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Watches Qatar, gently weeps….

This column first appeared in The Western Mail in November 2022

It’s morally problematic world cup fever time. Over 60 years since we last qualified, it’s typical that this is the one to break the spell. Because make no bones about it, Qatar 2022 is highly problematic. 

The fact that this World Cup is being held in a country where being gay is outlawed and women are often treated as second-class citizens speaks to an unfathomable level of dodginess at the top table of football’s world governing body. So it is perhaps entirely unsurprising that in the years since FIFA made that fateful decision, 16 of 22 voting members have been implicated in or investigated over some form of alleged corruption or bad practice. 

But here we are, in the Winter of 2022, with – let’s face it – little else to get excited or hopeful about. Welsh football fans have waited so long for our moment in the sun. And for our players, many of whom will have dreamed of this moment for their entire lives, it feels desperately unfair that they wind up qualifying for one of the most controversial tournaments in modern times. 

So what to do? Get behind the boys, or boycott the whole thing?

An easy decision, according to my fifteen-year-old son:

“The whole thing stinks, but it’s not the players’ fault, and they deserve our support. It’s the biggest competition in football, and to expect people to ignore it is unrealistic”.

For his generation, it’s hard to imagine that the last time Wales qualified for a major tournament, homosexuality was illegal in the UK, a law only repealed nine years later in 1967. 

For many of us supporting Wales today, we are lucky enough to live in a country where people are nominally free to be their authentic selves without fear, shame or the threat of severe punishment hanging over them. This isn’t everyone’s lived experience, of course. But being gay doesn’t come with the threat of imprisonment, at least. 

Explaining to the younger generation that there are places in the world where fundamental human rights are not a given might be an important conversation to have. But what message does it send when the powers that be have decided it’s acceptable to host football’s biggest tournament in such a place? What does it say to the millions of young eyeballs watching and willing their teams to victory? Some of whom may be grappling with their sexuality and identity? 

That’s not to mention the fate of migrant workers, who supplied the cheap labour required to build the stadiums and other infrastructure necessary for hosting such a huge global tournament. According to an analysis by The Guardian in 2021, more than 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the competition. That means an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian nations have died every week since December 2010. Is that a price worth paying for all those shiny new stands and corporate hospitality boxes? Behind every one of those deaths is a family bereft, a breadwinner lost, a loved one snuffed out way too soon, and for what? 

For those who have decided to play in or attend this World Cup, do they have a moral obligation to stand up against these egregious breaches of human rights?

Chwarae teg to the FAW and our squad, who flew out to the middle east with all good intentions of making such a stand. Captain Gareth Bale planned to wear a “OneLove” armband to promote a message of diversity and inclusion until FIFA announced that players could face sporting sanctions – such as automatic yellow cards – for doing so. Can we blame them for not wanting to be penalised on the pitch for their views? 

Over then to our fans in Qatar. This week, footage of Welsh fans being ordered to remove their rainbow flag bucket hats – worn in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community – went viral. One of these fans was this newspaper’s very own Professor Laura Macallister, a former Wales player and FIFA council candidate. She told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about her experience when wearing her multi-coloured hat to the Wales V USA game on Monday:

“Once we went through security, we were approached by stewards and told that we couldn’t enter the stadium wearing the hat. I politely asked why and was told it was a regulation. There’s a contradiction there because FIFA made it clear that rainbow symbols, whether attire or flags, would be allowed in the stadiums as part of their pressure on Qatari authorities to make this an inclusive World Cup. So it was very disappointing.”

When asked if a more effective protest might have been to stay away from the tournament altogether, her response was robust:

“It’s a very personal decision, but for those of us who have a role here, whether with UEFA, FAW or the Welsh Government, we’re here to champion change. Of course, we’re not arrogant enough to think that a small nation like Wales can have an immediate impact on a regime like the Qatari one, but in having the conversations, we’ve highlighted not only what’s important to us as a nation – tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity and respect for everyone – but we’re making the conversation more visible and audible to the world’s media.”

If you’ll excuse the pun, I take my hat off to Laura, who is not only entirely badass but is a fantastic ambassador for Welsh football, and for the important values she extolled through her small protest. My favourite part is that after being apprehended, she smuggled the hat into the stadium anyway, posing for photographs to highlight her message. As she concluded:

“It may be a small matter of a rainbow bucket hat, but it’s emblematic of basic principles that we believe in very strongly. We’re under no illusions about how much impact we can have, but however small our voices are, we’re conscious that we’re raising them for LGBTQ+ people worldwide who don’t have basic human rights.”

Fair play to Laura and everybody out in Qatar trying to make their voices heard in whatever way they can. 

For all of us stuck at home bemused and angered by FIFA’s antics, there are ways to add your voice to the growing protests. Check out campaigns by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Stonewall, which you can sign up to support online. Together we can send a powerful message to global leaders that LGBTQ+ and migrant workers’ rights are human rights. As our team motto says so powerfully, together stronger. 

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