Refereeing rights: Why we shouldn’t expect footballers to hand out human rights red cards

It is increasingly uncomfortable to be a politically engaged sports fan. As big sport has become big business, more and more international events are moving to countries that have highly questionable human rights records.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose usual enthusiasm for the men’s football World Cup was tempered by Russia’s hosting in 2018, or who felt unmotivated tuning into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing following China’s recent actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

In motor racing, Formula One’s willingness to follow the money means the race calendar includes a grand tour of wealthy but corrupt regimes.

Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 men’s football World Cup is just another sign of how sport has prioritised money over fair play off the field. Amnesty has highlighted the country’s human rights abuses of migrant workers, women and LGBTQ+ people, as well as its lamentable freedom of expression. The successful bid to host the tournament has been plagued by accusations of corruption, which – although unproven – seem to many observers to be strong.

Fans can easily choose to tune out or vent their objections. But what about the players? Should they be refusing to play, or at least making some kind of public protest?

In one sense, the answer is obviously yes. Anyone who participates in an event that helps give credibility and income to a corrupt regime becomes complicit. That does not mean it is always wrong to engage, but it does mean there are negative consequences which ought to be counteracted.

The most straightforward way of doing this is to counter the positive PR by speaking out. There’s a strong case that this is done more effectively by participating than not. Imagine, for instance, that one of the world’s best players, such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi or Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, refused to play in Qatar. That would put its human rights record in the global spotlight for a day or two. But if they went to the tournament and spoke out while they were there, the impact could be greater, and it would be more likely to get through to Qataris.

However, while we should rightly applaud any player who refuses to just kick the ball and shut up, I’m less convinced that we could reasonably expect them to do so. There is an important difference between actions which are morally required and others which are“supererogatory”, meaning they are laudable but optional.

But like most binaries, it is more helpful to think of a sliding scale.While some actions are absolutely required and others obviously optional, in between there are degrees of obligation. My contention is that the obligation for footballers to speak out or opt out on Qatar is weak, because we cannot reasonably expect them to be able and willing to take the most admirable moral stance.

First, think about what refusing to participate would mean for them. Professional footballers have short careers so they could be depriving themselves of the peak of their professional lives. Speaking out may come at less cost but they may still fear damaging their careers. Because the cost of action could be quite high, the obligation to take it has to be commensurably lower.

These are young men who travel the world and know enough to be aware that moral norms vary between nations. But should we expect them to be able to make carefully calibrated decisions about which countries are beyond the pale? It is easy to imagine them thinking, “Qatar may not be perfect, but compared with what the UK and the USA did in Iraq and Afghanistan, its crimes are minor.” That’s not a very sophisticated moral argument, of course, but many intellectuals defend more complex versions.

A player’s failure to reach the best all-things-considered judgement is no more blameworthy than the morally sub-optimal choices most “ordinary” people make. Many people buy meat and dairy sourced from animals kept in terrible conditions, goods made by Uyghurs in internment camps, go on holiday in countries with bad human rights records. When we say they shouldn’t do all these things, we are right. But we don’t judge them too harshly for doing so because we know that once you start thinking about what is ethical or not, it gets very complicated very quickly, and it is difficult to see the seriousness of  an issue when the rest of society is behaving as though nothing is amiss.

There is also a risk that if we pressure players into speaking out and taking action on moral and political issues, we could actually end up with many choosing the wrong causes. Asking young, unintellectual, rich people to take on the role of society’s moral spokespeople is giving them a task they are ill-equipped to carry out.

In sport, the main responsibility for ensuring that regimes do not use “sportswashing” to gloss over their human rights abuses lies with those higher up the power command – people who are generally older, more experienced and with a better grasp of the wider situation. Fifa, world football’s governing body, should take into account the human rights situation in a country before awarding it a major tournament to host. National governing bodies should take clear public stands and ensure that if their teams are required to play in disreputable countries, there is no complicity with breaches of human rights. Team managers should be charged with communicating such views to the wider public.

The idea that sports people should be role models is overplayed. They should model good qualities such as fair play, dedication, teamwork and respect for opponents because those are the qualities that they can reasonably be expected to have. But to ask them to model statesmanship and political activism is like asking our elected politicians to be exemplars of good exercise regimes or artistic creativity.

This article appears in the autumn 2022 issue of Index on Censorship. To subscribe click here

Don’t protest during the World Cup, Platini tells Brazilians

In Curitiba, about 300 protesters took to the streets of the central city asking for more health and safety improvements in the country and against the hosting of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. (Image: João Frigério / Demotix)

In Curitiba, about 300 protesters took to the streets of the central city asking for more health and safety improvements in the country and against the hosting of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. (Image: João Frigério / Demotix)

Brazilians shouldn’t protest during the World Cup, according to UEFA President Michel Platini.

Speaking to reporters, the French former footballer who is now head of European football’s governing body, said that: “We must tell the Brazilians that they have the World Cup and they are there to show the beauty of their country and their passion for football. If they can wait at least a month before making social outbursts, it would be good for Brazil and for the football world.”

