As the International break has unfolded, one story has probably attracted more attention than some of the football. Norway, The Netherlands, and Germany have all worn t-shirts protesting the human rights record of World Cup holders Qatar. Closer to home, John Stones has hinted at England players sharing the sentiment. This has once again raised the larger issue of football’s rocky relationship with morality and justice. To be blunt, football is hardly a squeaky-clean sport. The problem is that football does not tend to do enough beyond making meaningless gestures.
Where the Problem Begins
‘Shut up and dribble’, ‘maybe (s)he should spend more time training than talking’, ‘don’t bring politics into sport’. These are just a handful of the most common comments that athletes are met with when they attempt to voice their opinion on world issues. Football, and sport in general, struggles to engage with moral issues because the world spends far too much time telling players to shut up about them.
A fine example here is with Arsenal player Hector Bellerin. Hector Bellerin is a vegan, Hector Bellerin plants trees, and Hector Bellerin is a proud advocate for gay rights. Conspicuously, Hector Bellerin is one of Twitter’s least favourite Arsenal players.
Criticism can, of course, be entirely fair. Bellerin is prone to a foul throw, can be beaten 1v1, and has a habit of dragging crosses back too far. These are not too often what you see said, however. Instead, if you search his name on any given matchday you see criticism of the way he dresses, how he does his hair, and most bluntly that the world still views calling a heterosexual man ‘gay’ as an insult.
The relevance of this is that at a ground level football makes it hard for the game to have a positive social impact. We are talking about athletes who have the eyes and ears of millions, and they are being told to do absolutely nothing with that.
Of course, there are players, much like Bellerin, who ignore the idiots and continue to spark meaningful discussions. The problem is when you think about quite how many are probably scared to do it. To have thousands of abusive messages directed at you for discussing something other than football is an incredibly daunting and horrid thought.
So, one problem is clearly that fans are far too quick to try and stop players doing anything beyond kick a ball. This is a bad enough problem alone, but the clubs can make it worse.
Arsenal Football Club Does Not Involve Itself in Politics
Ah yes, the famous words of December 2019.
Mesut Özil has taken to Twitter to share his views on the horrific treatment of Uyghurs in China. This damning sentence is how Arsenal Football Club support him.
This is a fine example of the perils of footballers daring to actually talk. Eventually you’ll say something the club do not like to hear. I phrase it like this, because Arsenal’s statement was a lie. Arsenal Football Club does involve itself in politics. Within the following year, Arsenal (rightfully) issued a statement of support for Nigerians during the #EndSARS movement.
Perhaps a more honest statement would have been ‘Arsenal Football Club does not involve itself in politics when there may be significant financial repercussions’.
See, Arsenal in the same year of 2019, did not have to shout their limpness to the masses when Hector Bellerin tweeted ‘#FuckBoris’. No, here Arsenal decided they need not throw their own player to the wolves and distance themselves.
The problem is that football will only talk about social issues when they are trendy or incredibly safe. I say safe, because that is exactly the difference here between Bellerin and Özil. A bit of Tory-bashing is tame. There exists nothing to be hurt beyond the feelings of staunchly Conservative Arsenal fans. Criticism of the Chinese Government on the other hand, can cause rippling damage.
After Özil’s tweet, this set of events happened. Arsenal’s game against Manchester City was pulled from the TV schedule. Özil was erased from the Chinese version of Pro Evolution Soccer. Özil’s profile on Chinese social media site Weibo disappeared. One tweet, and the erasure began.
In a nutshell, Arsenal wanted no part of this. Football clubs cannot engage effectively with moral issues when they exhibit no backbone in the first place. Commercial interest is king, and anything else is an afterthought.
Put That on a T-Shirt
A club chucking their own player under the bus is a dreadfully low bar, so of course football has found a way to go even deeper. What’s worse than leaving your own player out in the cold? Well, perhaps wearing t-shirts to support your player who has just been charged with racial abuse and handed an eight-game ban.
Of course, you simply cannot talk about football being morally bankrupt without looking at how Liverpool reacted to Luis Suarez being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra. Truthfully, it’s impossible to comprehend quite what they were thinking. To engage in such a public act of what amounted to victim blaming is totally and utterly unforgiveable.
Needless to say, all anyone ever says now is ‘oh we made a huge mistake’. Indeed, Jamie Carragher loves to hammer home how bad he thinks it was, and how in hindsight he should have said no. Let’s be honest for a minute. The year that this happened was 2011. As awful as the ‘we didn’t know any better’ excuse usually is, it is frankly bizarre to think it washes, given the events are barely a decade ago.
Liverpool put protecting their own above doing the right thing. This was not even the end of it. Suarez had the cheek to snub Evra’s offer of a handshake in the next meeting of the two. The result? Yet another pathetic apology from the football club.
