Imagine. You turn on your tv and a show is just starting that you’ve never seen before. During the intro a voice-over tells you: “This show was made possible by slaves. Their owners make money when you watch it.” Almost everyone would immediately switch channels.
But what if we add the following sentence: “What you’re going to see in the next two hours is your favorite football team, playing at the World Cup.” Would you still refuse to watch? Even though you’ve been waiting for years to see your team (in my case it’s The Netherlands) at this level? Even though you know all your friends and family are glued to the screen and tomorrow at work this will be the hot topic at the coffee machine?
Many a football fan faces this dilemma when it comes to the World Cup in Qatar. They know right from wrong and they oppose human rights abuse. But when they have to do – or not do – something to stand up for those rights, their principles might be less important than watching their team play.
And can you blame them? Footballers, officials and corporations aren’t exactly setting a great example. They have the same attitude of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Qatar has been criticized for over a decade, but not a single national football federation has decided to boycott the tournament. Big clubs like my native Ajax and PSV, or German giants Bayern Munich, take lucrative trips to the Gulf State. Famous players like James Rodriguez and Santi Cazorla ply their trade in the Qatari League, while Ronald de Boer, David Beckham, Cafú and other former stars serve as ambassadors. Multinational organisations are still sponsoring the World Cup en masse.
This makes it easy for me as a fan to think: if nobody does anything about it, why should I? In 2018 I knew full well how dubious Russia was as a host nation, but I watched almost all matches. I thoroughly enjoy those four weeks of football every once in four years, why should I let that be taken away from me?
But shortly after Putin’s World Cup, the documentary The Worker’s Cup[i] put my enjoyment into a different perspective. In it, we follow several workers building stadiums and infrastructure in Qatar. Their work weeks are endless, temperatures hover around 40º C, they share tiny living quarters with ten people, get paid below minimum wage (if they get paid at all) and they can’t return home.
The most tragic story is that of 21-year-old Kenneth from Ghana, who dreams of becoming a professional football player. A ‘scout’ in his homeland told him he could go on trial with a team from the Qatari league, but when he arrived in the country he was sent to a worker’s camp. Now he can’t quit his job, let alone return to Ghana. But then a shimmer of hope appears! The sheiks are organizing a football tournament, ‘The Worker’s Cup’, in which teams of workers will play each other while pro teams watch them in search for young talent. This could be a way out! We see Kenneth desperately trying to stand out while the Qatari ruling class enjoy themselves from the stands.
The longer the documentary went on, the more I felt like I was watching a real life version of The Hunger Games. I already knew about all the issues in Qatar, but this was the final straw. I decided that in 2022 I wasn’t going to watch a single match, highlight or other World Cup-related content. I will not be a part of this.
But when, in the years after, The Netherlands managed to qualify for the tournament after all, I started to doubt my decision a little. A couple of questions popped up in my head:
- First of all, is this World Cup really that bad?
- And is this World Cup so much worse than previous iterations, like the ones in Russia (2018) or Argentina (1978)?
- Won’t this World Cup lead to improvements concerning human rights in Qatar?
- Won’t this World Cup turn out to be a disaster for the Qatari, because of all the bad publicity?
- And why should football do anything about these problems? Sports and politics don’t mix, right?
- Moreover, isn’t it too late by now? The stadiums are finished, the game is on. What can we do about it now?
- If I individually choose not to watch, what difference does that make?
- And how about The Netherlands? We’re finally back at The World Cup, do I really want to miss this?
For each of these questions I was hoping to find a reassuring answer, but after researching each topic I’m sticking with my decision not to watch. Why? Let me show you my thought process by answering each question, maybe you’ll come to understand me. And if you still turn on your tv this winter and don’t switch channels, that’s your decision. I just hope you’ll make it consciously and based on all relevant information. I could help with that.
[i] The Worker’s Cup Film. http://www.theworkerscupfilm.com/
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