NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway didn’t qualify to play in this year’s highly political and controversial World Cup football tournament in Qatar. That’s made it easier for Norwegian football fans to boycott it now, while Norwegian commentators and football officials led by Lise Klaveness keep criticizing both Qatar as a host nation and the international football federation FIFA.
Klaveness, who also criticized Qatar’s World Cup arrangers and FIFA from the podium at an international gathering earlier this year, flatly denies she’s carrying on any kind of “cultural war” against Qatar or the Middle East and Arab world in general. “They (Qatari and FIFA officials) see this as a battle between the West and the rest of the world,” Klaveness said at a press briefing in Oslo after recently returning from Qatar. “That’s not what (all the criticism against Qatar) is about. We’re not criticizing Qatar as a country, but as a host nation for the World Cup in football.”
And that’s because of Qatar’s exploitation of migrant labourers used to build all the facilities needed for World Cup events and visitors, its restrictive policies especially against homosexuality, its highly criticized human rights record and corruption tied to former FIFA leaders who facilitated Qatar’s bid.
“Football should be safe and secure for everyone,” Klaveness said, “and it was not for migrant workers in Qatar.” After initially claiming that only three of the thousands housed in substandard accommodation had died during the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure, Qatar’s World Cup boss Hassan Al-Thawadi recently admitted that the death toll is likely around 300 or more. Critics claim it’s much more. Workers have been killed in accidents and died from heat stroke over the past decade.
Now, three weeks into what’s usually a wildly popular tournament, the World Cup has been the site of repeated protests and demonstrations, from players’ dismay over risking penalties if they wear rainbow armbands to German players demonstrating how they feel muzzled. Football fans have booed FIFA’s leader from the grandstands. Viewership has taken a dive in Norway, with only 227,000 Norwegians following the first four matches compared to 503,000 after the home team of another controversial host, Russia, played against Saudi Arabia at the World Cup in 2018.
Big-screen events in Norway have been cancelled or scaled down, also because the choice of Qatar as venue moved the tournament from summer to winter. Outdoor events aimed at drawing World Cup specators haven’t been popular: It’s just too cold to watch a large screen and drink beer outdoors. Some Oslo football pub managers have also dropped screening matches, either because of their own objections to Qatar as host, sympathy for migrant workers in Qatar, or pure lack of interest.
“Qatar?” blared the headline on a recent column by sports editor and commentator Reidar Sollie in newspaper Dagsavisen. “Not qualified (as a host), either in terms of sportsmanship or ethically.”
Klaveness, meanwhile, has kept up her opposition and arguments for a venue more in line with what were supposed to be the principles and values tied to football. She’s also made it abundantly clear that both she and Norway’s national football federation have lost confidence in FIFA boss Gianni Infantino.
Klaveness told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) as the World Cup was getting underway that Infantino “is not the right leader to bring us further.” She’s disappointed that none of the international football confederations has proposed another candidate for his post, but won’t stop protesting alleged sportswashing and criticizing FIFA on behalf of Norway.
She admits that it’s cost her both personally and in her role on behalf of Norwegian football, but told newspaper Dagsavisen that “we can’t be afraid of provoking them, or being accused of political acts. She thinks Infantino’s lengthy and widely ridiculed call just before the World Cup began to concentrate on football and not on the situation in Qatar actually backfired on him, and mobilized more criticism.
“Many want to take up important (social) issues, also after the World Cup began,” she said, claiming that Infantino has been “polarizing” instead of unifying.
Klaveness stresses how Norway’s criticism of Qatar as venue for the World Cup “began at the grass roots level,” when football fans blasted conditions in Qatar from their grandstands and called for a boycott even if Norway qualified. The fans’ protests drew lots of attention, and Norway’s own national football team launched a series of its own T-shirt protests.
Then Germany, Denmark and England got vocal with their criticism, “but Norway has clearly been in front,” Klaveness claims. The reasons are “complex,” she said, but stresses that “no other sports democracy in the world has such closeness between members and leadership,” or such “unfiltered” discussions at the meetings of sports federations from around the country.
She had three main goals when traveling to Qatar in November: That the World Cup organizers set up a migrant center in Qatar, create a system to compensate workers or their families for their injuries or deaths, and take up the issue of homosexuality “in a respectful manner” so that Qataris themselves can talk about it. Klaveness, openly homosexual herself, sees no respect in Qatar for the gay movement and things got worse when one of the World Cup’s own ambassadors equated homosexuality to a mental disorder in an interview with German TV channel ZDF. The interview was quickly halted by Qatar’s ever-present “hosts” who often act as censors.
Qatar, known for its rulers’ extreme wealth, has since turned down proposals to set up a fund to help the families of those injured or killed during preparations for the World Cup. Qatar’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, even dismissed the proposal as “a PR stunt,” sparking a harsh response from Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian organizations. And disappointing people like Klaveness and the president of Germany’s football federation, Bernd Neuendorf.
“This is all about the legitimacy of football itself,” Klaveness told Dagsavisen, “and that we have the power to change things.” Qatar, she’s noted earlier, had no national football team of its own before it secured the rights to host the World Cup, while other countries also in the Middle East had a “completely different football culture.” Perhaps that’s why it’s been so difficult for Qatar to understand all the criticism against it.
Klaveness does note that Qatar has since reformed some of its labour practices, “but we also hear about real fear” that the reforms will fade after the World Cup. It remains unclear whether she’s had any effect on men like Infantino and Al-Thawadi. The latter, at least, has repeatedly responded as though the criticism has hurt his feelings, disappointed him, or claimed that those criticizing him failed to take up their concerns with him beforehand. Several Norwegian commentators respond that both Infantino and Al-Thawadi now lack all credibility.
“It’s a scandalous World Cup in every possible way,” the coach of Norway’s own national men’s football team, Ståle Solbakken, told newspaper Aftenposten even before it began. “It’s impossible to get away from that.”