Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

World Cup glory? Norway’s football fans are more interested in human rights

The extraordinary defiance from 500 clubs against FIFA over Qatar 2022 is already inspiring other countries

Irene Peroni
5 July 2021, 12.01am
Norway almost boycotted the Qatar World Cup over human rights
Gonzales Photo/Alamy. All rights reserved

Football matches are not usually places where I would look for like-minded people. But watching a televised debate on Norway’s proposed boycott of FIFA’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar has completely changed my mind. 

There are two things that the typical Italian loves to argue about: football and politics. Despite being an Italian living in Norway, I must admit I’m not really into the former, yet I was still planning on watching the Italy-Wales Euro 2020 game on 20 June. But I almost missed it due to a far more enthralling spectator sport involving Norway’s football federation.  

That Sunday, Norway’s public news channel broadcast an extraordinary congress of the football federation on whether or not the national football team should boycott the 2022 event. The grassroots engagement was astonishing, and the debate went on for hours. As forecast by several commentators, the federation’s proposal of pursuing a softer approach won the majority of votes. The proposed boycott was voted down by 362 to 121.  

Yet, the risk of a different outcome was very real, and the nervousness of the Norwegian Football Federation’s president, Terje Svendsen, was palpable. The federation put a huge effort into convincing the clubs that dialogue, combined with a structured push for reforms, would be far more effective in promoting change than pulling out of the tournament altogether. 

But the Qatar debate was so enthralling, it oozed such passion and commitment, that I almost forgot to switch channels when the time came and the match kicked off. 

Justice in all its splendour

After 13 years of living in Oslo, I must admit that I had never witnessed such fervent and impassioned exchanges.  

It was as though the issue at stake was the very essence of being Norwegian: football clubs were not squabbling over sports, but rather human rights, and how despicable and hypocritical it would be to disregard any violation thereof in order not to displease the organisers or the host.  

Norwegians tend to be rather softly spoken – they rarely express strong opinions or criticise each other. But this time they certainly did not beat about the bush.  

Seeing football fans argue the case for banning their national team from joining an event which, after all, is the most prestigious in the world of football, was quite mesmerising. This was the epitome of idealism, live on TV!  

A memory of a younger version of myself came back to me: one of the things that had made me want to settle down in Norway was the innate sense of justice and solidarity that I had attributed to Norwegians, yet which rarely materialised in daily life, leaving me deeply disappointed.  

But here it was – in all its splendour. Criticism of FIFA from the delegates, who were representing 500 football clubs, was quite brutal. They accused the federation of “whitewashing human rights abuses”, “corruption”, “shying away from unwanted attention” and “only caring about money”.

No to a corrupt sport that leads to suffering and death

With regards to Qatar’s human rights violations, several delegates pointed out that the Gulf country does not allow same-sex relationships (this is the month of Gay Pride, after all), while others argued that Qatar wanted to shift the attention away from the civil rights issue while reinforcing its international role. 

“Where should we draw the line?” a delegate wondered. 

“We don’t want to play in a cemetery,” said another delegate – a phrase often quoted in this debate.

“No to a corrupt sport that leads to suffering and death,” demanded another. 

The boycott plans ended there, but what if more national football clubs decide to stage similar acts of defiance against FIFA? That could prove to be a new spectator sport in itself.

And the Norway team already has form for standing up to inequality. Back in February, players wore T-shirts that read ‘Human rights – on and off the pitch’ ahead of a qualifying match against Gibraltar. This was in response to a Guardian article that month claiming that 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the country was awarded the right to host the games ten years ago. It is believed that many of them were working on infrastructure works related to the World Cup.  

This was enough to inspire Germany’s players, who followed suit with a similar message via a handwritten letter on each of their jerseys forming the words, ‘human rights’.   

Norway’s players have set a stone rolling – a stone that Sunday’s vote has not really stopped, but rather slowed down.  

In order to follow this debate, I ended up missing the first half of the Italy game, but it was worth it. And from now on, I will observe Norwegian football supporters in their horned caps with a whole new perspective.

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