World Cup protest gains momentum

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UPDATED: They won their latest qualifying match to play in the next World Cup, but Norway’s national men’s football team marked its uneasiness this week over Qatar as the World Cup’s venue. That grabbed international attention, and now Norway’s head coach hopes other national teams will also pressure Qatar into honouring human rights. Germany did, on Thursday evening.

Norway’s 11 players who started in Wednesday night’s match against Gilbraltar posed with their Qatar protest T-shirts. Top left: Erling Braut Haaland, Alexander Sørloth, Kristian Thorstvedt, Stefan Strandberg, goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein and Mohamed «Moi» Elyounoussi. Front left: Jonas Svensson, Marius Lode, Birger Meling, Martin Ødegaard and Fredrik Midtsjø. PHOTO: NFF/Bildbyran/Vegard Wivestad Grøtt

The Norwegian players decided to demonstrate their concern over reports, not least in The Guardian, of the deaths of thousands of the foreign workers building World Cup facilities in Qatar under appalling conditions.

The Norwegian players, including stars like Erling Braut Haaland,  launched a T-shirt protest of sorts while warming up for Wednesday night’s qualifier against Gibraltar. They all wore simple white T-shirts over their uniforms reading “RESPECT on and off the pitch,” switching to similar shirts reading “HUMAN RIGHTS on and off the pitch” while singing Norway’s national anthem before play began in the Mediterranean enclave.

With that, the Norwegian players became what one fan called “the only national team in the world” to protest the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, which has been accused of allowing the foreign construction workers to be treated like slave labourers.  Support for the team’s protest quickly flowed in via social media from Hong Kong to Germany and South Africa. It generated headlines on the BBC and, The Guardian, which has long been reporting in detail on human rights abuses and harsh working conditions in Qatar. Norwegian media also gave the T-shirt protest widespread coverage, not least since football clubs and their fans in Norway recently have been calling for a full boycott of the World Cup.

‘More should follow their example’
The Norwegian chapter of Amnesty International hailed the Norwegian players, led by their new coach Ståle Solbakken and young team captain Martin Ødegaard, now playing professionally for Arsenal. “Great to see (the national team) take a stand against human rights abuses in Qatar,” Amnesty wrote on Twitter. “The qualifiers are an excellent opportunity to shine the spotlight on the issue. More teams should follow their example.”

Solbakken made it clear that he expects nothing less. “Politics and sports have always hung together and always will,” Solbakken told reporters after the match, which Norway won by a score of 3-0. “We’re in a position to do something, put forward our message, but we can’t do it alone.” It’s likely another human rights “message” will be made in connection with Norway’s next World Cup qualifier against Turkey, to be played out in Marbella on Saturday.

On Thursday, Germany’s national team followed up on Amnesty’s and Solbakken’s challenge. Just before one of its own qualifying matches, against Iceland, the top German players lined up in their black shorts wearing black T-shirts that spelled out “HUMAN RIGHTS” as they stood together with their arms around each other’s shoulders. A poll by German news magazine Der Spiegel indicates that 68 percent of all Germans think a boycott of Qatar 2022 is “quite correct” or “completely correct,” while 83 percent believe it was wrong to allow Qatar to host a World Cup.

Football fans vs FIFA
The Norwegian team’s protest on Wednesday disappointed those still battling for a World Cup boycott by Norway’s football federation NFF (Norges fotballforbund). NFF is clearly caught between the important grass-roots football fans and local clubs promoting a boycott on principle, and NFF’s allegiance to the powerful international football federation FIFA that controversially awarded the World Cup to Qatar back in 2010.

Critics charge that it’s all about money in the end, and a classic case of “money talks, principles walk.” Gjert Moldestad, who’s promoted a boycott on behalf of a Norwegian football supporters’ alliance, said he admired the players’ initiative but doesn’t think it will have any effect “I don’t think either the authorities in Qatar or a corrupt FIFA care at all about such a demonstration,” Moldestad told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

NFF has, after its annual meeting, set up a commission to assess the impact a boycott would have. It’s made up of 14 people both inside and outside the football milieu and led by Sven Mollekleiv, former head of the Red Cross in Norway. NFF announced Wednesday that the commission is charged with recommending how Norwegian football should react to Qatar’s handling of human rights, and what would be the best way to get Qatar to respect and promote human rights.

Tom Høgli, a former national team player who’s now a member of the commission, was greatly encouraged by the German team’s demonstration Thursday evening. “It’s incredibly great,” he told NRK, noting that Germany is “one of the greatest nations in the football world.”

“It started with Norway yesterday,” Høgli said. “This is really something to be proud of.”

Coach’s compromise
Solbakken’s own T-shirt reaction (he was wearing one himself under his jacket) had marked a compromise of sorts. Solbakken has said he opposes an actual World Cup boycott but he also condemns Qatar’s treatment of foreign workers. He and his players now want FIFA to play a much bigger role in criticizing a lack of fair play off the pitch in Qatar.

FIFA itself issued only a brief reaction to the Norwegian team’s T-shirt demonstration, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that FIFA believes in freedom of expression and that the power of football can lead to positive changes. FIFA has strict rules regarding what’s allowed in connection with football matches, but no sanctions against Norway are expected. “I’m relaxed about that,” Pål Bjerketvedt, secretary general of NFF, told NRK. “There must be tolerance for a demonstration such as this.”

NFF President Terje Svendsen told NRK that he was “certain” the Norwegian national team’s initiative “will be registered within the large football family. I think it was a good initiative that shows commitment. We have national team leaders and players who have taken a standpoint. That shows they care about the situation.” The players, in turn, want Svendsen and his fellow football bureaucrats in NFF and FIFA to care even more.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund