Nicola Biggerstaff – 25 November 2022
The Men’s Football World Cup in Qatar is now well under way, human rights be damned. Before the first ball was even kicked; accusations of journalist harassment and detention, of unsafe working practices and poor living standards leading to the deaths of thousands of migrant workers, and of the appalling treatment of local women and LGBTQ+ people under their strict interpretation of sharia law, have run rampant. Yet, we’re still unwillingly giving our TV licence money to the BBC to pay for this, who themselves are feeding into the system which made money off the backs of these atrocities with their presence. In the face of not a single positive headline emerging from the tournament since its announcement back in 2010, I decided to add a little drop of fuel to the already raging fire with my own views, and ask: if it can be done, why aren’t we doing more to condemn this?
Protest at football matches is not uncommon and has even appeared on the pitch in Qatar already. At England v Iran on Monday, which ended in a score I don’t really care about enough to look up, the only redeeming feature came from the Iranian men’s team, who refused to sing their national anthem in the wake of widespread protest in solidarity with their own women. If only they held the same amount of respect for the Qatari women facing similarly severe punishments and discrimination.
Yet, in the face of punitive measures on the field for making a similar statement of solidarity, the England men’s team backed out of wearing their One Love armbands, supporting equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, at the last minute. Nonetheless, presenter Alex Scott instead stepped up to the plate, displaying her own One Love armband for the duration of the match coverage. If only her salary, and that of the players, weren’t being paid through the people committing the atrocities which compelled them to wear it, I may have had some respect for the gesture. But that’s all it is, a meaningless gesture. As long as you take their money, you may as well be inflicting the pain caused to the community personally.
This wasn’t the only 11th hour U-turn we witnessed in the lead up to the opening of the tournament. The Qataris backed out of their agreement to sell alcoholic beer at stadium venues, instead limiting sale and consumption to the fan festival areas only and limiting availability at stadiums to strictly alcohol-free alternatives, potentially breaching the contract with Budweiser and FIFA in the process (who responded with a since-deleted Tweet reading ‘well, this is awkward’). They were entrusted with the safety of the touring public, yet they can’t even organise a knees-up with a brewery. It begs the question: what other rules, what other enshrined guarantees, will they be more than happy to back out of? The fans are already there, and they could now potentially be in harm’s way despite being promised otherwise.
It has also now emerged that fans who bring rainbow-themed memorabilia to games, including flags and hats, are being approached on the street and having them confiscated. Despite claiming that all will be welcome, with security staff even receiving training from FIFA on human rights and non-discrimination principles, the government would not guarantee the safety of LGBTQ+ fans, instead asking fans to ‘respect our local culture and traditions’. In the days following the announcement of their hosting back in 2010, the recently-acquitted, now-former President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, said that LGBTQ+ fans should simply ‘refrain’, appearing to laugh off the concerns of human rights advocates. He has since admitted that the awarding of the tournament to Qatar was ‘a mistake’, but only because the country was ‘too small’. No other reason.
Spectators from Israel, and Jewish football fans from around the world, were also promised that kosher food would be available, in line with their religious practices. The Qataris are alleged to have backed out of this as well, going so far as to ban public Jewish prayer on security grounds, and ban the sale of hot kosher food, with only bagels available to the estimated 10,000 Jewish people who travelled to Qatar and wish to observe kosher, thanks to the actions of two rabbis.
With the threat to pretty much everyone who travelled there now established after their arrival, why are we even giving this grotesque pantomime the time of day, never mind our money and mental space? We all know the action which would truly make a difference to proceedings, I gave it away quite early on, but no one seems to want to commit to it, ‘for the love of the game’. Richy-rich do the kicky-ball thing, how dare we interrupt?
It remains quite jarring when I hear people discuss the progress of the tournament, only mentioning how ‘terrible it is what they’ve done, though’ as a throwaway. Just a sidenote to football fans. Even after a 20-minute long tirade at the Qataris and their practices on his own talk show, Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver admitted he ‘will still be watching’. It begs an unthinkable question: if none of this is enough to warrant a rethink, what on earth is?
I’m sitting writing this in the office space at my parent’s house. They’re watching whatever game is on right now in the other room. I can hear mum shouting about ‘what a goal that was’. If I mention the huge elephant in the room, I’ll get shouted down as a lefty snowflake: ‘What do you want us to do? We’re not going to change anything. Just calm down’.
Only the viewing figures over the next however many weeks will tell if this country cares more about football than it does about human rights. My TV is sitting in storage 10 miles away while I prepare to move. When it’s unpacked, it will be one more that won’t be tuned in for the foreseeable. I would encourage anyone who also feels this uncomfortable to do the same. No, it won’t kick anyone where it hurts, but it would send the right message to the people who need to see it: the BBC, the ones financially involved, thereby benefitting from all of the above.
This might make me look hypocritical: I’ve just condemned players and commentators for gestures that don’t make a real impact. But they’re all there. They are the faces sent to represent us. They know how much we want this to change, but they won’t stand up to tyranny because they might get a yellow card. Commentators are facing British TV cameras, they can take the armband off when they’re done, collect their hefty cheque, and no one beyond our borders would be any the wiser.
I have recently given away my admiration for comedian-turned-activist Joe Lycett, whose latest stunt in light of the controversy involved threatening to shred £10,000 of his own money if David Beckham did not back out of his multimillion pound promotion deal for the tournament with the Qatari government, instead donating the money to LGBTQ+ charities if he did, highlighting that Beckham’s status as a queer icon would be destroyed (he was the first footballer to appear on the cover of Attitude, an LGBTQ+ magazine, back in 2002). A little tasteless during a Cost of Living Crisis? Yes. But it is his own money to throw away as he pleases (I can think of someone who recently threw away $44 billion in a desperate pursuit to become King of the Internet). Lycett also later admitted that he didn’t actually shred the money, and had already donated the amount in full before the first clip was even released on the internet, instead shredding the Attitude coverfeaturing Beckham.
The problem with this, however, is that you can’t carbon-offset human rights violations. I have no doubt he will continue to do great work, and it did kickstart the necessary conversations concerning financial benefit from human suffering, but this tournament cost the Qatarisan estimated $220 billion. Lycett’s donation, while selfless, will be a drop in the ocean when compared to the legacy of this Men’s World Cup. Perhaps if other people of note joined in, turned their words of condemnation into tangible actions, we could at least turn more heads to the true extent of the horror that’s happening there.
In the interest of balance, the Qatari government have once again assured the public that:
Qatar does not tolerate discrimination against anyone, and our policies and procedures are underpinned by a commitment to human rights for all.
In the interest of being a decent human being, I think that may be a lie.
My views on this may sound extreme, but they are valid. None of what I’ve listed above will be enough for any broadcaster to pull their coverage, to withdraw at the risk of financial loss. When we trust a large enough company with our money, we ourselves lose our morality. I cannot stay silent on this while the world stands by and allows these attacks on minority communities to go unsanctioned.
The BBC will continue on just fine after this, thinking that relegating the opening ceremony to an online stream will be enough of a statement on the matter. Their employees will pack up their equipment, rack up their carbon footprint for the journey home, maybe even have a laugh about their air miles as they saunter through duty free. But for those left behind, the legacy of hurt will continue.
With all that said, I’m almost grateful Scotland didn’t qualify. Almost.