Bhen the European federations had seemingly endless meetings on Qatar and the pressure was mounting to produce something, there was one statement that stood out even more.
They were taking so long, a source insisted, because they wanted to do something with a lot more authority than “just wearing a t-shirt.”
They found literally less than that, in an armband. It picks up some of the colors of LGBT social movements without even naming them, and this in a country where male homosexuality remains illegal.
It’s impossible not to think that the latest moves are just ‘tick-box exercises’ that groups like the Business and Human Rights Resource Center have criticized football for. That’s why FairSquare has already said Wednesday’s statement “falls far short of the detail and specificity that World Cup-relevant countries need.”
It’s something else that comes out of football’s response. It must be said that some of the movements that come with the armband would normally represent positive steps.
It is good that they have at least acknowledged that compensation “should” be paid, that a center for migrant workers is set up and that the due diligence of suppliers is emphasized. Actors encountering some migrant workers might even be quite powerful – if highly context-dependent.
However, none of the other initiatives have the power they should have, as they need much more detail at this late stage. Rather, they are steps that should have been taken months ago, not just 60 days from the tournament, after so much discussion.
Consider the language around compensation. “Should” is not “must”. And so far only one federation – Germany – has backed Fifa’s campaign to match the $440m World Cup prize money with compensation for migrant workers. And this while the federations were expressly telling the various authorities that they had too many competing objectives and that it was better to go away and propose a collective objective. They did, and this is the response they got. Almost nothing.
Everything strikes again in football wanting to be seen doing the right thing but risking nothing. There is very little in any of this that puts pressure on Qatar or makes the hosts uncomfortable.
This is why Amnesty International recognizes the progress of the statement but immediately calls on the Football Association “to specifically support a Fifa compensation fund for abused workers and the families of those who died so that the World Cup has venue”.
Instead, Qatar is barely mentioned in a critical sense. And this is where we come to the crux of this whole issue.
Even before we get into the discussions of how the World Cup was won and sportwashing, the stark reality is that this highly politicized tournament could not have happened without the building of an infrastructure that inherently involved the abuse of migrant workers. The death toll would usually be added here, but that’s still impossible to say as Qatar still won’t conduct a proper investigation.
Despite all this, it now seems fairly widely accepted that it would be unfair to expect players or teams to boycott this tournament because they are not responsible for decisions made way above their heads. This might be the only chance at a World Cup for some, only for it to be in Qatar.
All of this is true and fair, but the obvious reality is always unavoidable. This understanding requires overt action. If someone goes to Qatar, he should use his considerable influence to force change, to bring about positive elements.
Football can still have an absolutely immense effect here. There may be an investigation conducted for workers, practices changed and compensation paid. This is why the sweetness of such statements, when time is running out, is so frustrating.
Many involved will point out the supposedly delicate diplomacy of it all. There is the fact that they have to work under Uefa and Fifa, that the collective positions are stronger. There’s the wider political situation, where Qatar has invested billions in Western European infrastructure, with that amid an energy crisis caused by a war sparked by the latest World Cup hosts. The circularity of it all is infuriating, and that’s precisely why the game should be so much better at it. Circumstances have rather diluted criticism, especially from politicians.
Even Gareth Southgate has spoken about how Westerners should be careful about imposing cultural norms on another country. But it goes beyond all that.
It’s about how a World Cup should never be staged at a human cost. This is why Amnesty rightly points out that ‘top football is hugely wealthy and genuinely influential’ and that ‘Fifa should have insisted on the human rights clauses when it initially assessed the candidacy of the Qatar at home”.
In 2022, such an event should be a joyous celebration of all that is good for humanity. This should not involve a single death, let alone any of the migrant workers who are suffering from this World Cup. And all for highly politicized sportswashing purposes.
The question for football is whether it just wants to participate passively or whether it wants to act. Are Qatar really going to be allowed to reap the great benefits of a mass event that has resulted in so much suffering, or are they going to be forced to experience even some backlash from the teams and players themselves? what is he trying to use?
It’s going to take a lot more than an armband. He just doesn’t have much time left.