The Football Fans Boycotting the Qatar World Cup 2022

“Even watching on television, you’d feel complicit.”

By: Will MageFor many football fans, Qatar 2022 feels like a tainted tournament. It’s been beset by controversy from the beginning: the bidding process which led to Russia and Qatar being awarded consecutive World Cups in 2010 was overshadowed by allegations of bribery, with FIFA, the game’s world governing body, engulfed in a maelstrom of corruption scandals and investigations in the aftermath (albeit not all directly connected to the bidding process).

In the time since, there has been intense scrutiny over Qatar’s human rights record. Human rights organisations have spent much of the last decade drawing attention to the treatment of the migrant workers labouring on the country’s World Cup infrastructure, much of which has had to be built from scratch at enormous financial, environmental and human cost. Same-sex relationships are also criminalised in Qatar, leaving many LGBTQ+ people anxious at the prospect of attending the tournament.

Football fans have long been asked to leave their ethics at the turnstile while watching the game, with sportswashing – the process of individuals, groups or states laundering their reputation through association with sport – more and more prevalent at both club and international level. Increasingly, though, it feels as if fans have had enough, with the repeated degradation of the game causing collective fatigue and anger.

In the build-up to Qatar 2022, there has been a groundswell of fans opting to boycott the tournament. Last year, a Norwegian grassroots campaign resulted in several of the countries’ biggest clubs openly calling for non-attendance. In Germany, fans across the Bundesliga have raised banners and displayed tifos advocating a boycott. Numerous local authorities across France, including in Paris, Marseille and Strasbourg, have refused to broadcast the tournament in public places or set up fan zones. Even some current and former players have said they will not be watching, including Eric Cantona and Lotte Wubben-Moy, a Euro 2022 winner with England.

Likewise, though not part of any formal campaign or movement, a growing number of fans have made a personal decision to switch off when the tournament begins. Here, in their own words, some of them explain their reasons. Some interviews have been conducted on a first-name only basis or under a pseudonym to protect their security. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

‘How can that be a World Cup for all?’

I don’t like the way that FIFA are trying to put pressure on people to like this World Cup. Meanwhile, members of the UK government [notably Foreign Secretary James Cleverly] are telling gay fans to go to Qatar but behave differently. That, to me, sends completely the wrong message, because surely the World Cup should be about freedom of travel and freedom of expression. For members of our government to basically be telling LGBTQ+ people: “Go to the tournament, but you’re putting yourself at risk”… How can that be a World Cup for all?

To me, it’s sportswashing at its worst. The whole thing is about money and it’s creating a massive disconnect between fans and the sport. I’m not against taking the World Cup to new places: bringing the tournament to South Africa [in 2010] was a really good idea, same goes for Japan and South Korea [in 2002], but I don’t intend to watch a single game of this World Cup. — Mark Lawford, lecturer at the University Campus of Football Business

‘Even watching on television, you’d feel complicit’

For me, solidarity with migrant workers underpins everything. Right from the beginning [when corruption allegations first came to light], I remember thinking: ‘This just isn’t right.’ Gradually, more and more started to emerge about human rights abuses. Coincidentally, at the same time, there was an upsurge in Welsh football, we did well in the Euros and it was like: ‘Ah, I’m going to have to make a big decision here.’ It’s cruel, because watching the World Cup is wrapped up in your childhood and obviously Wales hadn’t qualified for the tournament for a long time [since 1958].

Then everything started coming out [about the treatment of migrant workers] and I just thought: ‘Wow’. There’s the LGBTQ+ discrimination as well, which really upset me. I thought: ‘How could we do that to people?’ Even watching on television, you’d feel complicit.

It’s going to be really weird not watching it. I’m the kind of person who’s happy to let people know how I feel about it, but there are a lot of Welsh fans who are really excited and you don’t want to browbeat people or say: ‘You’re a dickhead for watching this’. They’ve spent all their adult life waiting for it! You can only try to educate people, not hit them over the head with it. – Ap Daffyd, Wrexham and Wales fan

‘Ignorance is bliss – but now it’s difficult to deny’

I live in Oslo and here in Norway there was a big movement to boycott this World Cup. It’s easy to make the joke that Norway didn’t qualify and are therefore boycotting anyway, but the protests and complaints began before the national team’s failure to qualify. The pressure on the Norwegian Football Federation to boycott began mostly as a protest against sportswashing: Norwegian clubs, managed by their members AKA supporters, began to demand that clubs were not to travel to do winter training in sportswashing countries, and were not to be sponsored by companies from the same nations… The campaign then took on a ‘Boycott Qatar’ manifesto and more pressure was put on the NFF.

As an Arsenal fan – after 15 years of going to the Emirates and wearing club gear with Fly Emirates on the chest – I became aware of my club’s involvement [in promoting the UAE, which also has a poor human rights record]. Ignorance is bliss – but now it’s difficult to deny. – Christopher Hylland, Arsenal fan

‘A lot of fans have just had enough’

Major sporting events have been awarded to countries with poor human rights records before, of course. But, in Qatar, the working conditions of the workers have been so thoroughly documented, and are in direct connection to the tournament, that it feels very tangible this time – more tangible than it has before.

I also think that a lot of fans have just had enough. Oppressive states buying some of the world’s biggest clubs, a myriad of issues surrounding Russia in 2018, UEFA putting showcase events in countries with oppressive regimes – at some point you have to take a stand about how you want your sport to be run.

A lot of friends I go to matches with won’t be watching. I’ve chatted about my stance with others but, for me, it’s a personal choice. After hearing the stories of workers, seeing the conditions they’re living and working in, knowing that some LGBTQ+ people don’t feel comfortable going – I’m just not interested in it. I thought this would be a difficult choice to make when the time came, but I really just have no interest in the tournament any longer. But I also think that it is unfair that football fans continue to have to make disorienting decisions like this, when they just want to watch their team play. – Curt Baker, SK Brann fan

‘I was brought up to respect people’

I was brought [up] to respect people no matter who they were and indeed where they came from. The stories that we have read about the treatment of migrant workers have been horrifying, as have some of the stories about how [the Qatari government] treat their own citizens. I simply will not support a country that does that and if that means missing six weeks of football, so be it. — Faith Fulcher, Liverpool fan

‘I can’t turn a blind eye to this’

When I started to read about labour practises in Qatar and how people had effectively been working under an indentured system, I started thinking: ‘I can’t turn a blind eye to this’. I have been a member of Amnesty for over a decade and so, to sit and watch a World Cup with the twin issues of what has happened with migrant workers and the treatment of LGBTQ+ people, I’d just be a complete hypocrite.

There are a lot of people – and I’m not judging them at all, because it’s not easy to ignore the World Cup if you’re a mad keen football fan – who recognise all the issues but are fine to sit and watch and carry on. Once it’s started, you can kind of adopt the approach of: ‘It’s too late to worry about it now as it’s started, so I’ll just go along with it and ignore it.’ Personally, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In football, money talks. I guess you could argue that it sold its soul so long ago in different ways, with dodgy owners of football clubs and so on.

Even so, if you get a World Cup that’s been awarded the way this one has and then you add onto that the nature of the exploitation going on, that’s something else. To get to the stage where it seems to be a case of: ‘Everyone has complained, but the stadiums are up now and it’s starting any minute so we’ll just have to accept it now’… that just doesn’t make sense. – Nathan, Fulham fan

 

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