Brazilians should “pay tribute to this beautiful World Cup,” Platini continued, saying it was given to Brazil to “make them happy”.

He added that Brazilians should get in the mood for receiving tourists from all over the world “and that for one month, they should make a truce”. 

The men running football (it is most often men) have a history of making at best misguided, at worst ignorant, statements about complicated issues — FIFA President Sepp Blatter famously suggested racist incidents on the pitch could be settled by a handshake.

However, you would think that the size of last summer’s World Cup-related protests, and the fact that demonstrations are still going on almost a year later, would make even the grandees of world football understand that Brazilians have legitimate grievances — and that these shouldn’t be shoved aside just so we can have a global party.

The various controversies surrounding Brazil 2014, from the price tag of some £7 billionto lack of transparency and unsafe working conditions at building sites, have been well documented. This is in no small part due Brazilians taking to the streets, making it impossible for their government, FIFA and the rest of the world to ignore their dissatisfaction.

But Platini isn’t the only one who wants protesters to take a break during the very event that for many has been the focus of their anger. Indeed, authorities have taken a number of steps aimed at suppressing demonstrations, including banning people from wearing masks during protests and “promoting ‘tumult’ within 5 km of a sporting event.” The over 170,000 security personnel set to be deployed will probably play their part too. 

Whether or not you believe that the intention behind awarding Brazil the World Cup was to make people happy, there’s no escaping that fact that many aren’t. The competition is going ahead, there’s no changing that, but Brazilians should have the right to show their unhappiness about it whenever they like.

This article was published on April 30, 2014 at

On FIFA, shirt message bans and controversy

(Image: AustralianMessi/YouTube)

(Image: AustralianMessi/YouTube)

To footballers who have been thinking of doing your own version of “Why always me?” — now’s your time. Because in a few months, lifting up your kits to display a message on your undershirt will be banned. “From now on there can be no slogan or image whatsoever on undergarments even good-natured ones,” FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said after a meeting of the International FA Board.

IFAB — football’s law-making body — is made up of the four British football associations, who each have one vote, and FIFA, who has four. Any decision must be backed by 6 votes, so no rule-change can be made without FIFA’s approval. “The idea is to get some consistency. The simplest rule for the image of the game is to start from the basis that slogans will not be allowed,” said FA general secretary Alex Horne. Violators will face disciplinary action.

Now, I can only imagine your heartbreak over the trampled rights of millionaire footballers, but hear me out. Let’s put aside, for one moment, the notion that this rule-change was even needed. In the grand scheme of things, shirt messages are a fairly rare occurrence — truly controversial ones, even less so. It is not a problem (if we can even call it that) which is difficult to deal with on a case-by-case basis. A new blanket ban is, in my humble opinion, unnecessary.

Let’s even ignore that this represents another step towards stripping people in the public eye of personality or individuality, lest they should disappoint and alienate fans and sponsors by actually expressing an opinion. Footballers haven’t tended to use undershirt messages to wade into complex, geopolitical issues. Mainly they use the platform available to them to pay homage to friends, family and heroes or display inoffensive religious beliefs — like so many of the rest of us do (celebrities, they’re just like us!). And again, on the off-chance someone displays something truly unacceptable, deal with that on a case-by-case basis.

No, the issue at the heart of this, I believe, is the tireless pursuit of the FIFA’s and the IOC’s of this world to avoid anything resembling controversy. The tiniest chance of something unplanned happening to annoy Coca Cola and McDonald’s? Better put a stop to it now, just to be on the safe side! Then there is the argument of keeping sports and politics separate, which I can understand, to an extent. A blanket ban might seem like a nice and simple option. Jonathan Ford, chief executive of the Football Association of Wales, said as much, commenting after the IFAB decision that “it was easier for us to say it has no place in the game.”

As much as some might want to see the two kept apart, it simply isn’t going to happen. Sport is frequently used as a battleground of sorts in political conflicts — to suggest anything else is absurd. Sometimes athletes do take on a more overt role, but more often the mere participation (or non-participation) in a competition, or the result on the pitch, can carry a political message in itself.

The new rule will come into place in June, conveniently just in time for a World Cup that has turned into hugely politicised event. You’d forgive me for seeing this in the context of the Brazilian government’s many recent measures to suppress the large-scale anti-World Cup protests that hit their peak during last summer’s Confederation Cup, and have been ongoing ever since. These range from banning masks during protests, to banning “promoting ‘tumult’ within 5 km of a sporting event.” FIFA’s director of security recently spoke out in support of the Brazilian authorities.

Neymar, a star of the Brazilian national team, on the other hand, has expressed his support for the protests. What if, after scoring the hypothetical winning goal of a hypothetical World Cup final, he should lift his shirt to reveal another uncontroversial, yet powerful message of support? What then? Could it maybe have a galvanising effect on the people, turning the celebrations into the most powerful protest yet? Would this make it impossible for the world to ignore the legitimate grievances of the Brazilian people, and FIFA’s role in them?

