Liverpool have worked tirelessly to walk a ‘diplomatic tightrope’ in Qatar – now to become world champions

The European champions have tackled a highly complex situation as well as possible as they target the prestigious gold badge by winning the Club World Cup in Doha

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent, in Doha
Friday 20 December 2019 14:59
Roberto Firmino and Alisson train in Qatar

At Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday, Liverpool will line up against Flamengo with the intention of landing an honour they have long craved.

“We want that badge on our jersey,” forward Divock Origi said of the gold emblem, in the shape of a shield, featuring the Club World Cup trophy and the striking inscription ‘world champions.’

It has nagged at such a storied institution that they have never been able to claim that status, with the current crop determined to change that.

“As a group we spoke to each other and we were like: ‘Man, we really want to win this thing,’” Origi added.

“We will do everything to do that.”

There has been great unease at Liverpool that the stage to potentially script this history is Qatar, given its human rights record, prohibition of homosexuality and systematic exploitation of migrant workers through the kafala – sponsorship – scheme that Amnesty International has referred to as a modern form of slavery, which is set to be abolished next month amid unrelenting pressure.

‘Why didn’t they just boycott the tournament if they were that bothered?’ will be the obvious question and the answers are found in Fifa’s regulations for the event.

In article 6 of the document, sub-section three empowers the governing body to “impose additional disciplinary measures” for withdrawal, which is vague by design, offering them the freedom to impose whatever sanctions they choose.

Sub-section five, meanwhile, renders any club that pulls out of the competition liable to expenses and compensation for any damages incurred by Fifa.

That is followed by the warning that the association “shall decide on the matter at its sole discretion and take whatever action is deemed necessary” if there was a refusal to participate.

Liverpool had been encouraged to participate in the Club World Cup by the Trades Union Congress to use their influence for positive change and the Premier League leaders have navigated what one senior official labelled a “diplomatic tightrope.”

As a sporting organisation and not a political entity, they’ve balanced the will of the players to win, while refusing to ignore the crucial concerns raised by putting them to the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy tasked with organising this showpiece and the 2022 World Cup. This was achieved without overstepping the mark.

Liverpool undertook a lengthy fact-finding mission on the human rights and migrant workers’ rights situation in Qatar, consulting with the UK Foreign Office, Fair/Square and the TUC.

These involved senior club figures including CEO Peter Moore and chief operating officer Andy Hughes. Part of the due diligence meant declining the grandiose Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel they were offered by Fifa in Doha due to the scale of labour abuses uncovered by The Guardian in 2018.

Liverpool pressed for information and action regarding the deaths of Rupchandra Rumba, a scaffolder at Education City Stadium, who passed away while gasping for breath in a slum-like labour camp. And Zac Cox, who fell 40 metres when a catwalk he was helping to instal at Khalifa International collapsed as his lever hoist equipment failed.

The Merseysiders have supported calls for thorough investigations into all unexplained deaths and underscored that employees should be treated with fairness and respect, pointing to their own commitment to pay the real living wage and their anti-slavery policy.

The expertise on the region from Nick McGeehan, a director of Fair/Square, proved invaluable for Liverpool in their efforts to understand the scale of issues and how to address them.

Another asset was the activism of the club’s fans with supporters union Spirit of Shankly, primarily through Joe Blott, Graham Smith and Jay McKenna, highlighting their issues to the Supreme Committee along with The Anfield Wrap and LGBT+ group Kop Outs.

Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee, admitted discussions with the above representatives were pivotal in avoiding a boycott.

Liverpool were particularly concerned by the wellbeing of their LGBT+ supporters and sought advice from equality charity Stonewall and engaged with Kop Outs to gain assurances from the Qataris that all fans would be welcomed.

The club secured an invite for Paul Amann, founder of the latter, and his partner to travel to Qatar in November to assess the country from the perspective of a visiting gay couple.

“As guests in Qatar we felt welcomed by our hosts, but we felt the need to exercise discretion in deference to them,” was part of the feedback he shared. “Overall we felt safe as gay men,” but Amann reminded “with no on-the-ground LGBT+ organisations in Qatar, it is difficult to externally gauge what the situation might be like for local LGBT+ people.”

Liverpool's players are determined to become world champions

It has been a highly complex situation for Liverpool to contend with that one source said “could not be compared with anything else” due to the width and depth of issues in Qatar, the timing and logistics.

How they have handled it has been commended by Fair/Square and Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK director.

She commented: “Liverpool and some of their fans have expressed concern about the human rights issues in Qatar, which is the sort of thing we’d like to see more clubs, players and fans doing when competitions are taking place in countries with poor human rights record.”

While the champions of Europe have demonstrably advanced on the pitch and in terms of infrastructure, they have drastically improved with regards to dealing with difficult matters too after high-profile mistakes in the past, notably the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra episode.

Liverpool have walked the ‘diplomatic tightrope’ as well as possible as the team targets that gold badge in what Adam Lallana likened to “an addiction: you win one medal and you want to win another.”

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