This winter, the FIFA World Cup will happen in Qatar. The decision to host the World Cup there has proved seriously controversial. There were all the practical questions about it happening at a time of year when major national leagues are mid competition and about the implications of playing in that climate. However, those concerns pale into insignificance against the serious issues arising from Qatar’s human rights record. There have also been questions raised about corruption in the build up to the World Cup.
There were significant calls for teams like England to boycott this year’s World Cup, to simply not take up their place. When that did not happen, as generally speaking the official approach of sports teams to competitions is that these should not be conflated with politics, other forms of protest and boycott were proposed so that for example some countries will avoid sending senior dignitaries.
I’ve also heard a few friends comment that they will not be watching or talking about this year’s World Cup, including on twitter. They are in effect offering a personal protest. Now, I’m not sure what impact such a protest has. But then, there are lots of things we do individually that may not have much of an impact. Putting a Ukrainian flag on my Twitter and Facebook profile doesn’t in fact do much to change things. However, it may act as an encouragement to Ukrainians who are on social media. It may also galvanise politicians who use social media directly or indirectly to take the temperature on specific issues. Finally, it helps remind me and others to pray for the issue.
For them same reason, some Christians may find it helpful to choose not to watch or comment on the World Cup. Think of it as a form of fast. Use the time that you would have used talking about football to pray, to raise the issues, to talk about the Gospel. Be challenged by your fast to remember that man does not live by football alone.
However, please be careful not to judge others. I’ve heard some suggestions that if you do not boycott the World Cup then you are somehow placing football above human rights and corruption issues, that you are excusing them. I don’t think that’s quite right. And furthermore, if you are going to insist on that, then it’s probably worth checking back on your long-term history. Did you boycott the World Cup in Russia or the Olympic Games in China. Are you alert to the fact that many nations around the world which our country trades with, where people go on holiday to have significant issues in terms of human rights and corruption? And no, that doesn’t mean I’m expecting you to attempt to take the same stand on everything, everywhere. All I’m asking is that you allow others the same finiteness.
Now, what about me? Well, I’ve got to be honest. I’ve been less and less interested in what goes on in the football world for some time. Why? Well because the truth is that football as a spectator activity is done best live. There’s nothing quite like going along to see your home team play and supporting them win, lose, draw through thick and thin. That’s because football is about more than appreciating the skills on the pitch. It’s very much a social thing. So, when I lived in Bradford and could get along to games, regularly then I had a much greater interest in Bradford City. As a young person, I knew all the names of the players, I had an opinion on their ability. Today, I like to check in on how they are doing. I watch the goals on YouTube. I struggle to keep up with who is playing for them though. Half are on loan and the others will be gone on free transfers at the end of the season. I haven’t got a clue who is playing for who in the Premier League. It seems remote and out of touch.
This probably reflects changing tastes and priorities as I get older too. Life is fuller, my brain is fuller. So, over the past decade, I’ve noticed that I’m less excited when the big tournaments come around. I would probably watch a few games and I would get more interested if England did well and got through to the later stages. And to be honest, there’s other things that will be occupying my mind over the next month or so. Therefore, regardless of where the World Cup was going to be played, I’m not sure it would be getting a lot of my attention this time round. Man does not live by football alone.
This brings me to another point. I remember a friend of mine who commented that he had never ever been tempted to get drunk or smoke. He then pointed out that given, he had no desire or appetite for those things that there was absolutely no sense in him making a virtue out of never drinking or smoking. This was not some great victory of sanctification. It just reflected his tastes. He needed to show evidence of sanctification in those parts of his life where the real challenge was.
Now, some of the people I know who are talking about World Cup boycotts are genuinely passionate football fans and they will be showing great self-discipline not to engage. However, I am not sure that all are. So, here’s the thing. If you don’t like football or aren’t particularly interested in it anyway then that’s also your prerogative. But if your conversations are not normally football orientated and if you generally get irritated when it starts to dominate the media, then whisper it quietly but you are not heroically boycotting the World Cup. You are just going about your normal business.
Now, as it happens, we’ve got one game booked in. We’ve just made friends with a lovely Iranian couple. They asked us the other day if we would watch the England – Iran game with them. We said yes and we’ve invited them and a few others over for it. Another of the churches in our micro network has a lot of Iranians engaged with them. So, guess what? That’s right, they’ll broadcast it live on the big screen.
Does that mean that we, or the other church don’t care about human rights abuses. Of course we do. In fact, we care passionately about human rights abuses in Iran. So too do the people who will be coming to watch the game with us. In fact, quite a few people watching and cheering for Iran during that game will be people who have had to flee the brutality of that regime. They are able to distinguish support for their national team and support for the regime.
Now, coming back to my earlier point. Our individual decisions about the World Cup will make little difference in the big scheme of things. It’s therefore worth highlighting that Qatar is the UK’s 29th largest trade partner. In a year, we do over £8 billion worth of trade with them -that’s £3.1 billion of exports and £5 billion of imports. A major component of our trade with Qatar relates to military equipment. In fact, when it comes to arms deals with countries that have shameful human rights records, Britain has a poor record.
So, can we do anything about that? Well, I think we can. First of all, we can write to companies that trade with Qatar and ask them to consider again. Secondly, we can write to MPs and government ministers and raise the issue of hoe Britain does business, especially when it comes to military exports with questionable regimes.
Thirdly, whether you are following or boycotting the World Cup, you can use the opportunity to highlight challenges in the particular countries involved, both competing and hosting. We can use the opportunity to pray for the work of the Gospel in those places.
What I urge us not to do is to judge the hearts and motives of others when they take a different approach to us. Just because someone does not respond on an issue in the way that we would, that they don’t use exactly the words we would or take the actions we would does not mean that they do not care about or are on the wrong side of an issue.
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