Migrant deaths and Qatar’s stance on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights are among issues making some supporters disengage
Alex Murphy has found a community through football. His weekends are spent cheering on Ipswich Town, where he holds a season ticket, the Arsenal women’s team near his north London address, or playing five-a-side with his teams: Saka Potatoes and Olympique Mayonnaise. He has watched every World Cup since 2002 and enjoys the inclusivity of the event, which even his mum, who doesn’t really care about football, gets into. But this year, he won’t be tuning in.
He made the decision in January, when he became aware that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died after Qatar embarked on an unprecedented building programme, largely in preparation for the tournament.
Murphy was already disappointed that the country, which has a problematic track record with women and LGBTQ+ rights, had won the bid and been given the opportunity to sportswash its image. “I think by not participating in it, you’re partly defining what it is about the game you love,” he says.
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“Football can give people hope,” says Jonathan Tomlinson, the editor of a photo book that captured fans from around the world in 2018. “It gives people a reason to be together and put their differences aside.” He wanted to launch another issue to coincide with the World Cup but decided the event had come to epitomise elitism, corruption and a lack of empathy, so chose not to take part. “Nobody cares about the migrant workers or the people sitting at home cold,” he says.
Jessica Irving, who co-founded the Dalston-based five-a-side team Peaches FC, for women and non-binary players, during lockdown, agrees: “Football in my life has become such a thing of shared queer joy and community, calls for anti-racism, anti-sexism, and this does not represent any of that.”
She’s “disgusted” by a tournament “built on the blood of slaves” in a country where, under an interpretation of sharia law, gay sex can lead to a death sentence. Women also lack basic rights, and a Human Rights Watch report last year found they must ask permission from their male guardians to travel abroad until certain ages, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs and make some choices about their reproductive health.
“It just doesn’t feel like the same spirit that it usually does,” says Shivani Dave, a non-binary journalist and TikToker who was covering a Gay Gooners protest outside the Qatari embassy on Saturday. They have played football since childhood and are with a team called Golddiggers in East London. “I would usually love to be supporting it,” says Dave, but this year, they add: “I would rather invite friends around and watch a Christmas movie than go to the pub and watch the World Cup.”
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Dave thinks it’s important for the west to speak out against homophobia in Islamic countries, where they said many laws that restrict LGBTQ+ rights stemmed from a colonialist interpretation of Christian values. In their family’s native India there is evidence of queer relationships and trans bodies being worshipped but that disappeared with British rule. Not watching the World Cup is a way of showing solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community abroad.
According to a recent poll, six out of 10 people in the UK oppose Qatar hosting the World Cup over anti-gay laws, with 39% believing teams should not take part in the event. But there’s been a lot of fence-sitting from English fans when it comes to committing to a boycott. “What do we stand for in this country?” asks Irving. “Nothing.”
Europe has been more vocal. Since last year, a campaign in Norway has called for non-attendance, and the former Finland captain Tim Sparv was one of the first to encourage players to speak up. Fans have hung banners at German Bundesliga matches, and across France and Spain local authorities have vowed not to broadcast matches in public places. On TikTok calls to #boycottqatar2022 have garnered more than 4.1m views, including a video by a family member of a construction worker who died while employed, under circumstances he describes as “modern day slavery,” in Qatar.
But “the UK lives and breathes football”, says 21-year-old Nathan Balogun-etti, who coaches and referees for the Goalposts League. “If there was no football there would be an uproar.” Unlike his friends who will be watching the games, he’s not interested in supporting a tournament with a background of Fifa corruption.
Over the past four and a bit years, Fifa has increased its World Cup revenue by more than $1bn (£840m), helped by lucrative deals with partners such as Qatar Energy. But the governing body has asked participating nations to “let football take the stage”.
“The coverage and condemnation of Qatar, in recent weeks, has been encouraging,” says Murphy. He hopes a boycott will affect viewing ratings and finances and and show those hosting the event in the future that human and environmental costs matter to the public. His “greatest fear” is that with the World Cup under way “that conversation gets best put on standby and forgotten”.