The problem with football clubs is that they are more comfortable apologising than they ever are doing the right thing.
Football’s latest intervention into the world of ‘doing the right thing’ is for players to take the knee before the game. Players kneel to draw the attention of spectators to the issue of racism in the game and the world.
It’s certainly a powerful symbol, and that might be where the problem lies. See, football loves a symbol.
Here, I’ll allow Wilfried Zaha to describe it better than I ever could. Zaha has chosen to stop taking the knee, arguing that it has become nothing more than a pre-match routine that has done nothing to tackle the issue of players facing racial abuse.
This right here, hits the nail on the head. When you write, you’re always told that the golden rule is ‘show, don’t tell’. Football is in the trap of telling and not showing. Football loves to tell you that it is for everyone, that it abhors discrimination, yet fails to adequately deal with racial abuse at games and online.
A similar issue has arisen in Formula One. In having a slogan of ‘We Race As One’, F1 states that it is fighting for equality for all. The problem, is that we never see this. F1 still travels to countries where women are treated as second class citizens, where homosexuality is forbidden, where racism is rife. The poisoned cherry on top is the presence of Nikita Mazepin on the grid. A man of little talent, Mazepin is on the grid because his father has paid for it. Mazepin has been accused of sexually harassing a woman, and the reaction of both himself and Haas F1 Team has been subpar to say the least. How can a sport say there is no room for inequality when it allows someone like that to represent it?
Football, and sport, is scared to go beyond t-shirts and slogans.
An International Incident
Having looked at club level, let’s return to the initial base camp of international football. I, for one, was intrigued to see Germany so happy to talk about human rights. After all, I don’t think it’s been a very long time since 2018.
Yes, 2018 where one of Germany’s star players retired from international football, citing a culture of racism and discrimination. Mesut Özil retired because he was tired of being turned from the poster boy of German diversity to the Turk playing for Germany, tired of DFB officials’ racial comments, tired of politicians calling him things such as a ‘goat fucker’.
We’re always told that football is about community, togetherness, brotherhood and sisterhood. This seems to be a foreign concept to the German team. No fewer than three star players voiced their opinions, downplaying the saga. Thomas Müller so helpfully said ‘there can be no talk of racism in the team’, Manuel Neuer said that players should from now on be ‘proud’ of wearing a Germany shirt, and Toni Kroos called it ‘nonsense’.
Instead of reflecting on why one of their colleagues felt as he did, they first thought to protect themselves. It would not be the last time that Toni Kroos missed the mark. Months after the Özil incident, Kroos publicly criticised Leroy Sane’s body language. In football, it’s something of a trope for pundits to accuse black players of being lazy, it probably doesn’t help when a high-profile international does the same. But then again, Toni Kroos was the man who suggested that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was a bad role model…because he wore a mask in celebration.
The point here is that we are not very far removed from international teams handling issues of discrimination appallingly. Now, you could easily say that wearing the shirts was a sign of a team looking to improve themselves going forward. The mistake in that, is that Germany have always outwardly said the right thing and talked the talk. Germany loved talking about its multicultural team when they were winning; but were also quick to blame the players who they know are the easiest targets for criticism.
Corruption and More Corruption
Green is to grass as corrupt is to FIFA. It is almost an open secret that Qatar won their World Cup through illicit means. People tend to point to a FIFA report which cleared FIFA of wrongdoing. I don’t have to explain why this is almost comical.
The greatest problem football has with moral issues is that it loves to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. Congratulations, you are wearing t-shirts to protest an event that you are about to spend 90 minutes trying your hardest to get into. The issue started when Qatar were awarded the World Cup in the first place.
If you look at a country that both does not currently have the sufficient stadia to host a tournament, and has a horrific human rights record, you can come to a simple but damning conclusion. The reality is that reports of migrant workers being exploited and losing their lives do not come as much of a surprise. Stadiums do not appear out of thin air; we knew this would happen.
Wearing t-shirts in the year before the tournament does not cut it. The epitome of meaningless is that German internationals at Bayern Munich played in the FIFA Club World Cup. In Qatar. Some even starred in a Qatar Airways commercial. You cannot pick and choose when you are appalled by a corrupt state.
Actually Do Something
If you want to have an effect, stop playing football. If you care that much, boycott games. In fact, boycott the World Cup.
Reducing everything to a slogan on a t-shirt is one of the most regrettable things in sport for the fact it has replaced any action. Why do something meaningful when a bit of snazzy graphic design can do the trick?
Football fails time and time again when it tries to engage with moral and social issues because it cannot escape its fundamental ties with corruption and abuse. Money makes the game go round; the sport does not care about you.
Individuals can and will continue to make positive strides, but I simply do not believe we will ever see clubs and international federations ever make any meaningful strides. The only interests they have are their own, and it would do fans a favour if they stopped making such offensively poor efforts to pretend otherwise.