The much-vaunted FIFA World Cup, Qatar 2022, is accelerating towards us all, soon it’ll be pubs and passes, goals not chords, and ‘off-side ref,’ not ‘Outsideleft’. This festival of football, with fan zones back home, huge screens, sing-a-longs, 'Sweet Caroline ....’ ‘ and ‘it’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming...’ - Rod Stewart, eat your heart out. Beer, it’s raining beer, glasses flying and exploding in delight as ‘Arry ‘ammers in Engerlands goals, all a bit like the front rows at an Oasis gig, loadsa fun, ain’t it? almost a mosh pit.
This World Cup in Qatar poses some very real moral questions though. My first football memories, TV, England, Wembley ’66, was a tournament that also covered up football’s dark side, an African boycott, apart from the unfair qualification rules for Africa, the oldest Football Federation in England was still supporting South Africa’s membership of the Governing body, FIFA, and was proposing to tour there. Politics emerged again in Argentina in 1976, then a brutal military dictatorship, and again in Russia in 2018, we all knew the face of Russia then. The widespread arguments 'It’s sport, it’s football, it’s above politics', were morally threadbare, as Olympic boycotts, and protests demonstrated.
The decision to hold the FIFA World Cup in the Middle East has validity. Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet, Basketball, Cricket, and Golf are nowhere even close. The game is increasingly well developed in the region, albeit with European stars ending their careers in fanatically attended matches in front of exclusively male crowds.
Qatar’s award of the World Cup opened a plethora of criticisms, initially and most prominently the voting system that awarded the final was questioned. But also climate, experience, football history, venues, size of the nation, culture, politics, and geography. The sense of objective observers that ad hoc organization of European football hegemony tainted these arguments cannot easily be dismissed. More questions were asked and the objections exploded - human rights, labour, and political rights. Real, ever-present throughout the whole process, they formed part of the well-known, rehearsed, and widely disseminated critique of the decision to support Qatar 2022.
As timescales narrowed, it became evident even to the most hopeful activists that despite the protests, there was simply too much money at stake, and to be lost. The protesters tried all appeals but I sadly realised were doomed to failure, as the stadia were taking shape. I’d always considered the original decision to be wrong, but could see the event should be held in a region where the game is loved, and a World Cup in Qatar could be funded without bankrupting the nation.
I’d been to World Cup games in France ’98, and Germany 2006, and been to Euro fan zones, but no tickets in Poland and France, so understood the passions and events around the games and loved the atmosphere. Going the Gulf was never an option: stadium construction deaths, human rights, anti-gay laws, the whole no display of emotions, would be too much for me. The decision to be absent was simple, I was never ever going to go. I could rest there and say, as friends do “I’m boycotting Qatar”. Like me, they were never going to go and claims of a boycott were insulting, to those who died in construction, and facile in terms of personal integrity.
Qatar 2022 still leaves me with personal morality issues and troubled self-respect. Some may see these as pompous, and self-centered, and perhaps they are, but for me, it’s here that some real politics of protest lies. Of course, I can’t run on the pitch, and I’d be too terrified to spend time in a Qatar jail, even if I was young and fit, instead of old and fat, that’s me now. From my own point of view, I do need to do something for my own self-respect, and feel something to appease these inner conflicts. This is where NOT watching the games comes in. Yes, a boycott on watching. I already refuse to buy or read the Murdoch press because of his anti-union stances, so the idea of not watching the world cup came as a slow crawl of an idea. What effect will it have on Qatar? Nil. Will anyone know, only when they collect viewing stats on cable TV, they’ll know I didn’t watch the game at home? But that’s not the point. I know the world will continue to watch in their millions, perhaps billions for the FINAL. But I intend to not be one of them. Yeah, it’ll be difficult for me. I love the World Cup, it’s a chance to see teams, players, styles of play, and fans I can’t usually see. Yes, there’ll be upsets and controversies, debates and discussions. I’ll miss out with mates, many of whom, incidentally, think I’m mad, maybe, but I still have a strong sense of moral self-worth, and respect. That matters to me.
Am I happy with my plan? No I am not. Do I expect this to change anything? No. Do I expect people to follow this idea? No way. If Marx were alive today his quote would probably be, “Football is the opiate of the people.” And there’s a kernel of truth in that, however sometimes like all drugs, it’s good to have a period of abstinence, and for me the excuse is made stronger by my sense that I want no part of a World Cup that is I feel morally wrong, and for all the impotent protesters, realising their tragic ineffectiveness, I want to show some solidarity no matter how insignificant. I’m reminded of a classic protest song line that I’ve loved since the 70’s...
“They may not get the news, but they need to know, we’re on their side,” sang Gil Scott Heron in his classic South African protest song, Johannesburg, and for me, that’s as good a reason as any for a simple personal boycott of Qatar 2022.
Main image, a facsimile of the Jules Rimet Trophy, the original World Cup trophy