Heart of Football

Boycotts, apathy, and jubilation… Qatar 2022 is finally here!

After over a decade of build-up, the most maligned sporting tournament in history is finally upon us. Boo. Hiss. Eyeroll in derisory fashion. Damn you Sepp Blatter. Dirty oil money. Boycott the whole thing, etcetera, etcetera.

There has been so much noise in recent weeks, months, and years, from both ends of the scale. The good, those many who have been criticising all that this tournament stands for; the bad, people like Klopp saying it’s too late and that the noise should have been made years ago (it was, Jürgen, nobody listened); and the ugly, see Hugo Lloris and his seemingly reasonable viewpoints which have an unsettlingly homophobic undertone. The thing is, not everyone is abhorrently against the tournament, and that’s okay.

I love the FIFA World Cup. It is just a glorious footballing event that brings together a myriad of cultures and footballing styles from across the globe. Sure, it has its problems. It side-lined African and Asian teams for far too long. It is extremely European-heavy. The Oceanic qualification process is laughable. By and large though, it has brought more good than harm to the world, especially in recent years. I’m Scottish. I have no horse in the race, and haven’t, at least not since I was a three-year-old in 1998. I just cannot find it within myself to care about this tournament. 

Scotland have never participated in my conscious lifetime, therefore their absence is not the reason. It just isn’t right. There are no BBQs, and long hazy summer nights in beer gardens. I don’t want to be putting up my fucking Christmas tree whilst keeping a half eye on a turgid Serbia vs Switzerland game. No amount of Bailey’s and Quality Street can make that an exciting prospect (the game that is, Bailey’s and Quality Street can only enhance a tree decorating experience). 

I’ve seen a lot of chat regarding how ‘people’ just don’t care about this tournament. The World Cup just isn’t a winter pastime, and the location, and it’s grim rationale behind it’s hosting, have quite rightly put people off. The thing is, the large majority of these people either support a country who haven’t qualified, or are supporting a country who have done nothing but qualify for major tournaments. Think Brazil and Argentina, Germany, France, Spain. Think England. There are some people that I do sympathise for, however. There are some people that have every right to be excited about their team being in a World Cup, and who are probably in some genuine dilemma over this irritation of a tournament.

Wales and Canada are two sides who are back in the big time after one hell of an absence. Wales have only appeared once, reaching the quarter finals in 1958, losing out to a 66th minute Pele strike. Canada have made it for the first time since 1986, where they finished 24th out of 24 competing teams in Mexico. Fans of these sides can be excused for being a little more buoyant about Qatar ’22. They may not love the location or its slot in the calendar, but the risk of waiting a decade may be cause of concern. Russia 2018 was hardly the most ethically awarded tournament in the history of the competition, but I’m willing to bet that few Icelandic fans would have called for a boycott. 

Canada celebrate in front of their fans after a successful World Cup qualification campaign [photo courtesy of Jamie Brackpool]

I spoke to Jamie Brackpool, head of magazine design for Total Football Analysis, and a proud Welshman who has been living in The Great White North for 21 years. 

What are your thoughts on Qatar as the host nation? 

I think the idea of the FIFA World Cup being hosted in a new country each year is a great idea. However, I can’t understand how allowing a country with such archaic ideologies can be allowed to represent the World’s game. How can we be so critical of a country’s politics then turn around and reward them with a platform as large as the World Cup? Andy Brennan coming out as gay in 2019 was a great start for making football more inclusive to LGBTQ+ fans and players, but this World Cup just seems like a huge step backwards. How can we expect LGBTQ+ fans and players to feel comfortable and accepted in our game when the host country of the sport’s biggest stage outlaws their way of life?

Wales and Canada have gone decades without playing in a World Cup. Do you think it is harder for fans of these teams to dismiss this tournament, given that they potentially may not qualify for one again for years? 

