6. The World Cup won’t be cancelled. What can we do about it now?

Let’s summarize. We have a World Cup on our hands that’s been made possible by unprecedented human rights abuses which wouldn’t have taken place if the tournament hadn’t been held in Qatar. The international community hasn’t done much to force the country to improve the situation, so virtually nothing has changed in the past twelve years. The negative attention surrounding this World Cup since 2013 doesn’t hurt Qatar either and FIFA, which could have made a difference, has no interest in interfering. I’m wondering if there’s anyone left who can do something about it now, and who this might be.

Those directly responsible, Qatar and FIFA, don’t take that responsibility. The bodies just below them, the national federations, put their heads in the sand. Just a handful of FAs make a statement, but they won’t boycott. Even in the most outspoken country, Norway, calls for a boycott were left unanswered[i]. Official World Cup sponsors called for improvements in 2014 but have since been satisfied with the symbolic changes Qatar and FIFA made. Some support a plea from Human Rights Watch to financially compensate workers, but they don’t seem to apply any real pressure[ii].

When federations and sponsors don’t act, responsibility falls to coaches and football players. They don’t feel the need to make a stand either. Just a few Finnish international players, led by captain Tim Sparv, considered a boycott, but Finland didn’t manage to qualify for the tournament[iii].

It’s easy to judge all of the millionaires who will be playing in Qatar. Top players, as British journalist Simon Kuper writes, are becoming more and more outspoken and influential[iv]. Dutch stars Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk for example, support the Black Lives Matter movement. Wouldn’t it be logical, then, if they would also stand up for the black lives being lost in the Qatari desert? Sure. Can we judge them for their passivity? Certainly. But can we hold them responsible for what’s happening in Qatar? No, they’re far from the main culprits. Because football’s officials don’t do their jobs properly, Wijnaldum and Van Dijk should just give up on their lifelong dream, which they’ve been working so hard to realize? That’s not fair.

Another point of criticism is that these top players are hypocrites. Wijnaldum opposes racism but plays for Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain and doesn’t boycott the World Cup. That’s morally inconsistent, for sure. But does this mean that he’s lost all credibility? If we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion, there’s practically nobody in our society who’s not a hypocrite. If you speak up about something, you should immediately speak up about everything?

This would lead to a situation in which only two groups of people remain: a couple of saints fighting against any and all injustice in the world, for whom the moral bar is set extremely high (because you can’t leave any abuse unmentioned!), opposite a huge majority of people remaining silent out of fear of being called a hypocrite, and for whom there’s no moral standard at all because they can be totally indifferent as all wrongs cancel each other out (take part in anything, however immoral it might be!).

Of course, I would rather have players use their platform to make statements against any form of injustice. But however hypocritical it may be, it’s still better if they speak up about one form of injustice, then about none at all. Moreover, these people calling football players hypocrites often don’t take their own responsibility either. Dutch football pundit Johan Derksen for example, says “the big names, stars, figureheads” should “stand up” when it comes to Qatar[v]. But does Derksen himself take a stand when the World Cup starts? Will he only appear on television to criticize the tournament and the Qatari regime? I suspect not. He’ll probably just analyze matches like normal and, from time to time, wag his finger at the hypocrisy of players as if he’s some kind of judge, elevated above all parties. All the while earning his huge paycheck. When Derksen can point to others while not taking his own responsibilities, why can’t players do the same? Why can’t they point to football officials or sponsors?

Or to the media. Because one level down on the pyramid of responsibility there’s the press. No major newspaper, broadcaster or website has chosen not to cover the tournament. Individual journalists, like Willem Visser and Sjoerd Mossou mentioned in Chapter 4, wonder what difference it makes if they refuse to travel to Qatar. In the Netherlands, Derksen is one of the most outspoken of them all, but will he boycott the World Cup or keep placing the blame at others’ feet?

This is exactly what makes a situation like this so complicated. If the people at the top don’t take their responsibility, then who should? The only workable solution seems to me: everybody. Everybody should do their small part. And to do this, we should stop looking for others to take a stand.

This applies to us, the fans, as well. The entire situation is like a panicking defense pressured heavily by their opponent. Everyone wants to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible and passes it to someone else, from officials to players to journalists. In the end, it’s played to the goalkeeper, who least knows what to do with this responsibility. That goalkeeper, that’s us. The fans. The football lovers. The audience at home. We can point to our defenders, but that won’t solve anything. The ball is at our feet now and we should make the right move.

