Football Mania

Britain is a football mad country, and so there was widespread jubilation when England beat Iran 6-2 and Wales drew with the US (1-1) on their opening matches. But there was much more to it than simple merriment, and that was to do with a deep-seated sense of entitlement that is characteristic of all the four `home` nations of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, of whom England is the dominant partner.

The Brits have always believed and claimed that football belongs to them, having developed its modern form as a team sport with codified rules which spread across Europe, North and South America and Australasia, and coalesced into a global phenomenon. What I have observed over the years is that whenever any British team takes part in a fixture or competition with other countries, there is an undisguised expectation that they must win. When it comes to going abroad to play their matches, they are accompanied by an army of supporters with much fanfare – a cacophony of noise and other antics in the stadium, and bad behaviour outside – intent on wiping out the imagined enemy and returning home with the trophy of war. They always want to be top dogs.

And it is this psychology that lay at the root of the football fever that had gripped the nation as the world cup in Qatar beckoned and preparations were afoot for going to Doha. They had never been happy with the choice of Qatar anyway – wrong time of the year, a tiny Middle Eastern state with no history of football, and a lot more besides, such as no alcohol, something that the Brits can`t do without during matches!  However, the decision had been made to hold the games there way back in 2011, and that was that, but not quite. How so?

What happened was that they found an avenue for channelling their seething resentment and reservations about Qatar as the venue through the activities of seasoned campaigning groups that had already begun in earnest, directed at Qatar`s abusive treatment of migrant workers, anti-LGBTQ laws and the lack of equality and freedom for women in that society.  So as the public`s attention was drawn to these matters, and the bandwagon rolled on, the football enthusiasts also got involved. They decried the ban on the wearing of armbands and other symbols of protest and made attempts to get round these restrictions willy-nilly.  There were many who said they would refuse to even watch the games at home; there were others who wanted their teams to boycott the tournament altogether, but that of course was too late. The BBC chose not to air the opening ceremony as a mark of moral censure, though other scheduled broadcasts of the games were to go ahead.

This kind of virtue signalling intensified as the start of the games loomed near and there were all kinds of negative stories and other programmes that were filling up the media, highly critical of Qatar`s human rights` record and treatment of migrant workers. When the England and Wales team captains caved in to the warning of the yellow card sanction if they or their players wore the OneLove armband, there was consternation, but the mood rapidly changed and the focus shifted to the game itself with England`s triumphant 6-2 victory over Iran on the second day, which set the scene for a less emotional and more professional discourse all round.

As I write this now, already there have been some sensational results: Mexico, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Tunisia have already been knocked out in the Group stage, while the stalwarts such as England, France, Brazil, Portugal, Netherlands, Japan and Senegal have progressed to the final 16. Other lesser nations have however performed well in their matches in the early stages, even though they have been eliminated.  Of the latter may be mentioned Saudi Arabia beating the mighty Argentina 2-1 in the first round; Morocco`s 2-0 win over Belgium, and Tunisia`s 1-0 win over France.  Iran`s 2-0 defeat of Wales on 25 November was seen as sweet revenge by the Iranians who had been hailed by the westerners for not singing their country`s national anthem in the match against England. This was as a gesture of solidarity with their women over the hijab issue but they sang it when they played Wales, whether out of fear for reprisals for the earlier omission (as western commentators opined) or not.  Whatever the final tally, it is clear that these Middle Eastern upstarts are not to be written off easily in footballing terms; they may yet prove to be formidable contestants in the not too distant future.  Overall, by the time this piece is published, all will have been done and dusted and we will know who the ultimate winner is.

But to come back to the point about criticism of Qatar, condemning the country for its alleged failings from a British perspective carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy and double standards, driven by an imperial tendency to lecture other countries on their morals and values.  Empire may have, indeed has, long gone but old habits die hard!

Let`s consider the facts. It is no exaggeration to say that, in this context the World Cup 2022 has become highly politicised, with a variety of cultural issues thrown into the mix. Qatar was chosen, rightly or wrongly, to hold the games and that could not have been undone. But by what right can outsiders insist that Qatar should bend its rules and conduct itself according to their dictates?  Surely all visitors are expected to respect the culture, tradition and religion of the host nation?  

Qatar, like many other countries, not all of them predominantly Muslim, has laws against homosexuality and enforces them on its resident population.  To those of us who are liberal minded this amounts to a denial of the basic right of LGTBQ people to be who they are, but disapproval of such laws cannot be turned into a demand for reform, just to soothe British sensibilities.  After all, the Qatari authorities had made it abundantly clear that while all were welcome they were expected to abide by their laws.  What happened to `While in Rome, do as the Romans do` as the British are so fond of saying and was drummed into us as colonial subjects?   

It is not as if LGTBQ people in Britain do not face discrimination and other forms of unequal treatment, even within football. Indeed, homosexuality was still illegal here in 1966 when England won the World Cup (the only time it has done so) and although the process of change started in 1967 it was not fully decriminalised until well into this century.

And as for the treatment of migrant workers, yes of course there have been horrendous tales of abuse, hardship, death and injury suffered by the thousands of what can fairly be described as modern-day indentured labourers on construction projects in Qatar from South Asia, some parts of Africa and elsewhere, but let it not be forgotten that the employment system in place there had its origins back in time when Britain was the administering power. This is another example of historical amnesia connected with Empire. That said, since Qatar was chosen as the venue for the games, its domestic policies have understandably come under intense worldwide scrutiny, leading to calls for justice for the migrant workers and consequently an improvement in their conditions.  And again, as with the LGTBQ analogy, it is not as if Britain`s record of treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is anything to sing about.

The status of women in Qatar, as indeed in Iran, is of course a legitimate area of concern for all of us, and one doesn`t need to go into details of what they suffer on a daily basis at the hands of the so-called morality police and in general the male controllers of their fate.  They certainly deserve to be put at the forefront of international support, but for the British football fraternity to have been championing their cause seemed somewhat disingenuous, considering that it does not normally get agitated over such issues.

What they have lost sight of is that Britain and Qatar are closely connected on many levels: Qatar is the tenth largest landowner in Britain.  British arms sales to Qatar are a vital source of revenue and there are other lucrative trade and investment ties between the two countries. Britain is indebted to Qatar in many other direct and indirect ways also.  It therefore suits the British state that all the brouhaha over the World Cup being held there among the footballing community has taken away the scrutiny of its own otherwise cordial sovereign relations with Qatar, and also with a host of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere where human rights violations are rampant.  The World Cup 2022 is a short-term phenomenon. It will then be business as usual and Qatar`s oil wealth and resources will continue to play a pivotal role in Britain`s economy. 

Ramnik Shah


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also