Issues of equality in Qatar and Russia
7 February ~ "UEFA is apolitical," its president, Michel Platini, claimed when responding to criticism of their decision to award the 2013 European Under-21 Championship to Israel. Perhaps Israel was not a wise choice for a body that wishes to stay clear of politics. Given that he's tipped as the man to take over the Sepp Blatter's FIFA mantle in 2015, Platini should get used to the idea of politics interfering with sport. With Russia and Qatar as his first two World Cup hosts, political issues will be thumping on to his desk with the force and regularity of a riot policeman's cosh.
Most football fans hope that somewhere there exists a smoking gun that will cause FIFA to reverse its decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But despite the 15-page feature in France Football last week that once again threw into question the legality of the bidding process, and numerous well-documented reasons why Qatar is an execrable choice, we're stuck with the unlikely Middle East venue. As long as that remains the case, the focus will begin to shift towards what can only be described as political issues.
In Qatar, these have so far concentrated on the pay, conditions and rights of the migrant construction workers who will be building the World Cup infrastructure. FIFA have promised to put pressure on the Qatari government to improve what Human Rights Watch, in its 2013 report on the country published last week, called "an opportunity to apply international pressure on Qatar to improve conditions for migrant workers". These often involve long hours, low wages, insanitary working and living conditions, and passports confiscated by employers. There is also the freedom of speech issue, rarely tested by a compliant local media, but a young poet, Muhammad al-Ajami, who recited some lines lauding the Tunisian revolution to a small private gathering of friends, has been locked up for over a year for allegedly insulting the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. He has been charged with "inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime", which can carry the death penalty.
Aside from the small matters of not being a democracy, the lack of freedom of speech and the trampling of workers' rights, there are other problems with Qatar – Israelis are barred from entering the country and homosexuality is banned. Gay rights are going to be a problem in Russia as well. Although homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, the Russians seem intent on turning back the clock by passing new legislation that would prosecute anyone deemed to be "promoting" homosexuality to under 18s. Many gay rights protesters who demonstrated last month against the proposed legislation (which took a first step towards implementation with a vote of 388 in favour, one against, and one abstention) were beaten up by far-right counter-demonstrators while police looked on and failed to intervene.
FIFA and Platini will be well advised not to pretend that these issues have no connection with football. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people have the right to play and watch the game just like everyone else. They also boast a strong platform to lobby the public, pressurise sponsors and push FIFA towards forcing the hand of an errant World Cup host. Should FIFA be using its influence to strong-arm a country into political change? As long as that pressure supports the notion of its Fair Play slogan and the anti-discrimination rhetoric of its statutes, the answer must be "Yes". And if the majority of fans support such campaigns, as so many continue to do with anti-racism initiatives, then the process becomes irreversible, while at the same time bigotry is gradually seen as unacceptable at best.
Last week in the US, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made homophobic remarks ahead of the Superbowl, saying that he wouldn't want to share a dressing room with a gay team-mate. There was barely time for outraged reaction to register before he was apologising profusely and recanting every word. "Hopefully I learn and grow from this experience and this situation," Culliver said. In Qatar, the imprisoned poet Al-Ajami is defended by his lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, a former Qatari justice minister, who believes that linking civil rights with his country's fitness to host sporting events is important. "It matters," he said, according to the BBC. "We are making reform around the Arab world. Why don't we do it ourselves? We have to reform our society, our legal system, our political system. Then we can stand for any events around the world." Qatar is reportedly shaping up to bid for the 2024 Olympics.
Any progress in the field of host countries embarking on genuine political change will depend on how much administrators like Platini face up to the reality that football is not just there to put a smile on people's faces in a world spuriously united by sporting values. If FIFA can use its political clout to make a difference for the better instead of paying lip service to the concept of equality, then it may be less subject to criticism that its interest in any given country is purely commercial. "FIFA is political," Platini might say at the end of a 2022 World Cup in an open, democratic Qatar. "And we're proud of it." Ian Plenderleith