Listen, it would be impossible for me not to invest myself and immerse myself in this tournament. I have waited so long to see Wales participate in a World Cup and Canada being there is an added bonus. But, if this World Cup was hosted in almost any other country, I’d certainly have found a way to go and support in person. So, in that sense, I have had to alter the way I am enjoying the experience. Who knows if I will ever get another chance to see Wales play in a World a Cup? This will likely be Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey’s last opportunity to play in the tournament, and that alone makes it an occasion that I have to watch. I don’t know whether fans from countries like England, Germany, Argentina and Brazil will completely dismiss this tournament, as most die hard fans find it hard waiting four years, let alone 64, but it would certainly make it easier for them to do so. With all that being said, if Wales or Canada turned around and said they were pulling out in protest, I would fully back them. Rob Page has recently stated that Gareth Bale will be wearing the LGBTQ+ Pride captain’s armband, regardless of whether they have been given permission. I can watch this tournament and, despite finding the whole thing deplorable, cheer on my team, knowing that they are there unwaveringly standing behind the morals that they hold.

From a Welsh perspective, how does the build-up feel compared to the Euro 2016 build-up? 

It’s very hard to compare the buildup to 2016 and 2022. In 2016 I think most Welsh fans were just excited to be participants. There was always a feeling they could find some success, but to top the group ahead of England and to reach a semi final, beating the number one ranked team in the World at the time, was never on the cards until it happened. In the same way, I don’t think Welsh fans can realistically expect the same success this year. However, if we don’t go through the group, most fans will see that as an underachievement. I think we should be beating both Iran and the USA, and I also think we can get a result off England if the players are up for the occasion. So the biggest difference for this World Cup is managing the expectations. In 2016 we exceeded expectations wildly, as there was no real way to fail the fans. This year, I think we expect a certain level of competitiveness from the lads. Listening to the English media I can tell that Wales are still being underestimated, it’s just up to us to go and prove them all wrong. In 2016 Chris Coleman showed us all what Wales can do, whereas in 2022 we’re expecting Rob Page to remind the World that it wasn’t a fluke.

While I support Scotland and will be watching the World Cup, albeit with less appetite than usual, there are still fans of non-qualified team who feel strongly enough that this shouldn’t occur. Is it sour grapes that they haven’t qualified, or is it a resolute standpoint that more qualified nations should adopt?

I spoke to Norwegian Christopher Hylland, author of ‘Tears at La Bombonera (you can buy his book HERE), who is fervently against this tournament and will not be giving it any of his attention. 

Why is it important to you that you are boycotting Qatar 2022? 

I feel that football is heading in a direction that would be disastrous for the game we love. Game 39, European Super League, the “franchisation” of the beautiful game is something we’re standing by and watching happen with very little action. German fans in particular are very proactive when it comes to the incremental changes which take the game away from fans – I’ve always worried that fans of most English clubs don’t have it in them to collectively fight against the big issues. At some point we need to put our foot down and say that we’re not happy to accept X, Y or Z and this World Cup – after years of cumulative distaste towards developments in our game – was my breaking point.

Do you think you would still boycott it if Norway had qualified? 

The groundswell for a boycott of this World Cup started before Norway’s failure to qualify and my decision was taken then. I admit that had Norway qualified and made it into the knockouts – with all the excitement in Norway that would have followed – it would have been a big test for the boycott but that would also have been a bigger sacrifice, a bigger statement and a bigger show of distaste for this World Cup. That said, if the World Cup in 2030 is given to another country with an appalling human rights record, given after brown envelopes were passed under the table and/or necessitating the deaths of many thousands of modern-day slaves, I’ll be forced to miss Norway’s Golden Generation performing at a World Cup, potentially the first after 32 years (depending on how qualification for 2026 goes).

Norwegian players were not shy to critise the Qatari World Cup in their qualifiers [photo credit: CNN]

How did it feel seeing your team show solidarity with the migrant workers during qualifying, only to have your federation refuse to pull out of the qualification process? 

Unfortunately, the boycott movement started too late. I myself was massively ignorant to sportswashing and to the circumstances around this World Cup. It was only when the Guardian article about the deaths of 6,500+ migrant workers/modern-day slaves came out that people really became aware of what we were sleepwalking our way towards. Brazil 2014 had many issues – there were huge demonstrations about the spending necessary to host both the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the World Cup itself… Russia 2018 retrospectively was also a distasteful allocation (albeit before the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but it was after the South Ossetia/Georgia war).

