All protest requires risk – England need to find their backbone

This year’s World Cup in Qatar is bad vibes and for lots of reasons.

For starters, it is being shown in the depths of winter, killing off the summer festival feel we have become accustomed to when the World Cup rolls around.

But there are far deeper issues this year than just a disappointing fan-zone experience.

The build up to the competition has been marred by a litany of controversies; from the allegations of ‘sportswashing’ (using sport to distract from murky political and humanitarian wrongdoing) to the human rights atrocities inflicted on the labourers building the stadiums. 

All of this played out against the backdrop of allegations of corruption and bribery that led to Qatar winning the right to host the World Cup in the first place.

And then there is Qatar’s record on LGBTQ+ rights. Homosexuality is criminalised in the conservative Muslim country, with same-sex relationships punishable with years in prison, or even the death penalty.

However, the presence of a global football competition, watched by millions around the world, creates an opportunity to spotlight these issues and demand change – at least, that was the argument posed by officials and governing bodies defending their country’s decision to attend the World Cup. 

But, one week into the competition, this isn’t how it’s playing out on the pitch.

The England team abandoned their plan for captain Harry Kane to wear an anti-discrimination armband during the games after FIFA announced players would face a booking a yellow card for taking part in the protest. 

All the other countries who had planned to wear the OneLove armband during their World Cup matches – including Wales and Germany – also agreed to U-turn on the decision.

The armbands, featuring a rainbow heart, are a symbol of acceptance and inclusion – they are a sign of solidarity to LGBTQ+ fans and players and a rejection of the Qatari laws that violate their human rights. 

To drop this symbol the moment there was a risk of consequences that could affect a team’s chance of winning a match, shows how the gesture was only ever superficial in the first place and renders it entirely meaningless.

A protest, which only goes ahead if nothing is risked, is not a protest at all. The act of protesting for what you believe in means – sometimes literally – putting yourself on the line, risking fines, arrests, violence – and yes, even a yellow card – to make sure your message is heard.

I’m disappointed in the nations that have caved and chosen not to wear the armbands – but I am not surprised. Their last-minute U-turn indicates that this ‘allyship’ with the LGBTQ+ community is empty and performative, but surely we already knew this the moment these nations agreed to play in a country where people can be killed for who they love.

An armband alone was never going to be enough. Protest through sport can be both powerful and meaningful, but only when it’s followed through with conviction.

There have been other forms of protest at this World Cup.

Denmark’s players pledged to wear ‘toned down’ jerseys to protest Qatar’s human rights record. Their kit provider Hummel created plain shirts in muted colours, without a badge as it ‘does not wish to be visible’ at the tournament, as well as designing an all-black kit to represent the ‘colour of mourning’. But this move came after FIFA rejected their request to wear training tops with the slogan ‘human rights for all’.

The Australian team issued a video in which player Jackson Irvine read a statement on behalf of his teammates outlining the reforms they want to ensure a ‘lasting legacy in Qatar’ after the World Cup.

However, the problem with these ‘protests’ is that very little is actually being put on the line. 

Teams are talking the talk before arriving in Qatar, but when faced with even the slightest push-back from FIFA or local authorities, they are quickly watering down their plans, or abandoning them – like we saw with the armbands.

Meanwhile, in a proper defiant stand against FIFA’s armband ban, the Germany team covered their mouths with their hands to suggest they had been gagged in their first World Cup game this week. They also wore boots with rainbow stitching – risking possible punishment.

Real bravery came from the Iranian team – players refused to sing their national anthem to make a statement against the Iranian regime, while female fans were pictured waving banners criticising Iran’s treatment of women. 

These acts come with a huge amount of personal risk. Footage of their defiance was censored by Iran’s state TV, on the same day five people were shot dead in an anti-government protest.

There have been reports of Qatari officials confiscating rainbow apparel from fans.

The most powerful statements are the ones which require sacrifice – historically, this has always been the case.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black gloved fists while on the medal podium to show solidarity with the civil rights movement in their home nation. Afterwards, they were immediately suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and forced out of the Olympic Village. They faced death threats when they got home.

Colin Kapernick kneeled during the national anthem at an NFL game in 2016 to protest against police brutality and racism. The move cost him his football career as no team would sign him to play for them in the years following his actions. But his move started an important conversation and the powerful symbolism of kneeling endures to this day.

The reason why these protests were so meaningful is precisely because there was a level of risk – the essence of protest is always risk. 

Athletes faced consequences, they jeopardised their careers and livelihoods to stand up for what they believed in. 

And this is what the England team need to commit to if they are serious about defending human rights and using their platform for positive change.

Allyship and solidarity with minority communities is not a fair-weather pursuit. To truly show up for those you claim to support, you must be prepared to face repercussions head-on, even if it impacts your own privilege.

Real protest demands fearlessness – and those in positions of power need to find their backbones.

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