Commentary

What's more important -- soccer or human rights?

Finland's midfielder Riku Riski  last month withdrew from his country's friendly against Sweden because it was being played in Qatar, a country much criticized for its treatment of migrant workers who are building the stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. The player cited "ethics and values, which I want to follow and hold on to," as his justification for pulling out of the game. "I felt that was important,” he told a Helsinki newspaper.

In Thailand, Hakeem al-Araibi -- the soccer player from Bahrain granted refugee status and residency by Australia -- continues to be held in jail on an extradition request from his native country on trumped up vandalism charges. Arrested due to an erroneous Interpol warrant after arriving in the country on his honeymoon last year, al-Araibi has in the past criticized Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, the Bahraini vice president of FIFA and the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Al-Araibi fears imprisonment, torture and death if he is forcibly returned to Bahrain, where he was among numerous athletes persecuted in 2012 for their part in pro-democracy demonstrations during the Arab Spring. The World Players Association and FIFA have lobbied the Thai authorities to release the player and allow him to return to Australia, but he has now been detained for a further 60 days following a court hearing today (Monday).

Sheikh Salman, who is also a member of Bahrain's ruling royal family, has remained completely quiet on the matter, while the AFC refused to answer questions on the player's detention during the AFC Asian Cup that ended on Friday. The first-time winner of that tournament, by the way, was Qatar, which beat Japan 3-1 in the final. The country's 'soft power' campaign to present a face of normality to the world through sport continues to gain momentum (and, no doubt, business).

"The World Cup is a huge opportunity to show our culture to people who've never been here," the vice president of Qatar's World Cup Organizing Committee, Nasser al-Khater, told kicker magazine last month. "I believe that people who visit will change their opinion," he said, adding that his team was working "every day" to counter "negative pre-conceptions and prejudices" about the state.

Does that daily work include ending the exploitation of migrant workers, who make up almost nine-tenths of the country's population? Not according to the latest of several damning reports on labor conditions in Qatar from Amnesty International, released last fall. It documented the continuing saga of Nepalese migrants subject to unpaid wages and debt traps at the hands of Mercury MENA, an engineering company involved in building World Cup infrastructure.

The soccer community faces choices when confronted with cases like Qatar and Bahrain. As players and clubs, they can take a stance like Riski, and refuse to play the game. Or they can be like Paris St. Germain (owned by the state of Qatar) and Bayern Munich (who hold their winter training camp in Qatar every year), and just ignore the issue of human rights.

"While Qatar has taken some important steps to protect human rights," said Lama Fakih at Human Rights Watch upon releasing its latest report on the country last month "there is still a long way to go before migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation." Both super-clubs are clearly OK with that.

In the case of Hakeem al-Araibi, FIFA can put pressure on its own vice president to stop the illegal extradition process against the player. If he doesn't, they should pay more than lip service to their own slogans about Fair Play and fire him from his position. Or perhaps they haven't noticed that someone at the very head of their own organization could trigger al-Araibi's liberty with a phone call.

It would be magnificent to see some of Riku Riski's lonesome moral clarity from other players, clubs, functionaries and federations. And yes, from fans as well. Although very few supporters are looking forward to Qatar 2022, the tournament that was bought by bribing several former or now deceased members of FIFA's disgraced Executive Committee (see Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert's book, “The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup”), the vast majority will end up watching once the tournament is under way.

I have no idea how the Finland-Sweden game in Qatar ended -- I would never have known it was taking place if it hadn't been for Riski's resistance. When the Qatari World Cup kicks off, though, that process will be reversed. Fans will watch and remember the games, which will be duly analyzed and recorded as part of sporting history. The nameless and numerous workers whose hours, and in many cases whose lives, were sacrificed to build the hotels and air-conditioned stadiums will have been almost completely forgotten.

By that time, soccer will have passively delivered its answer to the question at the head of this column.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

4 comments about "What's more important -- soccer or human rights?".
  1. beautiful game, February 5, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.

    FIFA only reacts when there is $$$$ to be made. Its apolitical mantra is a con.

  2. James Madison, February 5, 2019 at 1:56 p.m.

    It's all about the money!

  3. R2 Dad, February 5, 2019 at 11:09 p.m.

    Good/disturbing column, Ian. It's easiet to keep ones head down and blinders on.

    I'm not certain 2022 will go through without a hitch, especially if Israel qualifies for the finals--that just might be karmic retribution.

  4. stewart hayes, February 6, 2019 at 7:25 p.m.

    1+ 
    There is no good soccer reason to hold the WC there.  The only explanation is money as James says.

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