The 22nd Men’s World Cup is scheduled to take place in Qatar from 21 November to 18 December 2022. In a country where homosexuality is illegal. In a country where women are systematically discriminated against. In a country where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers — mostly construction workers and female domestic servants — toil under miserable, sometimes slave-like conditions. In a country where there are no political parties and no trade unions. In a country ruled by a family dynasty where criticism of the ruling house is a punishable offence.
Stephan Lahrem is on the board of the Berlin-based association Gesellschaftsspiele e.V., which does education work in the context of politics, football, and fan culture, and was one of the first signatories of the Boycott Qatar 2022 campaign.
Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.
All of this did not prevent the functionaries at FIFA, the world football association, from awarding the Gulf state the World Cup. Now an increasing number of voices are protesting against this decision. What are their motives and what are their goals?
The Wake-Up Call
There had been criticism from the very beginning. For example, a few days after FIFA President Joseph Blatter announced on 1 December 2010 in Zurich that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, the British-Irish Gay Football Supporter’s Network declared, “we believe that the World Cup should not be held in a country that abuses and disregards the basic human rights of LGBT people.” They stated they would boycott all activities related to the World Cup in Qatar.
Initially, they were alone in this position, although a barrage of protests eventually followed, accusing FIFA of corruption, criticizing the schedule, and expressing scepticism regarding the human rights situation in Qatar. Reports about the living and working conditions of the more than 2 million migrant workers in the country have become increasingly frequent and dire. Criticism subsided once the mounting international pressure prompted the Qatari government to reform its labour laws. In the end, it was too late to do anything about it, even if — like Borussia Dortmund’s sporting director Michael Zorc — you absolutely disagreed with giving Qatar the nod.
But in February 2021, the Guardian reported its investigations showed some 6,500 workers had died on construction sites in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup. The outcry in Europe was immense. In Norway, several first division clubs — including Rosenborg Trondheim, the team with the most titles — called on the Norwegian Football Association to not participate in the World Cup. In Denmark, fans of the traditional club Brøndby Copenhagen expressed the same demand to their national football association. In the Netherlands, Hendriks Graszoden, which has been the turf supplier for many World Cup and European Championships, rejected the multi-million dollar order from Qatar. And even the German national team — not exactly known for political statements — stepped onto the pitch for a World Cup qualifier against Iceland in April 2021 wearing jerseys bearing the words “Human Rights”.
Grievances about the World Cup in Qatar have also spread in some Bundesliga stadiums, not always to the delight of club higher-ups. This issue was particularly contentious with FC Bayern, the winningest German side. The club has been attending winter training camps in Qatar for the past ten years and has the state-owned Qatar Airlines as an advertising partner. For years, part of the active fan scene has been trying in vain to enter into a critical dialog with club management, inviting Nepalese migrant workers from World Cup construction sites to informational events, and has organized tifos (the choreographed waving of signs or banners by fans) to bring attention to these topics. At last year’s annual general assembly, chaos erupted after it was announced that no vote would be allowed to determine whether or not to dissolve business relations with Qatar.
ProFans, a nationwide alliance of active fan and ultra groups, is also not satisfied with symbolic actions and declared, “A lavish party on the graves of thousands of migrant workers — taking part in this would be the end of ethics and dignity.” The alliance called on the German Football Association (DFB) to “cancel its participation in the tournament”. Oliver Bierhoff, the director of the DFB, said boycotting the World Cup is “not an option”, although the association wants to “take an offensive stand for human rights”. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch also stated that a boycott is not on the agenda, since they have to negotiate on site. However, they made clear demands that FIFA and the DFB significantly increase the pressure on the Qatari government regarding human and labour rights.
Clubs such as the regional league team KSV Hessen Kassel do not want to wait for this, nor do organizations like the Berlin chapter of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the German Trade Union Confederation of Hessen and Thuringia, the Evangelical Youth in the Rhineland, or Frank Schwabe, the Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion and Belief since January 2022: They are all calling for a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar. Their reasons differ, but they are united by the view that the World Cup, which (to put it in slightly old-fashioned terms) is a celebration of international understanding and should not be held where people or groups of people are systematically discriminated against.
