The football commentator’s well-worn cliché about the sport being a game of two halves usually refers to the action on the pitch. But in the build-up to the game between England and Iran at the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this week, it was the off-field actions of the teams which showed a divided response to events in the wider world.
Shortly before kick-off, it was decided by the English FA (among other European football governing bodies) that England’s Harry Kane would forgo wearing the OneLove captain’s armband, which displays a heart containing colours representative of all backgrounds and is part of a message promoting inclusion. The reason given by the FA was that “we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings.”
Then, just before the match, as the Iranian national anthem rang around the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, the Iranian players remained silent. Referencing the now-months long protests in Iran, which are pushing for regime change after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 13 September 2022, Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said that: “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right. Our people are not happy. We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or must not respect them.”
The actions, or rather inactions, of the English FA and the Iranian footballers have had contrasting results. By aiming first but then relenting on the promise to have Kane wear the armband shows just what a failed empty gesture it was. A financial fine would have been accepted, but the fear of a single yellow card forced the FA’s hand (and that of other countries, such as Wales, Germany and the Netherlands). Were the teams and players ever really behind it if they could u-turn so quickly?
On the other hand, the silence of the Iranian footballers has shown the courage that a united action brings, not least given how much higher the risks – the repercussions the footballers may face on the return to their homeland, where they will have family and friends, are far more severe than a card brandished on the pitch.
That said we should be careful about where we lay blame in terms of not wearing the armband. It is understood that Kane still wanted to wear it, and even if he didn’t, is it fair to expect the England players to be politically active in the course of what essentially is their day job (as Julian Baggini argues in our last issue)?
The bigger fault lies squarely at the hands of FIFA for awarding the tournament to Qatar, as well as the governments and authorities around the world who have said very little about the country’s abuses since 2010. When news organisations have reported on abuses, especially on the Kafala system, which ensured an extremely cheap labour force was on hand to build the infrastructure for the World Cup, journalists were detained and threatened – again to very little public outcry. While minor changes have been made to improve the labour system, reports that at least 6,500 migrant workers still died since 2010 has again received far too little outrage.
Even during the immediate build up to, and including the tournament so far, FIFA appears happy to kowtow to Qatar’s last-minute demands. While the consumption of alcohol isn’t a free speech issue, FIFA’s agreement to Qatar’s last-minute ban on the sale of alcohol in stadiums is yet another sign that it is Qatar who are setting the rules. Also, despite assurances from FIFA, rainbow-coloured flags and attire were prohibited in spectator areas, as seen by the Welsh fans who had rainbow-coloured bucket fans confiscated before their opener against the USA. In a nation where homosexuality is still illegal these are hardly surprising actions but they show how arguments like “the World Cup will improve the rights situations in Qatar” was never a commitment taken seriously. The activist Peter Tatchell, an Index contributor who was himself detained following a protest to highlight LGBT rights in Qatar in October, puts it well: “#FIFA and #Qatar promised that LGBT+ fans & rainbow insignia would be allowed at #WorldCup. They have trashed that promise – and their reputations. But what did you expect from a sexist, homophobic & racist dictatorship?”
We at Index on Censorship love the fact that football is the world’s game, able to unite people across gender, race, religion and nationality. From Norway to Nigeria, it’s the universal language where a conversation about Manchester United or Lionel Messi can take place without knowledge of the native tongue. We have no issue with football and our Autumn issue showed its amazing power to transform lives. It’s for this reason that we remain angered that it is taking place in Qatar, who seem to be normalising their autocracy on a world stage. And it’s for this reason that we are angered that the simple threat of a yellow card has determined a retreat from taking a stand on such an important issue, even if that stand was small and largely symbolic. Iran might have lost against England on Monday but they proved to be the real winners when it came to courage and conviction.
The near coincidence of two events this autumn – the World Cup in Qatar and the 20th National Party Congress in Beijing, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping will likely assume an unprecedented third term in power – represents an appropriate moment to reflect on one of Xi’s signature initiatives. Not the Chinese Dream, the Belt and Road Initiative, poverty alleviation or his anti-corruption campaign, but football.
Legend holds that a soccer-mad young Xi was so aggrieved by the “humiliation” inflicted on the Chinese national team by English club Watford at an exhibition game he attended at the Workers’ Stadium in 1983 that he determined he would redress China’s weakness in football. Decades later he declared, shortly before assuming power, that China would host and ultimately win the World Cup.
As a means to overcoming the country’s historical “national humiliation”, it was probably overly ambitious.
Nonetheless, in his first term Xi put football reform and development squarely on the national political agenda through three major policy documents promulgated between 2014 and 2016. Together they represented an overarching framework for developing a domestic sports economy, facilitating mass participation and creating an effective training ecosystem from youth levels to the national team. The long-term objective was to transform China into a “world class football nation” by 2050, a timeframe and scale of ambition that aligned with broader national objectives such as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Common to Chinese policymaking, broad top-down objectives were delegated to many different institutional and private actors to design and implement, leading to much experimentation, messy ad hoc adjustment and competing interests.
