is possible

Of course, the capitulation cannot be blamed solely on Fifa. If players had really wanted to make a stand they could have done so and defied the ban. An undeniably difficult and courageous act, but not an impossible one, and nowhere near as difficult or courageous as the stand taken by the Iranian team, Englands opposing side in their opening game.

In Britain, we have seen truly excellent political and moral stands taken by influential footballers in recent years. It wasn’t so long ago that Marcus Rashford forced the government’s hand on providing free school meals to hungry children in the holidays during the pandemic, and taking the knee prior to major matches has become a protest move highlighting racism in the sport for some time.

The genuinely brave act by the Iranian team, who refused to sing their countrys national anthem, risked far more than a yellow card. The repercussions could be life threatening. For the England and other team captains to cave in at the first sign of pressure shows the armband gesture was nothing more than that, a gesture. One response could have been for all players to sport the armband, they all could have become Spartacus. Fifa has much to answer for, but the players do too.

From the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa to Mohammed Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War, and the famous Black Power salute by African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, sporting figures have stood up to be counted. Ali lost his titles; Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team, suffered huge career setbacks and received death threats; we have yet to see what the repercussions will be for the Iranian football team. The England teams’ refusal to take a yellow card shows its true colours, and it does not make a rainbow.

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