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23 November 2022

Leader: What the World Cup tells us about power

In sport, as in politics, principles do not count for much if we only observe them when the cost of doing so is not too high.

By New Statesman

Until 90 minutes before England’s opening match against Iran at the World Cup in Qatar on 21 November, Harry Kane had planned to wear a rainbow armband in support of LGBTQ rights. The England captain, along with his counterparts from Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, had vowed to wear the “OneLove” armband throughout the tournament as a powerful symbol of the sport’s progress towards greater diversity and inclusion. Instead, just before kick-off, the teams announced that they would not be wearing the armbands after all.

In a joint statement, the respective football associations said that while they would have paid fines for wearing the armband, they could not risk their players being booked or sent off, as they had been informed their captains would be. Fifa, which organises the tournament, has strict rules in place against players wearing kit that includes “political, religious, or personal” slogans. The Belgian football association said that it had been forced to remove the word “Love” from the inside of its team’s shirts.

It is not surprising that Fifa, an organisation mired in allegations of corruption, including over the decision to award this World Cup to Qatar, has adopted this approach. It is in keeping with the priorities it has consistently demonstrated to appease the autocratic sheikhdom that rules Qatar – a state where homosexuality is illegal, human rights are abused, and thousands of migrant workers are thought to have died building the new stadiums – over the players’ attempts to combat discrimination. The machinations at Fifa also serve as a sobering reminder of a broader geopolitical truth: that Western liberal democracies do not hold as much sway over autocracies as they might hope. Fifa’s power is also a parable of the delusions of the West: its values are not universal and many countries reject them, notably China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Instead of backing down, if the seven associations involved had held the line together and resolved that every single player would wear the armband, appealing to other teams to join them and daring Fifa to send them all home, perhaps they would have prevailed. If not, the images of top players across multiple countries proudly being carded for wearing their armbands would have been more inspiring – and enduring – than any individual result. In sport, as in politics, principles do not count for much if we only observe them when the cost of doing so is not too high.

Fifa’s president is Gianni Infantino, who just happens to live in Qatar. He says that it is hypocritical for the West to criticise the Gulf state. “I think for what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people,” he declared in an eccentric speech in Doha ahead of the opening ceremony. This is the tired argument that defenders of dictatorships advance around the world. Western countries must confront both their own national histories of colonialism and racial injustice, while at the same time standing up for their professed values.

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We should also dispense with the fiction that holding major sporting events in autocracies like Qatar advances human rights. This argument has also been applied to the decision to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, where more than a million Uyghur Muslims are held in internment camps in Xinjiang, and the 1978 football World Cup in Argentina, which was then under a brutal military dictatorship. A version of this reasoning was even applied to the staging of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. It is beguiling to believe that the attention drawn by such events will effect change. This is a fantasy. Gay people in Qatar will not be safer as a result of this World Cup, just as Uyghurs have not become more free in China. The junta in Argentina ruled for another five years after the tournament ended. We know what Hitler did next.

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It is delusional to expect institutions, particularly those motivated by profit such as Fifa, to defend liberal values. We must start with individuals. In Doha on 21 November, the England team took the knee before the match in support of racial justice. The Iranian team refused to sing along to the national anthem, apparently in solidarity with anti-government protesters at home. Sport has the power to inspire and to create real change. We must support those who are brave enough to act.

[See also: Iran’s brave act of defiance puts England to shame]

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette