FIFA clashes with European countries over human rights at the Qatar World Cup

FIFA asks teams taking part in the Qatar World Cup to “focus on the football”. Europe’s FAs respond that they will “continue to support human rights”.

Please, let’s now focus on the football“. FIFA has officially asked the 32 teams taking part in the Qatar World Cup, set to start on 20th November, not to initiate protests or criticism of the emirate for its questionable human rights record, both in direct relation to the planning of the tournament and in more general terms. However, several European football associations stated their rejection of this request: “We will continue to fight for human rights”. And, given that World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman has since stated that homosexuality is considered “damage in the mind” in Qatar, protests are undoubtedly warranted.

qatar 2022, human rights, boycott
The lead-up to the World Cup has seen protests and calls for a boycott, as with this banner displayed during a match in Germany © Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Months of protests all over the world

For months, even years now, the Qatar World Cup has been in the crosshairs of human and environmental rights organisations, with national teams also recently voicing their opposition to the host nation’s human rights practices. Denmark, for example, will wear “toned down” jerseys at the tournament designed by kit manufacturer Hummel as a form of protest, with a completely black third kit as a symbol of mourning for the over 6.500 migrant workers who died building infrastructure for the World Cup.

Khaled al-Suwaidi, an older member of the organising committee for the Qatar World Cup, responded to Denmark’s announcement by saying that the country has used the football World Cup “as a catalyst to drive change” and reformed its migrant worker laws.

Members of Australia’s national team published a video criticising Qatar for its human rights legislation and demanding the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, which are strictly forbidden in the country. The organisers’ response sounded like something along the lines of “nobody’s perfect”.

Conversely, Iranian footballers have asked FIFA to exclude their country’s team from the Qatar World Cup as a way of condemning the government’s repressive actions against protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini, a young woman killed by the morality police. Calls to ban Iran from the tournament also came from Ukraine, due to the fact that the government in Teheran has given support to Russia in the ongoing conflict. Unsurprisingly, however, FIFA confirmed Iran’s team will be taking part.

“Focus on the football” 

Gianni Infantino and Fatma Samoura, respectively the president and general secretary of FIFA, signed a letter to all 32 participating teams, stating that “as one of the 32 participating teams, you carry the hopes and dreams of your home nation and all of its people on your shoulders. […] So, please let’s now focus on the football!”.

Essentially: let’s not ruin the fun for billions of fans for the sake of the rights of a few million others. Of course, the letter continues, “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

Gianni Infantino, Fatma Samoura, fifa
Gianni Infantino and Fatma Samoura, respectively the president and general secretary of FIFA © Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

At FIFA, Infantino and Samour continue, “we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No one people or culture or nation is “better” than any other. This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football. So, please let’s all remember that and let football take centre stage”.

According to FIFA, the football World Cup, far from legitimising the emirate’s human rights policies, are thus a means to promote inclusivity: “We have the unique occasion and opportunity to welcome and embrace everyone, regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. Let’s take that opportunity and unite the world through the universal language of football”.

The response from European teams

FIFA’s letter did not go unanswered. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Temps (Switzerland is home to the headquarters of FIFA and UEFA, and Gianno Infantino himself is Swiss), ten football associations, all European, responded rather negatively to Infantino and Samoura’s message, drafting a joint response reiterating their commitment to defending human rights, supporting migrant workers, and continuing to put pressure on FIFA to respect the promises made within the framework of the Qatar World Cup.

The countries that responded to FIFA’s letter are Germany, England, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Wales, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. They are all part of a UEFA working group on human and workers’ rights, and eight of them (Norway and Sweden didn’t qualify) will compete in Qatar. “We acknowledge, and welcome, as we have done in the past, that significant progress has been made by Qatar, particularly with regards to the rights of migrant workers,” the signatories immediately clarify, adding that “we welcome the assurances given by the Qatari Government and by Fifa regarding the safety, security and inclusion of all fans who travel to the World Cup, including LGBTQ+ fans”.

However, the statement goes on to say that “embracing diversity and tolerance also means supporting human rights. Human rights are universal and they apply everywhere. We will continue to support the momentum for positive, progressive change and continue to advocate for a conclusive outcome and update on the two key outstanding issues we have been discussing with Fifa for a long time”. The captains of the eight teams that qualified for the World Cup will wear a special armband, with a multicoloured heart and the phrase “One Love”, symbolising diversity and the fight against discrimination.

For the World Cup ambassador, homosexuality is ‘haram’

If any further proof were needed that, despite the limited concessions on workers’ rights made to improve its image for the World Cup, Qatar’s position on human rights is far from acceptable, look no further than the words of Khalid Salman, World Cup ambassador and former Qatari footballer. In an interview with German broadcaster ZDF, Salman stated that “homosexuality for us is haram” (forbidden by Islamic law, ed.) and that those travelling to the tournament “will have to accept our rules”. The ambassador even said that being gay is “damage in the mind” and expressed concern that children may learn “something that is not good”.

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