The Norwegian football magazine Josimar had been reporting on issues with Qatar 2022 for a while but with the tournament way down the horizon the reporting didn’t get as much attention as in recent years. That is understandable. It was the culmination of many factors that led to the issue of sportswashing being brought up at individual clubs (initially members demanding that clubs do not do winter training camps in countries with dodgy reputations and human rights records and not to accept sponsorship from companies fronting them – being member-led, fans could mandate such things)

The Norwegian Football Federation are gutless. There was a general assembly in which the issue of boycotting the World Cup was raised, but they obfuscated the topic and managed to get their way. I appreciate they are stuck between two opposing worlds – the ruthlessly corporate world of modern football, FIFA et al. and their social democratic members – but their responsibility is with the small community they represent, namely the football people of Norway.

Norwegian football fans may have lost the first battle, but the issue isn’t going away and as the game falls further into the pockets of unscrupulous owners and a new breed of “custodians”, we’re forced to fight harder.

It’s worth mentioning that many bars across Norway are refusing to show the World Cup, a huge statement for places dependent on football for footfall. Instead, they’ll be showing old World Cups, random games from tournaments passed. It’s a result of the boycott movement.

England are one of those teams that almost always qualifies for the major tournaments, with Euro 2008 being the only major competition that they have failed to qualify for since the turn of the century. They’ve had highs, that Trippier free kick against Croatia feels like a lifetime ago, and they’ve had lows. We all remember Iceland. There is an expectation for them to go deep in tournaments, but if they don’t, the anger will subside, and two years later they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and go again. As such, the grumbles of ‘boycott Qatar’, have a little bit less impact from those who will almost certainly be in the draw in a few years’ time.

I spoke to Ade, an England fan that runs the popular Twitter account @WorldCup_Rewind, who is struggling to get a thrill from this year’s tournament build-up. 

The World Cup is here. Are you excited? 

To be honest, I’m not the slightest bit excited! I think my enthusiasm for football in general has waned year on year in the last decade though – “Innovations” such as VAR have a played a huge part in that. I think the last World Cup I truly got excited about was Germany 2006.

Do you think that as an England fan you’re spoilt to a degree, with a team qualifying for most tournaments?

Oh yes, absolutely. Funnily enough, I was chatting to a young Wales fan last weekend who is understandably all-consumed by World Cup fever. It occurred to me that, by the time I was 21 (his age), England had qualified for four World Cups and five Euros. I can also remember the sense of entitlement my 15-year-old self felt when we didn’t qualify for USA ‘94 so, yes, definitely spoilt!

What are your views on fans boycotting this tournament?

Obviously, it’s a personal choice – I understand the reasons why people are boycotting it, and I imagine it must be a lot easier to boycott it if your nation hasn’t qualified – less “FOMO” I guess. Personally, I never had any plans to travel to Qatar and can’t imagine I will go out of my way to watch matches on TV but, again, I think that’s probably just as much to do with my apathy towards modern football in general.

Ade was more buzzed to support the Three Lions back in the day… [Photo courtesy of Ade.C]

Look, we can’t tell you how to feel. Whether to boycott Qatar or lap it up like any other World Cup. Do what is right for you. Let’s just remember that we are all watching football for different reasons. For some people it is escapism, and they need that. For others, like football writers desperate for a few retweets (unless Elon kills Twitter by the time this is published…), it is an excuse to flex our thesauruses for every derisory word we can think of. Personally, I think this World Cup stinks. I don’t want to like it. I will, however, watch as much as I can, not because I like Qatar 2022, but because, above all else, I love football. I love the World Cup. I have already been robbed of a summer World Cup and I refuse to be robbed of total enjoyment. I besmirched Serbia v Switzerland at the start of this article, but it’s a World Cup game and I will be injecting it into my veins like Renton in Trainspotting. 

Thank you to Jamie, Christopher, and Ade for their contributions to this article.

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