The consequences of holding a World Cup in Qatar are continuing to fracture the football world. Those who were unhappy about the method by which the destination of the 2022 was selected, have now been joined by a series of people with other concerns.
The concerns of gay rights campaigners had already been ignored, then idiotically publicised by FIFA President Sepp Blatter before he had to apologise by the end of last week. His apology will not dispel concerns about the lack of equality, dare we say, presence of discrimination in the Gulf State.
Furthermore, every raising of that side of the issue puts football and FIFA firmly at the core of the wider battle between the Western values of tolerance and secularism and the Islamic view of co-mingling theology and politics. This is surely not a battle where football wants to be either a weapon, far less a protagonist. The World Cup has become, as it were, a political football.
The rights of female fans were less of an issue as Qatar is reasonably liberal by the standards of the region.
However, one of the lesser known parts of the bid was the possibility of using either stadia or even hotel space of neighbouring countries. Qatar is completely under-capacity for the numbers of fans expected and it subsequently turned out that their bid was drawing on the proximity of nearby states to bolster the numbers necessary.
According to a study by the human rights’ organisation Freedom House:
“Bahraini women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in the Gulf region, followed by women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman. Saudi Arabia lags significantly behind, with women there among the most restricted in the world.”
Of course everything is relative, as the report continues:
“However, systematic discrimination across the region continues to relegate women to subordinate status. Personal status laws, which govern family issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, are a pervasive source of gender-based discrimination in the region. In some countries, women must obtain a male guardian’s approval to marry, to work, and in extreme cases, to undergo mandatory surgery. In addition, domestic violence targeting national women as well as expatriate workers remains a significant problem.”
It is another debate whether discriminatory conditions that affect residents but may not be apparent to fans enjoying a visit for sport should be considered. One side would say that during the Apartheid era in South Africa, this is exactly what was considered. The other side may add that FIFA’s responsibility ends at the treatment of football fans and should not extend into domestic politics. After all, the IOC gave an Olympic Games to China.
It was Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain whom Blatter specifically mentioned last week, when talking about other nations that may host games.
Astonishingly however, Qatar’s bid did mention Saudi Arabia as well as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as places fan could stay during their World Cup visit.
The Freedom House report while generally optimistic about the direction women’s rights are moving in the Gulf is unabashedly critical of Saudi Arabia.
“The country performs well below its neighbors in all categories, with women segregated, disenfranchised and requiring male approval to travel and access medical care. Gender inequality is built into Saudi Arabia’s governmental and social structures, and is integral to the state-supported interpretation of Islam. Women’s rights improved slightly, with women now allowed to study law, obtain their own identification cards, check into hotels alone and register businesses without first proving that they have hired a male manager.”
That the Qatari bid was allowed to even suggest Saudi Arabia as a place for fans to stay and not see the bid tossed out the window is incredible.
Saudi Arabia has a religious police called the Mutawwa’in, more fully known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. It is their job to rigidly enforce Sharia Law on the streets.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘they ensure the application of the kingdom’s strict gender segregation and dress code for women,’ and have ‘drawn criticism for abusive practices including harassment, physical abuse, and arbitrary arrest’.
In 2002, the Mutawwa’in arrived at the scene of a school which was on fire. As school girls fled the blaze, the baton wielding religious police were seen to force them back into the building to their deaths, because they were not dressed according to Islamic dress code. The Mutawwa’in also assaulted the local Fire Brigade and prevented them entering the building.
According to HRW, the newspaper Jeddah cited a report prepared by Mecca’s Civil Defense Department about the rescue effort at the school.
“The report noted that Mutawwa’in were at the school’s main gate and, “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties.” The religious police reportedly tried to block the entry of Civil Defense officers into the building. “We told them that the situation was dangerous and it was not the time to discuss religious issues, but they refused and started shouting at us,” Arab News quoted Civil Defense officers as saying.
“Whenever the girls got out through the main gate, these people forced them to return via another. Instead of extending a helping hand for the rescue work, they were using their hands to beat us,” Civil Defense officers were quoted as saying. The officers also said they saw three people beating girls who had evacuated the school without proper dress. A Saudi journalist told Human Rights Watch that the mutawwa’in at the scene also turned away parents and other residents who came to assist.”
Another fireman told the paper al-Eqtisadiah, that he had seen the police beating girls to prevent them leaving the burning building.
(See BBC – Saudi police ‘stopped’ fire rescue)
Beyond the political aspects though, the latest post-decision controversy surrounds the climactic conditions in Qatar during the months of June and July. Temperatures reach heights during that time that are unsafe to play football in the opinion of many. The Qataris offered to build climate controled stadium which seemed to satisfy FIFA delegates about the matches, but completely ignored the plight of supporters between games.
With the Cup now safely awarded, the Qataris are now suggesting that the World Cup be moved to January.
Last Friday from the safety of Abu Dhabi, Blatter openly backed the idea:
“I definitely support the idea to play in winter here [in the Middle East], when the climate is appropriate. I’m thinking not only about the fans but the actors, the footballers. They provide the spectacle. It is very important to protect the footballers. It’s a question of the international calendar, but it’s 11 and a half years away. This can be done. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
However many of the World’s top leagues are in progress during those months. Many of the world’s most wealthy and powerful clubs would lose their players during the season and their leagues would either have to halt, or plough on without their star attractions.
The day before FIFA’s general secretary Jerome Valcke responding to a question about a winter World Cup said:
“Why not? It means you open the World Cup to countries where they can never play it in June and July because it’s never the right period of time. It means you have to change completely when the leagues will play, mainly in Europe.”
Talk of abandoning FIFA after the loss of the 2018 World Cup to Russia abounded in England but was never really joined by the grown ups ie factions beyond Ken Bates and the tabloids. This outcry is deeper and wider, and moist alarmingly more thoughtful.
Last Saturday, the respected Independent Newspaper said:
“For the moment the major European leagues are keeping their counsel. Privately, they are deeply concerned. Preliminary assessment at the Premier League suggests three domestic seasons would be affected by such a change. Including the mandatory preparation period, a World Cup takes 10 weeks.
Players involved would then need a period to recuperate, not just physically, but mentally. However, a three- or four-month winter break could not be managed across a single season as it would mean two seasons effectively running into one another either side of the World Cup.
The situation is exacerbated by the prospect of the Confederations Cup, which has become a rehearsal for the World Cup and involves the reigning European and South American national champions, being played the previous winter. In England added complications, for broadcasters and fans, would be the clash with Wimbledon tennis, and cricket.”
The forces ranged against a Qatari World Cup are now larger and more powerful, but as yet still disorganised. However unlike the principled campaigns of human rights campaigners, the leagues and clubs have always shown themselves to be open to ‘financial persuasion’. Large amounts of money, which will be termed ‘compensation’, could make this go away.
If the Qataris offered $10m per player to alleviate the distress of missing them during part of the league season, Barcelona and Chelsea may be able to refuse, but Blackburn Rovers, Atletico Madrid and Wigan Athletic may not. Given the range of players who would be called up, there is every reason to believe there may be many financially strapped clubs who still have players in the tournament for some of the smaller nations.
A wedge could be very easily put between the ‘haves’ and the ‘could haves’.
The Independent article contains a range of reactions of EPL managers but finishes ominously.
“a showdown is brewing. The World Cup bankrolls FIFA; without it the organisation would be a shell. But the stars, who attract spectators, viewers â€“ and thus sponsors â€“ are almost all employed by European league clubs, many of whom are already unhappy with the depredations of international football.”
A showdown is indeed brewing but it will the rights of the wealthy rather than those of the sidelined and oppressed that will be the real battleground.