A nation’s team is not its government

icon japanball5 June ~ The unearthing of FIFA corruption pleases me as much as any other fan, particularly following reports of slave conditions for those building Qatar’s 2022 World Cup stadiums. My week was dampened, however, when Labour MSP Neil Findlay motioned to cancel Friday’s Scotland v Qatar friendly. The Scottish TUC had their objections too. I’m a Labour voter and lapsed payer of union dues but, in a week where Xavi – Barcelona’s font of pseudo-political footballing purity – is chaired off to live in Qatar, I’ll feel okay watching their national team for 90 minutes.

I’m supporting Scotland. I want Qatar defeated on the pitch and I imagine there’ll be consensus at Easter Road about abusing them off it. I didn’t actually buy my ticket until Pauline Kelly, Amnesty’s acting programme director in Scotland, approved the fixture. Last month she told the BBC: "Sporting links with other nations – especially those with endemic human rights abuses – are an opportunity to highlight the dire conditions in those countries."

Yet, as an occasional Amnesty donator, my conscience remained uneasy. Because upon hearing we’d play Qatar at Easter Road my instant reaction was joy. Before the political context dawned I felt briefly thrilled. After previous missed opportunities I’d finally get to see a team from the Asian confederation and attend a Scotland game at Hibernian’s ground.  

That specific case of knee-jerk glee might be particular to list-tickers. But the instinctive, purely footballing appeal of a fixture has temporarily blinded generations to distasteful regimes. Either side of their murderous military junta hosting the 1978 World Cup, Scotland and England both played Argentina home and away. The Nazi Swastika flew above Ibrox in 1936 when 50,000 watched Scotland face nine of the players who would become Germany’s famous “Breslau XI”. Most fans know a nation’s team is not its government. For 90 minutes we let its players represent that country’s football.

I’ll be wearing Adidas trainers on Friday night. I’ll probably hit the McDonald’s I’ve previously frequented around club matches at Easter Road. A half-time Coke would complete a trifecta of brands synonymous with FIFA’s sanctifying of despots and inequality since the 1934 World Cup went to Mussolini’s Italy. Hundreds of poorly paid migrant workers are dying in Qatar. My little indulgences – including Friday’s £15 ticket for the Famous Five Stand – seem like sickening luxury.

Yet I don’t remember boycotts of fixtures against teams from totalitarian regimes in past decades. Joseph Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths when ruling the USSR yet Dynamo Moscow, the team sponsored by his secret police, toured Britain in 1945 to phenomenal crowds. Unlike the Soviet bloc then, the world’s fans know what’s going on in Qatar now. And, in the case of awarding Qatar the World Cup, we know who to blame. Thankfully it looks like FIFA president Sepp Blatter is going before we all have to boycott the entire sport. Alex Anderson

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