This corresponds with FIFA’s human rights policy in theory. After all, in 2017 FIFA committed to respect human rights and “strives to create a discrimination-free environment within its organization and throughout all of its activities”. According to its own criteria, the World Cup should not actually be held in Qatar, even if this voluntary commitment was only made after the hosting had been awarded to Qatar. But that is of little concern to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino, who has since moved his residence to Qatar. He prefers to rant about his anticipation of a “fantastic World Cup”.
Crossing a “Red Line”
FIFA’s actual policies have sparked criticisms from other groups of people. They argue that FIFA has never been particularly concerned with human rights. They claim that for years now, FIFA has only been interested in money and power, that the commercialization and event-oriented focus of football is progressing uninterrupted, that the World Cup is awarded to whoever promises the greatest profits and the fewest problems. In 2013, FIFA secretary general at the time Jerome Valcke openly admitted: “Sometimes less democracy is better for organizing a World Cup”, for instance, “when you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as Putin may manage to do in 2018”.
It appears that FIFA awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar not despite political and human rights deficits, but because the authoritarian regimes there guarantee unimpeded preparation and execution of the events. In return, the host will receive a certificate of good conduct from the highest authorities. In 2018, for example, FIFA boss Infantino expressed his enthusiasm: “A big thanks to the Russian government, president Putin, of course, the organizing committee, the Russian Football Union, everyone who was involved in this country to make sure this World Cup would be the best ever.” That is what is called “sportswashing”. Qatar’s leadership can expect something similar.
Corruption, commercialization, democracy deficits, human rights abuses, lack of sustainability, sportswashing — none of these things are really new. Yet this time they are being carried out so brazenly that many people are saying: enough is enough. At some point, the “red line” has been crossed.
Paradigmatically, this line of reasoning is represented by the Boycott Qatar 2022 campaign. Launched in 2020 by Bernd Beyer and Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling, two journalists and football enthusiasts, the campaign has been gathering plenty of support since last spring. The people behind the campaign do not consider the cancellation of the World Cup as a feasible goal, even if individual federations or players decide to boycott. This is why their call for a boycott is aimed specifically at football fans.
An Active Fan Boycott
Fans are being called upon to not watch the World Cup matches on television at home or at public screening events, not to travel to the tournament or purchase fan merchandise with World Cup logos, and not to purchase sponsors’ products. The initiative’s call to action, which in the meantime has been signed by hundreds of fan organizations, reads as follows: “It is our goal to interfere with the lucrative interaction of FIFA and sponsors with the undemocratic, authoritarian regime of Qatar. It should not remain attractive for anybody to organize a football world cup in such a perverted way, which will lead to the ruin of the game we love.”
The charming thing about this boycott campaign is that it is not simply about being absent — not watching, not participating. Rather, it is an active fan boycott that aims to become visible in many ways before and during the tournament. One example of this is a cross-club campaign called #Back2Bolzen (German for “Back to kicking the ball around”), which was devised by the Schalker Fan Initiative e.V., which has been committed to fighting racism and discrimination for more than two decades. In the spirit of getting back to the roots of the game, “as many people, groups and clubs as possible should get active, especially on the match days of the 2022 World Cup ... instead of watching the games on TV: by playing football themselves or supporting people who are playing, celebrating with them and enjoying the game. To this end, all interested parties organize games or tournaments at their locations, whether small or large, whether on the street, the football pitch or in a hall, whether with a few people or with many. If necessary, even ‘tipp-kick’ or foosball tournaments.” In other words, getting back to kicking the ball around.
Whatever their particular motives may be, many critics and boycott supporters hope that human rights and sustainability, participation and fan culture will at least be taken adequately into account when awarding and hosting future World Cups (as well as other mega sporting events). Another hope is that greed and immoderation no longer have the last word, and that football, the joy of the game and the shared experience will once again take centre stage.
Two days after the hosting of the World Cup was awarded to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, the otherwise rather bland Berliner Tagesspiegel railed against a “double scandal” and angrily demanded: “players and fans all over the world who love and revere football: Send Sepp Blatter and his henchmen packing! Take back the game!” In this spirit, Boycott Qatar 2022.
Critics of the World Cup in Qatar are inviting people to a networking meeting in Frankfurt am Main at the end of May to discuss suitable forms of protest. The organizers include the Koordinationsstelle der Fanprojekte (KOS), the fan association Unsere Kurve, the initiative Erinnerungstag im deutschen Fußball “Nie Wieder”, the Berlin-based association Gesellschaftsspiele and the Boycott Qatar 2022 campaign.