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While Qatar gently weeps

With Scotland absent again, this year’s World Cup is an easy boycott. But do the numerous human rights issues mean we should all be saying “humbug” to it this winter?

By

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This is not the start of a movement. I’m not asking anyone else to do the same. Although you might think about it for a while. I’m not fighting a larger moral fight.
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Would I be writing this if Scotland had qualified? It’s a fair question and I’d have to say probably not. Because then I’d care about one of the teams. I’d be able to easily plan my month around the measly three games we’d inevitably have been part of.

I can still see it. The ball bobbling against Billy Bremner’s shin. Our best ever team and our chances of going through to the next round trickling past a Brazilian post. I was seven. I leapt from the sofa to celebrate, then crashed to the floor in exasperation as a whole nation, along with Bremner himself, dropped to their knees, head in hands.

My whole life has been punctuated by big World Cup moments like this. I can trace my childhood, my adolescence, young adulthood and middle-age to the moments of pain, horror, triumph and jubilation while watching Scotland compete in World Cups. I stared, open-mouthed, rising slowly from the sofa, at 11, as Archie Gemmill weaved his way through the Dutch defence in ‘78. At 15, I screamed with shock and awe when Davey Narey blasted in that screamer against Brazil in ’82, vowing to take my revenge on Jimmy Hill for calling it a “toe poke”. I swore and slammed down my pint when Stevie Nicol missed a sitter, easier than Bremner’s, against Uruguay in ‘86. At 23, I went crazy with a pub full of strangers when Mo Johnston scored against Sweden at Italia ‘90. And, as a 31-year-old, I wept tears of pride as we walked out to open the ‘98 tournament, once more against Brazil.

So, when Scotland lost to Ukraine in June, I was devastated. But their failure to qualify is not the only reason that I won’t be watching a minute of this year’s World Cup in Qatar. Let me try to explain.

This is not the start of a movement. I’m not asking anyone else to do the same. Although you might think about it for a while. I’m not fighting a larger moral fight. I’m just tired of watching the things I love about football being eroded: our connection with club and country; going to a game with friends; the affordability of the match day experience.

Qatar is the pinnacle of the several wrong turns that the game has taken. A game which swallows up smaller, community teams while paying players hundreds of thousands a week: a game which compels loyal fans to buy a new shirt every year, to pay through the nose for the day out. A game which realised a long time ago that our support was marketable and that we would be willing to pay that price.

Well, a World Cup in Qatar is too big a price for me. Enough is enough.

Of course, FIFA is no stranger to these types of tensions: political, moral, or otherwise. Four days after watching Bremner miss against Brazil in 1974, East Germany played West Germany in what was the most politically electric game in years, and the first game between the two sides since the building of the wall. East Germany won 1-0. Meanwhile, Zaire, beaten by both Scotland and Yugoslavia, had been warned by President Mobutu’s secret service that if they lost by more than three goals against Brazil, they “would not return home”. But life went on for the TV watching public. We were all so much more innocent then.

On FIFA’s website this year, the organisation is claiming to be “modernising football to be global, accessible and inclusive in all aspects”. Let’s have a closer look at that one, shall we? To start off with, when you look under the “Human Rights” tab on the website, you find that there is nothing there about people’s rights. This may be a mistake, but it may also be an open admission that it would be hugely hypocritical given the treatment of workers brought in to build the stadiums in which this year’s games will take place.

Amnesty International reports claim that workers – mostly from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – have been subjected to horrendous treatment. FIFA’s website includes this frightening line: “Human rights requirements… were implemented for the first time for a major event during the bidding process for the World Cup in 2026 (my emphasis).”

So, if we are to believe FIFA when they say, “People are at the centre of everything we do,” then we have to take seriously the fate of everyone who worked on the stadium builds. By 2021, 6,500 immigrant workers had died in Qatar since they were awarded the World Cup, according to a Guardian report.

When FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, was questioned about the fate of those workers, he responded by saying, “they take pride from hard work.”

In Qatar, same-sex relationships are not merely frowned upon, they’re illegal. “Inclusive?” I think not. Good old squeaky clean Uncle Sepp Blatter, after awarding the Cup to Qatar, claimed, “they should refrain from sexual activity” for the duration of the tournament. FIFA’s claim that they are attempting to “connect people like never before” is, along with much of their official website, simply vacuous word spaghetti. LBGTQ+ fans will just have to take their chances as Qatar has, thus far, failed to offer any safety guarantees.

