How far will players go to expose Qatar? Footballers are under pressure but Gulf state pays bills


The Qatar propaganda machine is in overdrive, now that the qualifiers for the World Cup it some-how managed to win are under way. ‘Kindness and generosity — it’s a way of life,’ they proclaim on the Qatar 2022 website.

Try telling that to the family of Zac Cox, the Briton who died in 2017 on a woefully inadequate building site at the Khalifa International Stadium. Qatar — and FIFA — refused to disclose details of what they say was an ‘inquiry’ into the 40-year-old’s death.

Try telling Nirmala Pakrin, the young widow of a scaffolder working on the lavish Education City Stadium. Her husband Rupchandra Rumba died from what authorities say was a heart attack ‘due to natural causes’, though there has been no inquest to confirm it. Mrs Pakrin has been given no answers at all, just a £1,300 compensation offer for her husband’s life.

Holland (above) are the latest team to take a stand against Qatar's human rights record

Holland (above) are the latest team to take a stand against Qatar’s human rights record 

When you get beyond the glossy exterior that Qatar 2022 likes to parade, it’s perhaps no surprise that migrant lives have been lost there: 6,500 in the decade since the World Cup was won, according to one recent study.

It was the grim, unvarnished reality that the Mail on Sunday witnessed when we reported from the Al-Sheehaniya workers’ camp, ten miles away out of Doha in 2019. We saw ten Indian men crammed in a stinking room with children’s bunks for beds. And workers like Abdurrahman a few floors down, cooking on rudimentary devices because there were no catering facilities.

These godforsaken souls are no less a part of Qatar’s furious World Cup construction effort than the stadium construction workers — be-cause the roads and bridges and subway stations they are building are every bit as integral to Qatar 2022 as the football palaces.

Zac and Rupchandra and Abdurrahman are the reason why the Norway team lined up be-fore their game in Gibraltar on Wednesday in T-shirts carrying the message ‘human rights — on and off the pitch.’ A lead followed by Germany when they played Iceland in Duisburg the following night. Both teams avoided FIFA fining them for making political statements by not overtly referencing Qatar. But players such as Germany’s Leon Goretzka spelled it out.

Norway began the protests on Wednesday by demanding for human rights on and off the pitch

Norway began the protests on Wednesday by demanding for human rights on and off the pitch 

One of those wearing the Norwegian T-shirts was Erling Haaland, who three months ago was lavishing praise on Qatar’s Aspetar Hospital, having visited for treatment on a hip injury

One of those wearing the Norwegian T-shirts was Erling Haaland, who three months ago was lavishing praise on Qatar’s Aspetar Hospital, having visited for treatment on a hip injury

But how far are other footballers prepared to go? We are emerging from a lockdown in which they have found a voice and harnessed their power to force change. On Friday, Marcus Rashford was speaking to his Child Food Poverty Taskforce, to find out more about the pitiful salaries of Deliveroo workers. Deliveroo is an England sponsor.

But welcome and vital though his speaking out on zero-hour wages and the plight of children going unfed might be, it does not carry risk. Taking on Qatar entails biting a hand that feeds football.

One of those wearing the Norwegian T-shirts was Erling Haaland, who three months ago was lavishing praise on Qatar’s Aspetar Hospital, having visited for treatment on a hip injury. An Amnesty report found the hospital to have been at the centre of human rights abuses.

After Bayern Munich won the Club World Cup in Doha last month, chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was asked why he had not challenged Qatar’s welfare record. ‘It’s all too easy to say: Here comes the great Bayern Munich, pointing the finger and saying you need to adapt your human rights,’ he replied. Bayern’s shirt-sleeve sponsors are Qatar Airways. The club have held training camps there since 2011.

Belgium also has a complicated relationship with Qatar. The Gulf state’s sponsorship of top-flight Belgian team KAS Eupen is designed to create a nursery for its players.

A letter from the Royal Belgium FA to FIFA last week demanded oversight on new Qatar labour laws.

England players like Kane are showing themselves willing to field questions on this subject

England players like Kane are showing themselves willing to field questions on this subject

Gareth Southgate made it clear this weekend that he has no problem with players speaking out

Gareth Southgate made it clear this weekend that he has no problem with players speaking out

England players — Harry Kane on Saturday, like John Stones in midweek — are showing themselves willing to field questions on this subject, though the first steps are tentative. Stones says the squad ‘definitely want to talk about it.’ Kane says that ‘it would be a good conversation to have among the players.’ And after that chat? ‘I’m sure there’d be an outcome,’ says Kane.

England wearing T-shirts, too, would be a real statement. Before Norway’s match at home to Turkey on Saturday, Haaland and team-mates wore updated versions of their human rights T-shirts, with ticks next to the names of Norway and Germany and the question: Next?

Gareth Southgate made it clear this weekend that he has no problem with players speaking out. ‘We have a mature environment,’ he said. ‘We want well-rounded people who have an opinion.’

He is all too aware that controversy comes attached. ‘Of course, what happens is we get asked an opinion, we give an honest well-balanced answer and then we get slammed,’ he continued. But there will be no public opposition to players making their feelings felt.

An outright boycott of Qatar 2022 will not happen. Nations will not risk the expulsion from the 2026 tournament that could result. But players do have a power to effect change that even Amnesty International can only dream about.

‘The word “dialogue” is vague and cowardly,’ Norway’s coach Stale Solbakken said after his team’s protest. ‘There must be pressure. Direct measures must be taken to make things better. We can do things that the world might see.’

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