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Should fans boycott Qatar 2022?

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Should football fans boycott Qatar 2022 on humanitarian grounds? News that the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) has condemned FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and called on all gay fans to boycott “all activities associated with World Cup 2022” has focused the spotlight onto the emirate’s laws and punishments.

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Last Thursday Qatar held off competition from Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the USA to win the bid. However the GFSN, established in 1989 to take the lead in tackling homophobia in football, believe the Middle Eastern state’s homophobic laws should have prevented it from hosting the 2022 World Cup.

“We are deeply concerned with FIFA’s decision to appoint Qatar as the host nation for the 2022 World Cup. The lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender community is unlikely to want to attend football’s greatest tournament in a country where homosexuals can be imprisoned for up to five years,” said GFSN campaigns officer Ed Connell.

“With FIFA’s failure to condemn the recent homophobic remarks of the Croatian manager followed swiftly by their decision to award Qatar the World Cup, it is clear that there is still much progress to be made before football really is for all.”

Speaking to the FSF the world governing body responded that all member associations have a responsibility to abide by FIFA statutes opposing discrimination.

“FIFA has a long-standing record in the fight against all forms of discrimination in football. In fact, article 3 of the FIFA Statutes states that “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

While Qatar’s success in winning the bid shocked many pundits the geographically small nation – only 1.7m people live there and the vast majority of those are foreign workers – is massively oil rich and presented Sepp Blatter with an opportunity to take the World Cup to new lands.

However, criticism of FIFA for choosing the emirate to host its flagship tournament hasn’t just been limited to Qatar’s treatment of gay citizens and visitors. A whole host of individuals, media outlets and charities have been quick to attack the decision for football, political and moral reasons.

The inaugural 1930 tournament aside Qatar is the first nation to have been awarded the World Cup despite having never previously qualified. This has lead to criticisms over a lack of football heritage and many asking – who does football belong to? To those who have already embraced it? Or do FIFA have a duty to try and forever expand the game’s reach?

Climate has also proved controversial. Qatar is one of the world’s hottest countries and temperatures can reach a scorching 50°C in the summer months – hardly ideal conditions for players or fans. Franz Beckenbauer who sits on FIFA’s Executive Committee has even suggested rearranging football’s international calendar to accommodate the 2022 World Cup.

“One should think about a different solution. In January or February you have a comfortable 25°C there. Plans for the biggest leagues would have to change for 2022 but that would not be a major undertaking,” said Beckenbauer. “It would be an alternative to using climate control at great expense for stadiums and fanzones.” Qatar’s solution however isn’t to change the calendar but rather change the environment with a whole host of newly built, climate-controlled, “flatpack” stadia.

Should England qualify for 2022 it won’t be the first experience of Qatar for Three Lions fans. Back in November 2009 England lost 1-0 to Brazil in the capital Doha. As England’s travelling support knows though, alcohol restrictions are very tight in Qatar – you cannot take alcohol into the country and even alcoholic mouthwash can be confiscated.

Some hotels and bars do have special licenses to serve alcohol although it’s expensive at anything between £5-8 a pint, and any public drunkenness is strictly prohibited by the authorities. “At least 18 people, mostly foreign nationals, were sentenced to flogging of between 40 and 100 lashes for offences related to “illicit sexual relations” or alcohol consumption,” blogged Amnesty International’s Derek Blanchard.

While debates around football heritage, tournament legacy and attitudes towards alcohol will be central to many fans’ thoughts human rights groups attentions have focused on other issues. Qatar’s treatment of women and migrant workers received much attention with the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) commenting that the “Government of Qatar does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of [human] trafficking.”

Blanchard also shares his concerns around freedom of expression: “Last year at least 11 were convicted of blasphemy, including a Syrian man convicted of “insulting Islam in a fit of rage” for uttering a blasphemous word when the credit on his mobile phone ran out during a conversation.”

While many human rights activists have reservations over Qatar there are some signs that things might be headed in a direction they find more acceptable. In 2009 the Qataris ratified the UN’s Trafficking in Persons Protocol and, with 12 years to go before the 2022 World Cup, there’s still time for emir Hamad bin Khalifa to liberalise laws.

Can FIFA influence this process? Host nations have to grant tax exemptions and pass specially drafted copyright laws to protect the World Cup brand – football’s world governing body has immense power and seems increasingly keen to flex its muscles.

“In the past the FIFA World Cup has helped to overcome social challenges and change perceptions in the countries where it has been organised,” FIFA told the FSF – hinting that the organisation may yet attempt to influence Qatari law.

The next 12 years could lay down a real marker in proving just how far football can or cannot go in effecting societal change on a massive scale.

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