Unrest over ‘no’ to Qatar boycott

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The national Norwegian football federation’s rejection of a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar hasn’t halted harsh criticism of either Qatar or those heading both the international foodball federation FIFA and NFF (Norges Fotballforbund). NFF President Terje Svendsen claimed there were “no winners of losers” in the heated debate over whether professional football pays far more attention to money than to human rights and equality.

The Norwegian national men’s football team has continued to make its position clear on the situation in Qatar. They’re been wearing T-shirts calling for “Human rights on an off the pitch,” with the German and Danish teams expressing the same. It remains unclear, meanwhile, whether Norway itself will qualify for next year’s World Cup. PHOTO: NFF

Svendsen won a decisive and not particularly surprising victory at an extraordinary meeting of Norway’s own football federation. With 368 representatives of Norwegian football organizations voting against a boycott and only 121 voting in favour, the majority clearly ruled.

As a consolation prize of sorts for those still vehemently promoting a boycott, a majority of 289 to 167 voted to force NFF and Svendsen to deliver “strong criticism” against FIFA from the podium at next year’s FIFA congress. That proposal came from the Trane football club and it will put Svendsen in an uncomfortable position.

He tried to take it in stride, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “we must dare to express our opinions,” also against holding a World Cup in an authoritarian state like Qatar, which has been accused in Norway of systematic racism, discrimination and treating migrant workers as slave labourers.

“Now we (NFF) are obligated to do so,” Svendsen said, “and it’s something we’ll just have to do.”

NFF’s earlier calls for improvements and reforms in Qatar have been all but dismissed, however, and FIFA has come under massive criticism in Norway for not responding to the calls or even to Norwegian journalists’ repeated requests for interviews. Lise Klaveness, a director at NFF in charge of top-level football, actually took contact directly with FIFA to complain about its lack of response to the criticism and inquiries from media in Norway including NRK.

Terje Svendsen, president of Norway’s national football federation NFF, has been under pressure for months to take a firm stand against next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Here he is at Sunday’s extraordinary meeting that ended as he and NFF urged, with a majority voting against an actual boycott of the World Cup next year. PHOTO: NFF screen grab

“It’s important that they (FIFA officials) allow themselves to be interviewed and answer critical questions about the Qatar World Cup,” Klaveness later told NRK, “especially about what they’re doing, concretely, with and in opposition to the authorities in Qatar, for example on the pressure for implementing important reforms.”

Klaveness acknowledged that FIFA gets innumerable requests for interviews from all over the world, “but they are well aware of the situation and engagement in Norway. Therefore it’s been very disapppointing that they don’t take these questions seriously.”

Ståle Solbakken, the coach of the Norwegian men’s national football team, was also upset that FIFA officials ignored questions about the situation in Qatar: “It’s the height of arrogance … we must continue to put pressure on FIFA. They can’t just continue to avoid these issues.” FIFA had continued to simply refer to earlier written comments sent to NFF.

The majority that ended up voting against a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar also agreed to support various measures viewed as “more suitable” for strengthening human rights in Qatar. A commission set up by NFF to study the boycott issue, first raised at the grass-roots level by lots of Norwegian football fans and clubs, has proposed 26 “concrete demands” to authorities in Qatar, FIFA and NFF that it thinks would improve human rights in Qatar. Pressure from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN has continued, so far without much effect.

Criticism of NFF and FIFA continues to swirl in Norway, meanwhile. Boycott proponents like Gjert Moldestad of a Norwegian football fans’ organization bemoaned how Norwegian football “failed to seize the opportunity” to make it clear that human rights violations won’t be tolerated. He worries there now won’t be any consequences for either FIFA or Qatar: “I don’t think either FIFA or Qatar listen (to football fans).”

John Peder Egenæs, leader of Amnesty International in Norway, said the uproar against Qatar that started in Tromsø last winter nonetheless sends “a clear message to NFF,”  that the Norwegian organization must put more pressure on FIFA. “That will be the key,” he said.

Others have criticized NFF for how it organized Sunday’s extraordinary meeting and lobbied against a boycott, even though it had broad support among Norwegians in general. Critics felt NFF had frightened local clubs with warnings of funding cuts if a boycott went through. Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized during the weekend about how NFF found itself in a squeeze between Norwegian clubs, players and fans on the one side and fear of reprisals from FIFA on the other. NFF, it charged, responded by “using its power and position” to affect its own democratic processes. Vålerenga, one of Norway’s biggest football clubs, has already called on NFF to stop “sportswashing” of the regime in Qatar. It had a chance to set an important standard for large international sporting events in the years to come.

Call have gone out to move the World Cup from Qatar to another country, so far to no avail. It’s still scheduled to play in Qatar out from November 21 to December 18, 2022.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund