Football needs more than armbands to put real pressure on Qatar

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Back when the European federations were having seemingly endless meetings over Qatar, and pressure was growing to produce something, there was a statement that now stands out even more.

They were taking so long, one source insisted, because they wanted to do something with a lot more authority than “just wearing a T-shirt”.

They have come up with literally less than that, in an armband. It meanwhile uses some of the colours of the 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 more of the “checkbox exercises” that groups like Business and Human Rights Resource Centre have criticised football for. It is why FairSquare have already said Wednesday’s statement

That’s something else that stands out about football’s response. It should be said that some of the moves that accompany the armband would normally represent positive steps.

It is good that they have at least acknowledged that compensation “should” be paid, that a migrant workers centre be set up and that due diligence from suppliers is stressed. The players meeting some migrant workers could even be quite powerful – if highly dependent on the context.

None of the other initiatives have anything like the power they should do, though, because they need much more detail at this late stage. These are instead steps that should have been taken months ago, not a mere 60 days from the tournament, after so many discussions.

Consider the language around compensation. “Should” isn’t “must”. And so far, only one federation – Germany – has backed the campaign for Fifa to match the $440m of World Cup prize money with compensation to migrant workers. This was despite federations expressly telling the various bodies that they had too many competing aims and it was better to go away and come up with a collective objective. That’s what they did, and this is the response they have got. Almost nothing.

It all strikes of football once again wanting to be seen to do the right thing but not actually risking anything. There is very little in any of this that puts any pressure on Qatar, or makes the hosts feel uncomfortable.

Instead, Qatar is barely mentioned in any critical sense. And that’s where we get to the core of this entire issue.

Before you even get into discussions of how the World Cup was won and sportswashing, the blunt reality is that this highly-politicised tournament could not have taken place without the construction of an infrastructure that has inherently involved the abuse of migrant workers. The number of deaths would usually be added here, but that remains impossible to say because Qatar still won’t conduct a proper investigation.

Despite all of that, there now appears fairly widespread acceptance that it would be unfair to expect players or teams to boycott this tournament because they are not responsible for decisions taken way above their heads. This might be the single chance at a World Cup for some, only for it to be in Qatar.

That is all true and fair, but the obvious reality is still inescapable. That understanding requires some overt action. If anyone is going to Qatar, they should be using their considerable leverage to force change, to bring some positives.

Football can still have an absolutely immense effect here. There can be an investigation conducted for workers, practices changed, and compensation paid. It is why the softness of such statements, with time now running out, is so frustrating.

Many involved will point to the supposedly delicate diplomacy of it all. There’s the fact they must work under Uefa and Fifa, that collective positions are stronger. There’s the wider political situation, where Qatar has invested billions into western European infrastructure, with that amid an energy crisis caused by a war started by the last World Cup hosts. The circularity of it all is galling, and is precisely why the game should be much better on this. The circumstances have instead just diluted criticism, especially from politicians.

Even Gareth Southgate has spoken about how people in the West should be careful of enforcing cultural norms on another country. But this goes beyond any of that.

It is about how a World Cup should never be staged with any human cost. It’s why Amnesty rightly point out that “top-flight football is immensely rich and genuinely influential” and “Fifa should have insisted on human rights clauses when it originally assessed Qatar’s hosting bid”.

In 2022, such an event should be a joyous celebration of everything good about humanity. It should not involve a single death, let alone any of the migrant worker suffering this World Cup has been responsible for. And all of this for highly politicised sportswashing purposes.

The question for football is whether it wants to just passively take part in this, or take action. Is Qatar really going to be allowed to enjoy the great benefits of a mass event that has involved so much suffering, or is it going to be forced to endure even some pushback from the very teams and players it seeks to use?

It’s going to require much more than an armband. It just doesn't have much time left.

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