The group stage fixtures for the 2022 World Cup have finally been confirmed. As football fans all around the world watched the draw take place last week, many will have quietly been hoping to avoid the inevitable ‘Group of Death’. The heavily-worn label refers to a group comprised of some of the tournament’s strongest teams, making progression to the latter stages a pretty tough task.
While this year’s draw ended up being relatively even-handed throughout, the reality is the spectre of death will loom over every single one of the tournament’s 64 fixtures. That may sound hyperbolic, but with 6,500 workers reported to have died during stadium construction for FIFA’s showpiece event, it’s an accurate projection of what awaits us in December. It’s why I’ve decided to make a personal decision and boycott this year’s tournament.
Last year, I wrote a piece for VERSUS entitled ‘5 Questions FIFA Needs to Answer about Qatar 2022’, outlining the most problematic elements of the tournament. The first question was on why FIFA decided to award the World Cup to Qatar. In a recent press conference, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal perfectly encapsulated most of our thoughts: “We will be playing in a country where FIFA say we are going to help develop football. That is bullshit, the tournament in Qatar is about money and commercial interest. That is what matters to FIFA.”
It’s obvious the World Cup was awarded to Qatar because this was FIFA’s best opportunity to line their pockets. Unfortunately, commercial greed in the game is not exclusive to FIFA. It’s the lifeblood of modern football and we see it within our club system every season: an incessant number of kit releases, inaccessible ticket prices, an overwhelming number of TV subscriptions, owners who have no connection to the culture of our clubs. The list goes on.
There’s now a huge chasm between football ‘the sport’ and football ‘the industry’. The passion and community fostered by the former, is commodified and commercialised by the latter. As disillusioning as it is, football’s commercialisation is symptomatic of a bigger economic structure. Boycotting the World Cup can’t remedy the effects of late-capitalism (if only), so why have I decided to embark on a personal boycott?
For me, it’s about my principle as a consumer. Over the last decade there’s been a massive increase in conversations around ethical consumption, primarily within the context of dietary choices (meat and dairy) and fast fashion (worker conditions and environmental impact). Within these two topics specifically, there is an ethical and economical nuance. Processed food that’s easy to store is cheaper than an organic vegan diet and amidst a cost of living crisis, you can’t automatically expect someone to make ‘the right choice for the planet’ over the right choice for themselves. Similarly, fast fashion is much cheaper in the short term, and might be some consumers only option. But unlike clothes and food – two basic human needs – watching football matches is not a necessity.
You might think be thinking “I don’t agree with what’s happened, but I just want to enjoy the World Cup”, and that’s totally fine. Boycotts should always be a personal choice – but it’s worth being honest with ourselves about what these choices mean. If people dying is a justifiable cost of being entertained, that’s up to all of us as individuals, but we shouldn’t shy away from that choice being our reality.
FIFA’s decision to ban Russia from this year’s World Cup – as punishment for the state’s invasion of Ukraine – was roundly applauded. We can’t be hypocritical in wanting morality to govern sporting decisions, though. Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves this hypothetical question:
Does it make sense for Russia to be removed from the World Cup, as punishment for disregarding human rights, when the whole tournament is being held in a country where it’s illegal to be gay and thousands of migrant workers died during construction?
To me, it does not. Selectively taking stands against injustice, subtly reinforces narratives of who is worthy of justice and who isn’t. LGBTQIA+ people and migrant workers deserve our solidarity just as much as Ukrainians. So if we wouldn’t be comfortable watching Russia play at the World Cup, why would we be fine with Qatar hosting it?
As a football fan residing in England, Hector Bellerin’s recent comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are particularly poignant. Speaking on the widespread condemnation of the Kremlin, he said: “It is racist to have turned a blind eye to other conflicts and now to have this position”. His comments drew ire from those who didn’t care to unpack his point. We often think of racism in terms of Klan hoods and EDL marches, but these extreme manifestations actually emanate from underlying societal determinations of what constitutes humanity, and who is worthy of empathy and dignity.
It’s telling that discourse around garment worker conditions in fast fashion rose following the news that Boohoo workers were suffering squalid conditions in a Leicester factory. For the entirety of my lifetime, it’s been common knowledge that plenty of clothes are made in sweatshops by children in the global south. As soon as it’s happening in an English city we’ve all heard of, it’s a problem.
The mindset that “it doesn’t matter because it’s over there” is reprehensible. We have to ask ourselves honestly, if thousands of British people died in the construction of the Olympic stadium, would we have sat back and thought ‘that’s a shame, but I want to see who wins the 100m’?
I don’t think so. I don’t have anything against players who want to compete, or fans who want to watch, but we have to all do what we think is right. That’s why if it’s coming home, I won’t be watching.