This year’s host country is under scrutiny for its history of human rights abuses and alleged bribery and corruption in connection with FIFA, in addition to the conditions surrounding the event itself, such as the injustices faced by migrant workers (including unexplained deaths) responsible for building the World Cup stadium and infrastructure. Meanwhile, Qatar’s laws regarding homosexuality — same-sex relationships are illegal in the country, and punishable by up to three years in prison — have led to further condemnation.
These circumstances have simultaneously placed in question the integrity of the global extravaganza, along with its ambassadors and stakeholders. Qatar has been accused of sportswashing, or the practice of countries hosting major events for the sake of cultivating influence, improving reputation, and distracting from a country’s condemned humanitarian or environmental practices.
Notably, discourse surrounding Western hypocrisy has simultaneously emerged, and not only from FIFA President Gianni Infantino (who used his hour-long speech on the eve of the World Cup to declare European critics of the tournament hypocritical in their demand for human rights). Others have written of the complexities of engaging with the cup regardless of handing out criticism, as well as football’s documented history of priotising money over human rights.
This ongoing back-and-forth, however, has not eclipsed the crux of the issue for many. FIFA itself adopted the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2016, which codifies its responsibility to uphold human rights. The criticisms towards both Qatar and the governing body of football have resulted in various protests, both on the pitch and off.
Here’s an ongoing list of protests being staged against this year’s World Cup.
Germany players send a message
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On Nov. 23, Germany players covered their mouths with their hands during a team photo before their World Cup opener, a match against Japan at Khalifa International Stadium. “It was a sign, a message that we wanted to send out. We wanted to convey the message that FIFA is silencing us,” said head coach Hansi Flick.
The team’s action came days after FIFA banned players from wearing rainbow armbands in Qatar. The bands are a component of the OneLove campaign, which was started by the Dutch Football Association to campaign against all forms of discrimination while emphasising unity and a shared love for football amongst fans. The band has no directly worded mention of LGBTQ advocacy, but is covered with an array of colors — like a rainbow — and a heart, akin to symbols associated with LGBTQ rights.
In Qatar, many teams sought to wear the band as a message of solidarity with the LGBTQ community, while playing in a country that criminalises same-sex relationships. However, FIFA clamped down on it, citing the organisation’s regulation on equipment such as armbands: “No item (of playing kit or other clothing or equipment or otherwise) may be worn or used in any controlled area if FIFA considers that it is dangerous, offensive or indecent, includes political, religious, or personal slogans, statements, or images, or otherwise does not comply in full with the laws of the game.” This apparently includes OneLove bands.
FIFA asked team captains to instead opt for bands created as a part of its own “social campaign”. These bands feature slogans such as “Football unites the world”, “SaveThePlanet,” and “NoDiscrimination”.
“We wanted to use our captain’s armband to take a stand for values that we hold in the Germany national team: diversity and mutual respect,” wrote the German team in a Twitter thread. “Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position.”
Germany, alongside England, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, and other European nations, backed down from wearing the bands but have expressed displeasure. The German Football Association is planning to take legal action against FIFA.
Meanwhile, OneLove armbands have sold out according to their manufacturers.
Wales puts rainbow flag on display
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In a similar vein, Wales displayed rainbow flags at their training base in Qatar on Nov. 23, as a message of solidarity with the LGBTQ community. The team was also planning on sporting OneLove bands but were prevented from doing so.
Backlash against David Beckham
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Former England captain David Beckham is serving as ambassador for the Qatar World Cup — a role drawing criticism from human rights activists, fans, and celebrities alike. The backlash stems from Beckham’s decision to be sponsored by Qatar for an allegedly whopping fee.
In protest, British comedian Joe Lycett promised to shred £10,000 (or USD $11,000) if Beckham didn’t stand down from his role before the World Cup. The ex-footballer didn’t take any such action — and Lycett appeared to shred the sum in a video posted online. In fact, the money was not shredded, as Lycett later revealed, but instead donated to LGBTQ charities.
Lycett originally praised Beckham for being a “gay icon”: a reputation he held since the early 2000s, largely thanks to gracing a cover of gay lifestyle magazine Attitude — the first professional footballer to be featured on the title’s cover — and sprouting conversations about sexuality and football.
“The fall of David Beckham’s star has been fast and heavy,” Attitude editor-in-chief Cliff Joannou wrote in a statement on Twitter. “It’s a reminder that being an advocate for not just LGBTQ+ rights, but women’s rights, immigrant worker’s rights…and any human rights should not be lip service.
“It’s not a trend to boost a person’s profile. Human rights are not a fashion statement to be made to generate coverage in the style pages of tomorrow’s magazines.”
Iran players decline to sing national anthem
Credit: Evrim Aydin / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
While not a protest against Qatar or FIFA, the political messaging on the pitch continued with Iran’s team declining to sing their national anthem before their match with England. The action was in solidarity with anti-government protests in their home country; a string of protests have swept through the country after the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September. Amini was detained by Iran’s “morality police” in Tehran for supposedly not covering her hair adequately. Protesters have been met with brutal force in the country, leading to an imminent investigation by the United Nations’ top human rights body.
In the stadium, Iran’s football team was met with cheers and fans holding signs with the words “Woman, Life, Freedom”. The team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, told reporters before the game, “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”
This article will continue to be updated during the course of the World Cup.