And maybe the ball has always been at our feet. Because you can turn this entire pyramid of responsibility on its head. Maybe it all starts with the fans. The journalist can say he’s only reporting on what the people want to know. The newspaper or broadcaster just shows what a large part of the population wants to see. Players just give the fans the entertainment they crave. Federations simply comply with the demands of the public; sponsors only want their adverts to reach as many people as possible.

And FIFA and Qatar, for their part, can say they’re just organizing a beautiful sporting event for all those billions of people who don’t seem to have a problem with the human rights abuses either. For they will watch anyway. If you look at it like this, the main responsibility might lie with us, the fans. By remaining dedicated viewers, despite all the horrible practices involved, we legitimize the decisions made by FIFA and Qatar. They just give the fans what they want. And the fans want football, nothing else matters. FIFA and Qatar thought they could get away with corruption, slavery and oppression and we are proving them right. Because we’re watching.

Like Qatar only cares about its geopolitics and FIFA only cares about money, we, as an audience, only care about the spectacle. Ramón Calderón’s remarks about football being more showbiz than sports say just as much about us as viewers, as they say about football as a whole. All this money is pumped through football only because we, in the millions or even billions at a time, watch matches, analyses before and after, and highlights; we scour football websites and social media pages; we buy merchandise and match tickets; and we bet on results. Infantino and Al-Thani can abuse our wonderful sport only because we, as spectators, don’t care. We’ll watch anyway.

Does this mean it’s all our fault? Are our hands stained with the blood of all these migrant workers? Of course not. We didn’t choose for our beloved sport to be taken hostage by corrupt officials and shady regimes. We didn’t choose Qatar as World Cup host. We weren’t allowed to vote when Blatter and Infantino were elected. It’s not our fault that federations, coaches, players, media, and sponsors don’t act. But it is our fault if we don’t act.

And what exactly can we do? That’s ‘simple’: don’t watch. Don’t watch a single match of the entire World Cup on TV, don’t travel to Qatar to visit stadiums built by slaves. The World Cup is a goldmine for FIFA and they’ve already made their millions on TV rights and sponsorship deals, but when viewership numbers stay low, those deals might earn them a lot less money at controversial tournaments in the future. At previous World Cups, ticket sales made them over 500 million[vi], so FIFA will feel the pain if they earn a lot less.

In addition to these financial motives, it would be a powerful statement if fans stay away from Qatar and viewership numbers disappoint. It would prove that football, which has been taken over by the business elite in recent decades, is still owned by the people, and that the people don’t agree with what’s happening in the name of their sport. FIFA, Qatar and the surrounding billion-dollar companies are powerful, but their power is nothing compared to the power of us as football fans. They can only do what they do because we let them do it. We can still make or break this sport. If we boycott the World Cup collectively, we’ll show them where we draw the line. The entire money machine will grind to a halt and adjust its course towards a less unjust future.

Unfortunately, we’ll of course never succeed at forming such a large-scale opposition. I get that. So, is there any point to boycotting at an individual level? This I’ll wrestle with in the next chapter, after I’ve described how I wrestled with Putin’s World Cup in 2018.

[i] Harding, D. (2021, June 20). Norway votes against boycott of Qatar World Cup over human rights. [Article]. From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/norway-qatar-world-cup-workers-b1869453.html

[ii] Reuters (2022, September 20). Rights groups ask sponsors to press FIFA, Qatar on migrant worker compensation. [Article]. From: https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/rights-groups-ask-sponsors-press-fifa-qatar-migrant-worker-compensation-2022-09-20/

[iii] Sparv, T. (2021, September 6). We Need to Talk About Qatar. [Article]. From The Players’ Tribune: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/posts/tim-sparv-finland-world-cup-2022-qatar-soccer

[iv] Kuper, S. (2021, June 9). Het contact met de wereld verloren. [Article]. From De Groene Amsterdammer: https://www.groene.nl/artikel/het-contact-met-de-wereld-verloren

[v] Sierkstra, A. (2021, February 27). Gemist: Johan Derksen snoeihard over WK in Qatar in VI. [Article]. From Veronica Superguide: https://www.superguide.nl/nieuws/gemist-johan-derksen-snoeihard-over-wk-in-qatar-in-vi-tv?authId=064f76f3-f607-4776-a6bf-75aff50f9377

[vi] Jaipuria, T. (2018, July 15). The Economics of the World Cup [Article]. From Medium: https://medium.com/@tanayj/the-economics-of-the-world-cup-af7a7aa737d0

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