Qatar World Cup 2022: Football can’t give politics the red card

By Georgia Lucy Howell

WITH strict laws outlawing homosexuality, inhumane treatment of migrant workers and severe punishments for dissident journalists, Qatar has been the face of human rights controversies for some time.

Despite this, the tournament is now underway.

Pundits and players alike have criticised the location, with some even refusing to go.

Hjk Helsinki player Riku Riski refused for ethical reasons and Amnesty international has branded it the “Qatar World Cup of shame”.

Human Rights Watch has also reported the abuse and death of migrant workers, with thousands estimated to have died to build the stadiums needed.

Homosexuality is also outlawed, which means many LGBTQ people in Qatar face severe punishment like the death penalty.

In the face of increasing criticisms, FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino sent a letter to all teams involved in the cup urging them to “let football take centre stage” and “not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

What Infantino failed to realise however, is that football is an inherently political game, from the roots up. Football is arguably one of the most politicised sports and can’t break away from that, World Cup or not.

From the very start of the 20th century, football has been a powerful voice campaigning for progress in society as well as a reflection of social conscience.

READ MORE: Qatar’s World Cup is marred by death and devastation

The commercialisation of the beautiful game the began in the 70s bringing with it ticket price hikes and a new capita of wealth within the game indicative of neoliberalism, an ideology that introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government that is still active today.

Total commercialisation of the game came with the introduction and creation of the Premier League in the 90’s, giving football global economic influence and power.

If the very league that holds so many players together and brings together teams for international competitions is a sharp reflection of socio-political ideology, then how can football ever be apolitical?

The idea that football can ‘bench’ politics just to ensure that the Qatar World Cup can go ahead smoothly is simply hypocritical – especially when the FA endorses certain political messages to uphold public relations.

Every November football teams are expected to don poppies and stand for a minute’s silence prior to games.

When Manchester United player Nemanja Matic refused to wear the Poppy during a Derby match because it reminded him of NATO’s bombing of Serbia while he was growing up there, he was criticised by fans and pundits alike.

James McClean, an Irish footballer who plays for Wigan FC caused uproar for not taking part with the silence and bowing of heads in response to the death of the Queen, earlier this year.

If football is an apolitical game, McClean’s Irish heritage, growing up on the Creggan estate in Derry where many residents lost their lives during the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, would be respected too and wouldn’t be a problem for fans or pundits?

Racism is a painfully political issue has been incredibly prevalent within football stadiums. During the Euro 2020 cup, Black British players received a torrent of racist abuse.

Players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were amongst those targeted. Manager, Gareth Southgate, called the abuse “unforgivable”.

The squad previously faced a torrent of abuse for taking a stance against racism by taking the knee before matches, showing support for BLM. Fans, pundits and even government ministers telling players to “focus on the football”.

The question in this case is how can politics or ideology be kept out of football when the squad has such multi racial makeup?

The answer is simple. It can’t. Leaving politics in the dressing room is a privilege not afforded to all players.

Black players have faced racism in football for years in the UK. Numerous times, players and pundits have called it out often in the face of criticism.

When ex home secretary Priti Patel described the players as playing “gesture politics” for kneeling, she was called out by England defender Tyrone Mings who said: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti racism message as ‘gesture politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”

Kevin Prince Boateng, the professional football player who led AC Milan off the pitch in response to racist chants during a friendly with Pro Patria in Busto Arszio in 2013 said: “People in sports have unique opportunities therefore social responsibility. We speak to parts of society and pierce the hearts of those people that political discussions will never reach.”

Football is not a game that has been recently politicised, its role in society is always reflective of political and social issues and politics finds its way into football, match after match. 

Hooliganism, a word used to describe “disorderly behaviour and violence often perpetrated at sporting events” exploded in football stadiums of the 1960s.

During the 1980s, it was used to describe British football fans, following dramatic and, for some, fatal matches at home and abroad, resulting in England being banned from European club competitions until 1990.

Whether in the commercialised stadiums of Qatar or the Corbyn supporting seats of Liverpool’s ground, Football is a vehicle for change in society as well as a reflection of political agendas and ideologies across the globe.

Players can influence society in a way scarcely afforded to young, Black, working-class players like Marcus Rashford, who uses his platform to campaign for better opportunities for working class children across the UK, as well as campaigning among activists like Jack Monroe with the free school meals campaign.

When Tory ministers suggested Rashford stick to football his message was simple “I’d be doing my community a disservice if I did not use my platform to speak on behalf of millions whose voices are not being heard”.

In today’s polarised society, football’s role in progressive politics is vital to respect its working-class roots and the fan bases that fill stadiums with support match after match.

Featured Image: Chine Nouvelle @ Shutterstock (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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