The growing calls for a boycott of the Qatar World Cup

A backlash against the tournament being held in the Gulf state has intensified in recent weeks

David Harding
International Editor
Wednesday 03 March 2021 17:59
Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final in 2022
Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final in 2022
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In December, Danish caretaker Casper Fischer did something he had never done before.

The 32 year old decided to petition Denmark’s parliament – the Folketing – to get the country’s national football team to boycott the World Cup finals being held in Qatar next year.

Together with five co-sponsors, Mr Fischer, who lives close to Copenhagen, said Denmark should forsake playing in the tournament in protest at the poor human rights’ conditions in the Gulf host nation, as well as Fifa corruption.

“We do not believe that we, as a democratic nation striving to live up to global human rights, can benefit from having some of the country’s most prominent sporting players participate in the finals and blue-stamp a dictatorship like Qatar,” states the petition.

If Mr Fischer manages to get 50,000 signatures by June 8 then, under Danish law, the country’s participation in the Qatar 2022 World Cup will have to be debated in the national parliament.

But even if he fails,the petition seems to have galvanised debate about participation in 2022, especially in Denmark, but also beyond. To date, almost 7,000 have signed

“I’d be more surprised if we reach the 50,000 than if we don’t,” Mr Fischer tells The Independent. “The 50,000 signatures was not the aim in itself. The aim was to shed light on how problematic it is that the second biggest sport event in the world is being held in Qatar.”

It is clear that Mr Fischer is not alone in his views.

One MP, Karsten Honge of the Socialist People’s Party, has backed the need for any parliamentary debate regardless of a petition, claiming it would allow Denmark’s point of view to be “seen and heard” in Qatar.

Even if there was no boycott, a parliamentary debate would “put maximum pressure on Qatar to improve human rights and workers’ rights”, Honge tells The Independent.

And the bank which sponsors the Danish team’s training gear, Arbejdernes Landsbank, says it does not want to be associated with the tournament.

“The World Cup in Qatar is a problem,” Peter Froulund, head of branding and communication at the bank says. “We have to decide what is the best way to approach this.”

A final decision on sponsorship will be taken in the summer, said Froulund, but it is “likely” that the bank will withdraw its branding if Denmark - top seeds in their qualifying group and drawn against countries including Scotland and Israel, as well as reaching the last 16 in the 2018 World Cup – heads to Qatar in November 2022.

The Danish Football Union has said it supports “a dialogue” with Qatar, rather than backing a boycott, unless that boycott extends to “business and diplomacy”, says the DFU’s Jakob Hoyer.

And talk of a boycott has in recent days extended to several top flight league clubs in Norway, including Tromso, who have openly called for the national team to not take part in the tournament.

Fifa’s Gianni Infantino

World Cup country

Since it was controversially and surprisingly handed the right to host the World Cup back in 2010, Qatar has come intense scrutiny, especially on human rights, and faced many calls in the West to have the tournament taken away.

But the last few months have seen the most concerted calls for a boycott. These have increased in the past few days since a report in The Guardian that 6,500 Asian workers have died in Qatar since 2010.

The Gulf monarchy has embarked upon an unprecedented building programme in readiness for 2022.

Eight stadiums are being built from scratch or revamped for the tournament, dozens of news roads, a new metro system, airport, hotels, even a brand new city will be constructed in time for the World Cup. In 2017, Qatar revealed it was spending $500 million a week on the World Cup, an eye-watering amount even for a country transformed into one of the wealthiest on earth by vast gas revenues.

The transformation of the country is unique among nations preparing for a sporting tournament. When former Fifa president Sepp Blatter announced Qatar would be the 2022 host, just 1.8 million lived and worked in Qatar. Today, the population is around 2.8 million, swollen by importing hundreds and thousands of construction workers many from Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

It is the treatment of these workers which has caused huge concern around the world, with allegations - many substantiated - that too many live in poor accommodation, regularly go unpaid, and are treated appallingly by bosses in a system which is modern-day slavery.

Qatar has pointed to labour reforms already made – including ending the exploitative ‘kafala’ system, where workers could not change jobs without employers’ consent - and the promise of more changes in the pipeline.

But it has not been enough to silence critics and in the two days following the publication of the Guardian death story, Mr Fischer says the petition got 700 more signatures.

Fifa told The Independent: “We don’t think that a boycott of the World Cup would be the right approach or would serve any useful purpose to address any human rights issues in Qatar,” said a spokesperson.

“To be frank, we actually think that engagement and dialogue is the best way to promote understanding of universal human rights values.”

Football supporters watch the FIFA Club World Cup semi-final football in Doha last month

Boycotts of World Cups may be more common than is actually realised, with arguably the most significant happening in 1966, when all African nations refused to play in the tournament held in England over the number of spaces allocated to teams from the continent.

“My head tells me that a boycott of Qatar 2022 is unlikely,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport, Emlyon Business School in France. “Such a move would be unprecedented, create all manner of issues for those involved, and would be an overly simplistic response to a complex matter.

“However in my heart, it feels like anything is currently possible.”

Any boycott - should it happen - would almost certainly be confined to a few Western countries. Support for holding the World Cup in an Arab, Muslim country, the first in the Middle East to host it, has lots of backing elsewhere.

Some have questioned the motives of those in the West who want a boycott, and why Qatar is being targeted.

“The reality is that some people decided 10 years ago that they would never support a World Cup in Qatar,” a Qatari fan tells The Independent. “The World Cups in Brazil, Russia and South Africa had problems related to poverty, the environment and human rights, but I don’t recall any movements to boycott those tournaments.”

The World Cup “will do a lot of good things for my country”, added the Qatari.

If no boycotts go ahead, one form of protest that might be seen in 2022 is ‘taking a knee’. In an era of on the pitch protests, it is not unfeasible that some players might show solidarity with the cause of workers who have sacrificed all for football’s biggest tournament.

Online, some have called for such a move and Karsten Honge says such a move could “be one way” to protest.

It is certainly something World Cup organisers should be prepared for says Professor Chadwick.

“It is not inconceivable that players will take a knee to protest, perhaps about workers’ rights,” he says. “However some may feel compelled to protests about LGBT rights, or about Qatar’s environmental record. The question then becomes: how will Qatar and FIFA prepare for such protests and what action will they take?

“As Qatar 2022 draws closer football’s world governing body will need to make clear what its position is.”

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