Of course, when challenged on these points, Qatar promised to improve conditions for workers, introducing a heavily detailed plan of action. By 2021 most of these plans had either been ignored or had withered away when media focus shifted. Things did not get better. It’s easy to make promises on paper, though much harder to follow through on them when no-one is watching.

Historically speaking, it might not even be a problem for most football fans. Remember Russia in 2018? The suspicious nature of awarding the tournament to a country with a dubious human rights record, and a politically toxic leadership, caused outrage in the press, with similar protests being made then too. Now we look back at that tournament as what many journalists describe as the best World Cup ever. Our desire to watch the games can and will overwhelm our moral proclivities.

Certainly, if we’d had social media and 24-hour news back in 1978, would we have been as appalled at the idea of Argentina hosting the World Cup? We should have been. There had been a military coup in Argentina two years previously and, allegedly thousands of political opponents had been “disappeared”. This was all well-known at the time, but we still watched as Scotland embarrassed themselves, and us, on the world stage – despite wee Archie’s goal.

I’d be a hypocrite if I refused to watch Qatar purely on those terms. As uneasy as I’d felt about the whole thing, I don’t remember making any stance in 2018. So, what else is there then? Well, the timing is problematic too. I recall Jurgen Klopp getting into bother when he criticised Boxing Day football as detrimental to our lives. The footballing establishment jumped on him immediately, claiming that football during the Christmas period is a long-held tradition in the UK. But that’s not what he meant. He was referring to the fact that, on Boxing Day that year, Sky screened games on at 12, two, four, six and eight o’clock and this definitely eroded the family experience for many people. It’s hard to disagree.

This year’s World Cup Final will take place on December 18, 2022. It will, more than likely, be the most viewed sporting occasion in history. Certainly a commercial and financial success for FIFA. The whole month of December will be altered. Family occasions interrupted; nights out transformed. Christmas telly reorganised. And that might be a blessing to some. To others, the whole concept of a family Christmas is an important tradition. Choices will be forced upon us which will create tensions. It shouldn’t be like that.

Remember that “people are at the centre of everything we do.” Not really.

Would I be writing this if Scotland had qualified? It’s a fair question and I’d have to say probably not. Because then I’d care about one of the teams. I’d be able to easily plan my month around the measly three games we’d inevitably have been part of.

As that Ukraine game ended and we’d lost and failed to qualify. As the game ended with that deflated, empty feeling I’d become so used to over a lifetime of watching Scotland, something else happened too. A lightbulb flashed on in my head. That disappointment, that sick-in-the-stomach, “never again” feeling was something I hadn’t felt in ages. Having witnessed so many crushing, embarrassing moments, despite McFadden in Paris and a few others, I really hadn’t been that bothered about the Scotland team in a long time. Thanks to Steve Clarke, though, I was again bothered.

Over the previous 18 months I had been witness to what was developing in to a “right good team” under Clarke. I was nervous on the day of games, I was wearing a Scotland shirt again and relishing the games on TV. I can’t remember the last time that had happened. Dykes’ goals, Marshall’s save, Gilmour’s part in the “get it right up them” 0-0 draw with England. The excitement of that wee boy, falling to his knees with Billy Bremner was back. I had fallen in love with Scotland again.

There must have been a more obvious reason for that. Of course there was. It came to me, I think, that disappointing night in June. Football is about passion and connection and if you don’t have that then it is merely an entertainment industry. For some, that might be fine. But for those of us who have grown up crying and laughing, overwhelmingly distraught and comically overjoyed, then it is never enough to merely be a consumer. It has to mean something.

Years of dull Champions League games had done that to me, had dulled the passion for football that I had lost. The endless, meaningless “big” games, overhyped on BT Sport as a clash of the titans had left me, more often than not, bored to tears by half time. I don’t care about Manchester City or Real Madrid or PSG or Liverpool or Bayern. Just don’t care. And I can’t change that. I have no skin in the game and the outcome is irrelevant to me.

This year’s Qatar World Cup is obscene for so many reasons, many of which I’ve written about here. You may have your own. So, the day before the World Cup starts I’ll be at Firhill for a home game against Arbroath. I’ll have a knot in my stomach and be biting my nails until the final whistle. After that we’ll be away to Cove Rangers and then home to Ayr United. And I’ll care what happens, it’ll matter to me. What Steve Clarke and the boys` have taught me is that if there’s no passion involved, then what’s the point. Bah, Humbug!

Issue 32
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