Compared with many other initiatives associated with Xi’s tenure, football is a benign sector. Many concerns raised at the height of the football craze a few years ago have, as yet, proven unfounded. Chinese companies’ global sponsorship deals and the elevation of Chinese officials within international governance bodies have not made the global game any more corrupt or susceptible to parochial interests.
Chinese investors’ rush to demonstrate fealty to Xi’s football plans (or merely to secrete money offshore) led to a brief, and now largely divested, scattergun acquisition of European football clubs and assets, but the clubs and leagues survived and even though many were in globally strategic locations it did not result in additional “geopolitical influence”. Nor did the funding and construction of stadiums in Africa, though there may have been marginal “soft power” gains in facilitating the hosting of several Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.
Imposing Xi’s favourite sport across Chinese school curricula might appear heavy handed, but encouraging China’s sedentary youth to exercise and head off a public health timebomb is hardly a pernicious objective.
Football is Xi’s pet project, but criticism of the underperforming national team, the hapless Chinese Football Association (CFA) or broader reforms are subject to no more stringent censorship than anything else on the Chinese internet (contained criticism is OK, demands for systemic change or encouraging collective action is not).
It is true that Chinese football reproduces class and place-based disparities, with migrant workers, for example, less able to participate. And, prior to Covid, match-going fans were already facing increasingly strict security at stadiums, fickle owners and idiosyncratic regulatory interventions by the CFA. And yet while we should be mindful of the progressive circumscription of freedoms across Chinese society under Xi, many of the problems faced by Chinese fans are common to supporters everywhere.
That said, we should pause for a moment on the question of ethnicity, given the unprecedented crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang that has come to define Xi’s 10 years in office. On the surface, football has become a site for advances in representation. China’s best player, Wu Lei, is a member of the Hui (Muslim) ethnic minority group. In March, Chinese-Nigerian Huang Shenghao became the first bi-racial player to represent the country (at under-17 level). Mirahmetjan Muzepper became the first Uyghur to play for the men’s national team in 2018.
The treatment of another Uyghur player, Erfan Hezim, demonstrates the systemic repression of young Uyghur men. Hezim spent almost a year in a detention camp in Xinjiang, apparently for unauthorised travel overseas to participate in football training camps, before being allowed to resume his career in 2019. Uyghurs coming through the ranks can face many forms of discrimination, partly explaining the negligible number of players in the Chinese Super League despite the popularity of football in Xinjiang. The region could be a significant source of playing talent, but the conditions there are so severely circumscribed that it is impossible to realise.
As for those from outside China’s official borders, the expedient decision to bring several naturalised Brazilians into the national team during World Cup qualifying met with only muted criticism from grassroot nationalists, even after the players’ efforts proved futile. The handling of naturalised talent, though, demonstrates an enduringly awkward official embrace of foreignness.
The CFA’s provisional regulations oblige clubs to teach naturalised foreigners Chinese language, culture and history, in addition to the fundamental political positions of the CCP. Party cadres attached to every professional club monitor, supervise and submit regular reports on players’ performance, behaviour and attitudes, reproducing the party’s longstanding “foreign affairs” system for handling foreigners. By all accounts, the naturalised Brazilians have been exemplary. But all this shows that some aspects of football’s development reflect the trajectory emerging across other social sectors during Xi’s tenure – one of a controlled society subject to the regime’s circumscriptions and vision for a desirable China.
In line with the requirements of the reform policies, infrastructure has been built and facilities rolled out on an impressive scale. But football has so far failed to become an elective mass participation sport like basketball or badminton. The popularity of gaming and the exponential growth of professional e-sports in China suggests football has its work cut out appealing to young people.
China has its fair share of dedicated supporters and “transnational fans” who are as knowledgeable and passionate about foreign clubs they will never visit as locals are. Yet the kind of intangible “football culture” that manifests in ubiquitous pick-up games on Brazilian beaches or English playgrounds has not taken root. Football schools and academies have not (yet) produced a “Chinese Messi” or even a supply of more prosaic talent, although it is premature to write off long-term efforts to build up the talent pool.
Youth participation has run afoul of resistant parents who prefer their children to focus on academics, which is intense, uber-competitive and almost certainly a better investment in the future than football. Short fee-paying football camps are the preserve of cosmopolitan middle-class parents, while serious football academies offering talent-based scholarships are mainly an option for poor families whose children are unable to compete for academic advancement. Football as a leisure activity and signifier of middle-class lifestyles embodying China’s desired “mildly prosperous” modernity has so far failed to capture imaginations.
And then came Covid and continuing “dynamic zero” restrictions to burst football’s bubble economy. With the Chinese Super League (CSL) mothballed for a time, expensively-acquired foreign players departed, and China gave up its hosting rights for the 2023 Asian Cup due to the ongoing uncertainties. Owners facing economic headwinds created by the pandemic were unable to service the continual cash injections needed to sustain clubs.
