England take a deeply underwhelming stance on World Cup hosts’ human rights abuse

There is an armband. Of course there’s an armband. There’s always an armband. And a statement. Of course there’s a statement. There’s always a statement.

A mealy-mouthed word jumble concocted to sound like real protest and activity, while in reality signifying less than nothing.

Yet beyond these empty platitudes, these woven gestures, what more could the Football Association and England have done? How could they, or any of the European nations, have taken positive action against the Qatar World Cup?

By stopping it? Actually saving lives by preventing it happening? Well, yes, there was that.

Had the major footballing nations joined together soon after December 2, 2010, when FIFA made the corrupt decision to send their marquee tournament to the Gulf and heaven knows how many migrant workers to their deaths, an international boycott of the tournament might have changed that.

Had these nations combined when the decision was made to switch the timing of the tournament from summer to winter — meaning this was now a World Cup that nobody actually supported in a ballot — a re-vote could have been forced.

And had they stood firmly together at any stage over the last 11 years when the steady drip of corruption allegations were published and broadcast, their protests could have mattered and had an impact.

A pariah World Cup without the leading European players would have lost commercial and broadcaster support instantly. It would have threatened FIFA financially and we know that organisation is all about the money.

Had Europe stood against it, maybe taken some of South or North America along with them, FIFA would have been isolated and would have had to rethink. They didn’t because the European leagues are as in hock to Qatar through their broadcast contracts as anybody.

So it’s armbands instead. Fair enough. Who doesn’t love a good armband? In lieu of a genuine challenge — and not a single word of yesterday’s statement belonged to England manager Gareth Southgate, either — this is what the FA and their European counterparts will now do. They’ll armband the bullies into submission. That’ll show them.

The FA consulted with ‘numerous human rights organisations, trade unions and NGOs’ and this is what they came up with, apparently. Armbands.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress certainly missed a trick there, not to mention Ukraine. Think how many of the world’s conflicts could be resolved if only people recognised the power and authority of the armband.

Some will argue that anything would be better than the words emanating from the England camp yesterday, but it’s worse than that. Nothing would. Literally nothing.

If England had said nothing, gone to Qatar, played their football and come home again, we could at least have interpreted it that they were there for the sport, to win, and the politics and human rights issues were of no concern.

This might be considered shallow, even appalling, but at least it would be sincere. They are footballers after all, not politicians. This is a greater insult. This is England and the FA embracing politics but not at a time, or in any way, that matters. It’s a PR exercise. It’s branding. It’s making sure the optics look right.

What it certainly isn’t is a stance that will resonate or will affect change. It’s too late for that. A decade has passed in which an organised, concerted protest might have addressed the many issues around Qatar 2022.

Nothing happened. Now, long past the point of no return, England and the European nations want to try on a conscience to see if it brings a smile.

Nothing can be done about Qatar now and the hosts know it. In the long lead-up to this tournament, Qatar took great care to exude compromise and welcome.

There were encouraging noises about the relaxation of rules, about meetings of East and West, about a more liberal approach conducive to the arrival of so many guests. In recent weeks, that’s changed.

The sale of beer will be strictly limited to certain times of the day, respect must be paid to local laws regarding homosexuality and public order.

‘We are a relatively conservative society — public displays of affection are not a part of our culture,’ a spokesperson said. ‘We believe in mutual respect and so, while everyone is welcome, what we expect in return is for everyone to respect our culture and traditions.’

And not hold hands. Couched in politeness, is a coded flexing of muscles. It is too late for the World Cup to be removed from Qatar now, and the hosts know it. So now the world has to play ball with them, not the other way around.

If you want a firm date when all protest — whether real or in mighty armband form — became redundant, it was August 11 this year when FIFA changed their schedule to give Qatar the opening game.

Hosts have had the honour of leading off the World Cup since Germany v Costa Rica in 2006. Yet the first game in Qatar was scheduled as the Netherlands against Senegal, with Qatar playing later the same day.

Maybe FIFA felt the hosts’ encounter with Ecuador wasn’t eye-catching enough for the global audience. Crucially, that altered mid-August. Suddenly, Qatar and Ecuador were playing Sunday, November 20, the rest of the tournament unfolding from the next day.

That was when Qatar’s clout became obvious. They were no longer dancing to FIFA’s tune. This was their World Cup, and they were owning it.

So the armbands and the well-intended statements are meaningless, too. England’s captain will be adorned in colours promoting inclusion and sending a message against discrimination of any kind? Big deal.

These aren’t even specific issues at the Qatar World Cup. Workers dying in searing heat, in slave labour conditions, for menial pay. That’s the problem. You got a colour for that? What colour represents the 12-hour shifts for £1 an hour being worked by foreign labour near to England’s team hotel in Al Wakrah?

One worker told The Guardian his shift was 30 days in a month ‘and if I take a day off, they cut my salary’. Has Harry Kane got an armband covering this, or is it just for vague, woolly concepts like inclusion or anti-discrimination?

Agents control the migrant labour market, charging fees of up to £1,360 for a job in Qatar. At the hourly rate, it takes more than 113 days just to pay that fee. Many workers also find the salary promised is not what is delivered. So quit.

Changes to Qatari employment law mean workers are now free to leave — and the FA even referenced the country’s ‘progressive legislation’, toadying to the hosts while posturing as if standing against them — but that is not how it works in practice.

‘The company won’t give us permission to leave,’ said one worker. ‘They tell us we have to cancel our visas, go home and then apply for another job.’ Good heavens, don’t they know about the armbands?

There is barely a newspaper in the West that hasn’t investigated, and documented, the plight of migrant workers in Qatar since FIFA’s decision in 2010. If the FA wished to take a stand, years, entire regimes, have since passed.

When Qatar got the World Cup, Manchester City were still two seasons away from their first title of the modern era; Fabio Capello was England manager while Roy Hodgson was at Liverpool; the winners of the League Cup that season were Birmingham City; Brighton, Southampton, Brentford and Bournemouth were all third-tier clubs; Gary Neville was still playing; Harry Kane hadn’t made his debut for Tottenham, or even gone on his first loan to Leyton Orient.

That is the time elapsed. The time when the FA, and England, could have spoken out, or taken the lead.

Imagine if just a handful of the armband wearers of Europe — England, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany — had rejected the idea of playing in Qatar. What a message that would have sent.

Instead, it was revealed yesterday, migrant workers will be invited to England’s training base and given the chance to ‘engage’ with the players.

Their time on the playing fields of Al Wakrah may be docked from their £1 an hour at a later date, but no doubt there’s an armband for that, too.

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Sport England take a deeply underwhelming stance on World Cup hosts' human rights abuse