Lesley Riddoch: Are we really playing the game?

Protesters against Qatar's treatment of migrant workers gather outside Fifa's meeting in Switzerland last week. Picture: AP

Protesters against Qatar's treatment of migrant workers gather outside Fifa's meeting in Switzerland last week. Picture: AP

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SCOTLAND should seriously consider pulling out of its football match with Qatar this week, writes Lesley Riddoch

Should Scotland call off Friday’s scheduled tie against Qatar in protest at 1,200 deaths amongst migrant workers building venues for the 2022 World Cup – an event apparently won by bribery?

Those most recently willing to overlook Qatari human rights abuses could stand condemned

Admittedly, there are currently more reasons to go ahead.

Firstly, it’s cheap international practice. Qatar booked the FA’s football centre north of Birmingham as a base for training during May and two home nations – Northern Ireland and Scotland – jumped at the chance of international action ahead of next week’s Euro 2016 qualifiers, at a bargain price.

Secondly, if Scotland acts first and alone in boycotting Qatar, it might be a noble act that goes entirely unnoticed in the gigantic, uncaring arena of world football.

Thirdly, as the redoubtable former footballer Pat Nevin asks, why boycott Qatar but not Russia or China with their dodgy human rights records? Many countries use migrant labour –the only reason many are aware of their appalling treatment in Qatar is because affluent Europeans care about football not the world’s poorest people. That’s probably true.

Fourthly, some argue there might be more impact on Qatari behaviour by letting the game go ahead. Surprisingly, Amnesty International welcomes the tie. Their Scottish spokesperson, Pauline Kelly, says: “Sporting links with other nations – especially those with endemic human rights abuses – are an opportunity to highlight the dire conditions in those countries. The Qatari authorities have still not addressed the horrific living conditions and health hazards which [have] led to death for the thousands of migrant workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.”

Finally, scrapping the game could backfire. From the perspective of non-European countries, it could easily look as if rich nations who can afford a social conscience are ganging up against the new kids on the block – even if those kids are the wealthiest folk on the planet. All the non-European nations except the South Americans backed the re-election of Sepp Blatter last week because he recognised the unfairness of their virtual exclusion from world football before 1974. Europeans are paying the price for their high-handed treatment of African and Asian teams. If their objective now is to clean up world football, actions that reinforce the offensive idea of European moral superiority must be avoided.

This last objection is a powerful argument.

But there are more powerful forces operating in Scotland at the moment – namely optimism, activism and a determination not to meekly accept the corrupt old rules of any game. Alistair Carmichael’s efforts to hang on as MP for Orkney and Shetland have prompted island critics to raise a crowd-funded legal case against him so his election can be re-run. Overturning a general election result is as rare in Scotland as scrapping a friendly football tie. So, too, electing 95 per cent of Westminster MPs on a platform of ditching Trident, the House of Lords and first-past-the-post voting. Scots are in a mood to put fairness above expedience and the SFA is only one of many Scottish institutions trailing behind that democratising curve.

Why are we even playing lowly Qatar when the fixture could leave Scotland missing out on a higher seeding in the World Cup 2018 draw? Perhaps convenience – perhaps realpolitik. Let’s face it – until the arrest of nine Fifa officials last week, Qatar’s grip on the 2022 tournament looked like a done deal. Alex Salmond and, more recently, Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf visited Qatar to promote trade with the wealthy emirate while the SFA agreed a partnership after a trip by senior officials. Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy visited Qatar soon after and was shocked by what he saw. “The World Cup 2022 shouldn’t be built on the blood of vulnerable migrant workers,” he said. “The SFA should speak out not sidle up to the Qatari authorities.”

More recently, a BBC TV crew was jailed after filming the conditions faced by Qatar’s 1.4 million migrant workforce. The BBC interviewed one 18-year-old mechanic who paid a recruitment agency in Nepal $600 to arrange a Qatari work visa. He expected to earn $300 a month but his salary as a labour camp cleaner was just $165 a month and the contract – written in English – stops him from changing jobs for five years. Effectively, he can’t leave – and, like the 400,000 other Nepalese workers in Qatar, was denied permission to return home after the country’s devastating earthquakes. In 2014, Nepalese migrants died at the rate of one every two days. Despite pressure by foreign governments, the latest report shows 53 Nepalese people have died this year from “sudden heart attacks” and “road accidents”. Campaigners say these are almost all caused by ten-hour shifts worked six days a week in temperatures that regularly exceed 50C and by the practice of abandoning stricken workers at hospitals where employers refuse to pay for medical treatment.

These appalling conditions in the world’s wealthiest country have been common knowledge for more than a year. But, as investigators close on Sepp Blatter, the status quo might be about to change. The Fifa boss could face arrest, the 2022 World Cup could be reassigned and those most recently willing to overlook Qatari human rights abuses could stand condemned. Or the SFA could surprise everyone and make a brave moral stand. After all, Friday’s match is only a friendly – the easiest kind to cancel.

Besides, what kind of game will Qatar give Scotland? It tempts fate to suggest that Scotland – ranked 30th in the world – should easily beat Qatar, ranked 99th. After their 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland yesterday, the words Costa Rica appear almost unbidden. But this year Qatar was eliminated in the group stages of the Asian Cup after defeat by UAE, Iran and Bahrain. Is this really the vital match the SFA portrays it to be?

Maureen McGonigle, founder of Scottish Women in Sport, says: “I don’t think the game should be scrapped now – if fans feel strongly enough, they should boycott it.” An empty stadium would certainly speak volumes, since Sky are broadcasting the fixture live. So will the Tartan Army take a stand?

If not, Scottish women might organise to reassert the importance of human rights and workers’ solidarity over 90 minutes of satisfaction for the fitba crazy.

This week promises to be an important moral game of two halves.

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