The property sector, which has become intimately entwined with football, was hit by a debt crisis and state interventions associated with Xi’s new preoccupation of ‘Common Prosperity’. Evergrande, the over-leveraged real-estate developer and owner of China’s most successful club, was forced to sell the land for its half-built new mega-stadium back to the local government. Since 2015, more than 20 clubs across the top divisions have folded, often due to insufficient organisational experience and unsustainable business models. Jiangsu FC disbanded soon after winning the CSL in 2020 when its owner, indebted retailer Suning, decided it could no longer afford it.
There is no reason why Chinese football shouldn’t find a sustainable niche as a spectator and participant sport, and a national team that can compete in Asia and qualify for international tournaments. Some of the ambitions set out in Xi’s reforms are not currently realistic, but long-term plans should be given time to unfold. A hypothetical Chinese bid to host a future World Cup, would, given Fifa’s interests and track record, prove irresistible.
The hosting of a World Cup would be a significant boost to football development in the country. But the attendant potential for “sportswashing” and requisite self-censorship have already been demonstrated on a small scale by European clubs and leagues desperate to access the Chinese market. Take the example of midfielder Mesut Özil, who was sidelined by Arsenal, which has a huge following in China, after speaking out against the persecution of Uyghurs.
The Chinese national team will not compete in Qatar later this year, but China will be present through Fifa’s signature sponsorship deal with Wanda, and Chinese fans will watch en masse, attracted by the spectacle, the conversation and the opportunities for offshore sports-betting.
Jonathan Sullivan is a Chinese specialist and an associate professor at the University of Nottingham.
This article appears in the autumn 2022 issue of Index on Censorship. To subscribe click here
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
“If there is ever an opportunity to try and pretend a country is a nice country, it’s when everyone is diverted by someone kicking a football,” said Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship. Smeeth was introducing a panel discussion entitled “Qatar 2022: When Football and Free Speech Collide”. Hosted in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University, the event marked the launch of the Autumn 2022 edition of the Index on Censorship magazine, which looks at the role of football in extending or crushing rights ahead of the Qatar World Cup.
Index on Censorship Editor-in-Chief Jemimah Steinfeld was joined by David Randles, the BA Sports Journalism programme leader at Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent much of his career on sports desks and in press boxes. She was also joined by Connor Dunn, a public relations account manager who deals with big names from the football world, including Liverpool footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold, and was formerly a journalist at Reach PLC.
The issue of whether the FIFA World Cup 2022 being held in Qatar will be a force of change for good was prominent. Dunn was unsure whether there would be any long-term change in the country but felt there will in the short term, saying that “Qatar will want to show the world they are the best country on earth. They’ll be lax with those sort of rules people in the West will be used to [the human rights violations], as there will be potential for stories to be blown up”.
Therein lies a danger, as Steinfeld pointed out. Reeling off a series of examples, she said: “All of the editorials said that while France won the 2018 World Cup Putin was the real winner. The world forgot about the invasion about Crimea.” The fear therefore is that Qatar will relax their attacks on human rights during the tournament, court international leaders, put on a great show and as a result people will walk away with a much better impression of the country than they really should.
Despite attempts to appear more moderate, Randles said that he thinks most minorities would not visit the country due to safety issues. He said: “Would you go to support your team in a regime which doesn’t support you? I don’t think so. If you don’t feel safe, why would you go?” He also pointed out the fact that in Qatar’s neighbouring country Saudi Arabia (whose Sovereign Fund bought Newcastle FC last year), women still cannot attend football games.
Naturally discussion came round to the issue of migrant workers, who have died in huge numbers during the building of infrastructure for Qatar. Sadly the exact numbers are hard to come by, a nature of how tightly information is controlled in the country.
Dunn though highlighted one potential positive that has emerged from the heightened awareness of awful working conditions in Qatar. With claims of potential slave labour being used due to Qatar’s punitive ‘Kafala’ system (which has since been reformed on the back of World Cup coverage), there are hopes for reparations in the future. Dunn said: “There are calls to give the same amount of money the World Cup winner will win, which is about 440 million dollars, to make reparations and give that to underpaid migrant workers and families of those who have died. It’s not a big chunk of the predicted profits from the tournament but goes some way to changing things.”
On other positives that could come out of Qatar, all the panel agreed that football still has a unique way to be transformative. Steinfeld cited Permi Jhooti’s story from the new magazine which inspired the film Bend it Like Beckham, an interview with the head of the Afghan Women’s football team and the England Lionesses winning the recent European Championships for the nation’s first major trophy in 56 years.
And of course footballers, with their millions of fans, are often more listened to than politicians and could use their platform when in the country to raise rights issues. While they accepted that footballers shouldn’t be compelled to speak up, the event was full of examples of those who have – like Marcus Rushford and his campaign for free school meals – and in so doing have brought about important and far-reaching societal change.