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FIFA and Qatar 'rattled' as European football World Cup boycott gathers pace

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By David Mac Dougall  with Reuters
Fans display a banner during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
Fans display a banner during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Martin Meissner   -  

The giant banners are now a familiar sight at German Bundesliga matches. 

Unfurled by fans, and seen by millions watching on TV, "Boycott Qatar 2022" has become a rallying cry for clubs, supporters and players alike who oppose this month's World Cup and want to highlight human rights and environmental concerns in the host nation. 

"The closer the World Cup gets, the more intense the message is getting," explained Stefan Schirmer from the Boycott Qatar campaign. 

"We have the impression that since the last two or three months, the momentum is gaining, it's going up," Schirmer, who plays football for an amateur club in Mainz, told Euronews. 

Schirmer is involved with other volunteers in the campaign to keep public attention on the controversial decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. Recently, the US Justice Department alleged Qatar was involved in bribing FIFA delegates for votes, something Doha and FIFA strongly deny.

The campaign also seeks to further publicise concerns over the rights of women, the LGBT community and migrant workers, democracy and the environmental impact of hosting a tournament in air-conditioned stadiums.

Philipp Lahm, the former German player who captained his country to the World Cup title in Brazil eight years ago, said recently that he won't be going to Qatar as part of the official delegation or as a fan.

“Human rights should play an important role in awarding tournaments. If a country that does poorly in that area gets the award (of hosting), then you have to think about what criteria the decision was based on,” Lahm told the German Press Agency dpa. 

Parallel campaigns in Spain and in France -- where a number of cities have refused to show games -- are galvanising fans there too. 

It comes just before the 32-team tournament kicks off on 20 November.

"FIFA and Qatar care because it hurts the image they want to create in public. They want the World Cup to be a merry football festival and everything is nice. But they see that in more and more countries, more and more people are speaking out loud against this World Cup," said Boycott Qatar 2022's Stefan Schirmer.

Michael Sohn / The AP
Slogans read:'Air-conditioned stadiums instead of climate protection, persecution of certain sexualities, disregard of human rights, no freedom of speech, ban on alcohol'Michael Sohn / The AP

Diplomatic row between Germany and Qatar

Qatar is facing more than just pressure from the football community. In October, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser -- whose portfolio also covers sport -- reportedly criticised Qatar's hosting of the World Cup, in a move that prompted an official complaint to the German ambassador in Doha. 

This week, however, Faeser visited Qatar and said she had received a "safety guarantee" for German LGBT visitors attending the tournament. Organisers have repeatedly said all visitors will be welcomed and treated with respect, regardless of sexuality or gender. Unmarried couples will not be banned from sharing accommodation.  

Her comments came just a day after Qatar's foreign minister was quoted by German media saying the German population "is misinformed by government politicians" on one hand, while the government itself "has no problem with us when it comes to energy partnerships or investments". 

The State of Qatar is one of the world’s biggest producers of natural gas – selling billions of euros worth to European countries. In 2021 Qatar provided 24% of Europe’s total LNG imports.

"We are annoyed by the double standards," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, claiming that Qatar had faced a systematic campaign against it in the 12 years since being selected to host the World Cup that he said no other country had faced.

"It is ironic when this tone is struck in countries in Europe that call themselves liberal democracies. It sounds very arrogant, frankly, and very racist," he told the newspaper.

Tim Sparv / Sparta Prague
FILE: Former Finnish national team captain Tim Sparv, who now coaches at Sparta PragueTim Sparv / Sparta Prague

Former captain advocates for Qatar migrant worker rights

One of the earliest and most prominent European footballers advocating for the rights of migrant workers in Qatar was Tim Sparv

The former Finnish national team captain, who led his side at last year's European Championships, won a players' union award in 2021 for his work. 

Sparv became involved in the issue when teammate Riku Riski refused to attend a training camp in Qatar at the start of 2019 on ethical grounds. 

"Back then I was captain of the national team, and so it's also a question of leadership. You can't just hide away, because journalist questions are not only about your last game. So I tried to find out more and educate myself about the situation in Qatar," Sparv told Euronews. 

It's widely quoted that 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. But this figure is all deaths, according to the UN, not necessarily at work or while working on stadium-building projects. Qatar says there were 37 deaths "directly linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums". 

A recent letter from FIFA to countries taking part in the World Cup cautioned them to focus on sport, not other issues. 

Sparv, who now coaches juniors at Sparta Prague, said he thinks FIFA is "rattled" by the groundswell of animosity against the organisation, and the Qatar World Cup. 

"Reading that letter, it sounded really arrogant in the first place. You get a sense they are a little bit rattled, and they don't like what's going on: people taking a stand and people speaking up." 

European teams responded to FIFA with a letter of their own, saying they still need answers to questions around rights for migrant workers in particular -- while welcoming assurances from the Qatari Government and FIFA regarding the safety of fans, including LGBTQ+ supporters. 

"I think there is also a place and a time for boycotting and it's a last stage, so there are other alternatives to a boycott. I'm interested to see how players, federations, coaches and teams use this opportunity while they are in Qatar, and address these issues," said Finland's Tim Sparv. 

"It will definitely be a little disappointing if they don't say anything. That would be a wasted opportunity, and something they would regret later on." 

The plight of construction and domestic workers living in desperate conditions has been well-documented over the years.

In response, the Qatari government overhauled the country's labour laws and introduced a minimum wage.

But human rights organisations say migrant worker abuses remain rife in Qatar and that labour reforms are unfinished. 

Nariman El-Mofty / AP
Pakistani migrant labourers pose for a photograph, as they take a break, on the corniche, overlooking the skyline of Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.Nariman El-Mofty / AP

What does the campaign mean when they call for a 'boycott', exactly?

The Boycott Qatar 2022 campaign was never under any illusions they could somehow stop the tournament, which is a juggernaut of sport, marketing and geopolitics -- "that is a fantasy" said Stefan Schirmer. 

But they are encouraging people to boycott in their own ways. 

"I won't watch any World Cup games, and in fact, at our club in Mainz we have organised friendly games against other teams during the quarter-final, semi-final and final," Schirmer said. 

The campaign hopes individual football fans will opt to tune out of the games on TV, and that pubs which would normally show the matches decide not to this year, for ethical reasons. 

"We want pubs and clubs to be creative, and offer alternative activities for fans." 

"Boycott Qatar is just a collection of very small actions, but together we can have one very big voice, and it can have a positive effect."

At the time of publication, Qatar has not responded to Euronews' request for a comment regarding the boycott campaign.