No, we can’t have that. Let’s just ban the controversy before it happens. It’s easier that way.

This article was posted on March 4, 2014 at

Brazil’s opaque World Cup preparations roil protesters

In Curitiba, about 300 protesters took to the streets of the central city asking for more health and safety improvements in the country and against the hosting of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. (Image: João Frigério / Demotix)

In Curitiba, about 300 protesters took to the streets of the central city asking for more health and safety improvements in the country and against the hosting of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. (Image: João Frigério / Demotix)

On 8 January, residents in Rio’s Metrô-Mangueira favela, were greeted by government representatives, set to demolish houses and evict residents. A demonstration was led then by the residents to fight their removal, but once again violence broke out between the police and the protestors, with police firing rubber bullets into crowds.

Rio On Watch said: “Having evicted long-time residents to public housing units without any public consultation over the use of land – required by local legislation – the city left the land and houses to be occupied by those in most desperate need of public housing.” These “desperate” residents are now being forced out and given no alternative housing, despite promises from mayor Eduardo Paes that nobody would be left homeless.

The demonstration in the Metrô favela, is emblematic of the current mood all across Brazil. Triggered by a hike in already expensive bus fares, 2013 saw Brazil’s biggest protest movement for over 20 years, in what became known as the “V for Vinegar” movement or the “Salad Revolution”. More than two million protestors took to the streets to fight against issues such as government corruption, poor social services and a rise in the cost of living. Right at the heart of the movement however, was a feeling of alienation and exclusion from the decision making process for the preparations of the 2014 World Cup.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the context of the implementation of sporting mega events, all UN states must, “ensure full transparency of the planning and implementation process and the meaningful participation of the affected local communities therein”. However this transparency is not happening in Brazil as authorities bulldoze favelas, and replace them with car parks and shopping centres.

A report by the National Coalition of Local Committees for a People’s World Cup and Olympics said: “Supported by a twisted notion of ‘public interest’, the Brazilian state has systematically refused to establish horizontal dialogues with civil society groups and threatened communities.”

In many cases residents learn of their evictions through the media before government communications. This was true for the residents of Vila Autódromo in Rio, who first learned of their proposed eviction through the front page of the O Globo newspaper on 4 October 2011.

In other cases, residents are told by authorities that their properties must be demolished because of alleged structural risks. Three hundred homes were identified for demolition because of such “structural risks” in Pavão-Pavãozinho, but residents have been waiting since July 2011 for authorities to provide evidence of such risks.  This is a further example of the Brazilian government failing to offer their citizens information or ensure political transparency.

The government has established two bodies to organise the World Cup, which exist outside the normal political structure. The 2014 World Cup Steering Committee and the Committee Responsible for Host Cities liaise with FIFA, the federal government and advisory bodies mostly comprised of private companies. Decisions made by these bodies are not discussed with the public, and information regarding plans is excluded from the general population.

In Curitiba, the population unanimously opposed the council’s decision to give £22.5m to the private construction of the João Américo Guimarães Stadium. However requests for information were denied and there was no public participation in the council’s decision.

The example of the João Américo Guimarães Stadium, is typical of the wider situation whereby the government is spending billions of dollars on the construction of infrastructure and stadiums without giving the people a say in the matter. The Arena da Amazônia stadium in Manaus has cost £151m, while The Economist estimates that the Brazilian government has already spent £1.9 billion on World Cup stadiums collectively.

Marcelo Pelligrini, a journalist from São Paulo told Index on Censorship: “This is a huge stadium [Arena da Amazônia] because of the standards of FIFA, but after the World Cup we have no use for this stadium, and after the tournament it will probably become a jail.”

“The main point in Brazil is the use of these millionaire stadiums. That is what the population is complaining about. They are spending half a billion reias on a stadium that has no use after the World Cup, and we have no good transportation, no health insurance, we have nothing,” Mr Pelligrini said.

The World Cup is not benefiting the Brazilian people, according to Pelligrini: “We have great stadiums, but no good services.” He also felt that the Brazilian people were not being given democratic representation in the decision making process.

Denied a say in the preparations for the World Cup, the Brazilian people flocked to the streets in 2013, to protest against the way the government has been organising the tournament. The protests were driven by a multitude of building grievances, but a feeling that the democratic process had broken down, and the voice of the Brazilian people was being ignored, was at the heart of the demonstrations. Protestors held banners proclaiming, “FIFA go home”, “We don’t need the World Cup, we need money for hospitals and education” and “World Cup for whom?”

These sentiments epitomise the zeitgeist of the Brazilian nation, and their feeling that the World Cup has only benefited the few, while he vast majority are excluded from the decisions and thus the benefits.

The recent protest in the Metrô-Mangueira favela underlines how these grievances are ongoing. The image of residents clashing once more with riot police depicts the ultimate breakdown in communications and democracy in the lead-up to the biggest, and supposedly most unifying, football tournament in the world.

This article was posted on February 10 2014 at