Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, and the Emir of Qatar, Al Thani
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DOHA, Qatar.- The FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, with more than a million spectators expected to attend the event. The fact that Qatar hosts the biggest football tournament put the Asian country’s human rights record in the spotlight. Protests by human rights organizations and football associations exposed Qatar’s poor record on labor rights and LGBTQ+ equality. In response, the Qatari leadership rejected the allegations about the exploitation of migrant workers. For his part, the World Cup ambassador, a former player in the country, declared a few days ago that homosexuality is “damage to the mind.”

In response to the controversy, FIFA wrote to the 32 participating nations urging them to focus on soccer and “not the ideological or political battles that exist.” He also stressed the football governing body’s commitment to diversity, mutual respect and non-discrimination.

“This is not the first time that FIFA has come under scrutiny for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses”

For activists, FIFA, even by adopting these principles, avoids the main problem. Amnesty International called on FIFA to “finally start tackling serious human rights issues instead of sweeping them under the rug.”

Despite international criticism, the matches will go ahead.

Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, and the Emir of Qatar, Al ThaniDarko Bandic – AP

This is not the first time that FIFA has come under scrutiny for turn a blind eye against human rights abuses. In the 1970s, Chile and Argentina suffered episodes of state terrorism. In both cases, despite evidence of human rights atrocities committed under military dictatorships, FIFA continued with plans to organize, first, a decisive qualifying match in Chile for the 1974 World Cup (Germany) and then , the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

history reveals FIFA’s failures when it comes to talking about the importance of human rights issues, and regimes have found ways to use the spectacle of football to hide abuses.

On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist in Latin America, was overthrown by a military coup. In the melee that followed, thousands of people were detained, tortured, killed or disappeared by the armed forces and the new military regime.

In his eagerness to impose control, the regime of Augusto Pinochet created at least 80 detention centers in the capital, Santiago. the national stadium It was one of these places. The compound became the largest detention center in the country, a concentration camp where political prisoners were tortured. From September to November 1973, the national stadium housed at least 20,000 prisoners who were subjected to drowning, beatings, electric shocks, sexual abuse, and murder.

The stadium soon became the center of world interest. Shortly after it began detaining prisoners there, the Pinochet regime invited the press to tour the facility to assure Chileans and the international community that detainees were being treated humanely.

The shot backfired on him. Journalists observed the cruel treatment of the prisoners, and shocking images of people in the stands being held at gunpoint by armed guards reached the international media.

However, FIFA chose the city of Santiago -and the National Stadium- to host a decisive World Cup qualifying match between Chile and the Soviet Union in November. Outraged by the treatment of Chilean political prisoners, the Soviet team refused to play at that venue. Those responsible for Soviet football defended their position: “Soviet athletes, for moral reasons, cannot currently play in the Santiago stadium, stained with the blood of Chilean patriots.” They proposed that the match be played at a neutral venue.

“When the FIFA delegation inspected the National Stadium of Chile, the prisoners were hiding in the changing rooms and in the tunnels”

But FIFA officials objected. They declared that “we are not concerned with politics or the regimes that govern a country. . . . If the Russians refuse to play against Chile, they will be left out of the World Cup”. The Soviet team responded with a boycott.

When the FIFA delegation inspected the venue, the prisoners were hiding in the changing rooms and tunnels, far from the field of play. The military regime then evicted the prisoners from the National Stadium and sent them to a concentration camp in the Atacama desert. The match went as planned. Without a Soviet team on the field, Chile won without having to play and consequently qualified for the 1974 World Cup.

“Argentina had been selected to organize the 1978 World Cup, in a decision that was made in 1966”

In the following years, a wave of authoritarianism continued to sweep through South America. Only a handful of constitutional civil governments endured. In March 1976, the Argentine Armed Forces overthrew the government of Isabel Peron and they began a war of extermination against the left movements. To reshape political life, they banned political parties and public demonstrations, shut down unions, and suspended civil liberties. With echoes of what happened in Chile, thousands of Argentines disappeared and thousands more were tortured in concentration camps and detention centers.

Argentina had been selected to host the 1978 World Cup, in a decision taken in 1966. However, human rights violations by the military made the country the subject of intense international criticism, especially by part of human rights organizations.

From the perspective of the new authoritarian government, by contrast, the World Cup offered an opportunity to soften Argentina’s image abroad, while building popular support at home. The military enlisted the help of an American public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. The agency advised the regime to counter the criticism by generating positive coverage in the main newspapers and magazines, “to help put the Argentine reality in its proper perspective.”

The Argentine regime also used television. The growth of that medium fueled the global reach of soccer. Estimates predicted that nearly a billion people around the world would watch at least some of the tournament’s matches on television.

Two weeks before the start of the tournament, International Amnesty circulated a report to national teams and journalists. The organization was not calling for a boycott, but was urging the millions of viewers around the world who were scheduled to watch the sporting event on television to seek information about the countless victims of torture, imprisonment and disappearance, “that television will not show”. He also accused the Argentine government of exploiting the World Cup to want to give an “image of a stable and peaceful country.”

Activists from around the world amplified the message. The West Germany section of Amnesty International partnered with activist groups to launch the “Yes to football, no to torture” campaign, mobilizing tens of thousands of Germans in protest. In France, more than 200 sections of the Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina, in order to sensitize world public opinion about human rights violations. Similar initiatives were launched in six other European countries, the United States, Mexico, Spain and Israel.

In Argentina, the Montoneros also opposed the version of the military. They published and disseminated a detailed brochure for journalists, officials, sports fans and tourists about “the real Argentina”, in which they claimed that the military was seeking to deceive the world community with a clever public relations campaign.

“The world’s television networks are divided on how to present the Qatari spectacle to the estimated 5 billion people who will tune in to the matches.”

The presence of the international media in the country gave visibility to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organization of women, mothers and relatives of Argentine disappeared. Dutch television journalists, for example, filmed one of their weekly demonstrations in front of the main square in Buenos Aires. A mother told a reporter at the scene: “We just want to know where our children are. Dead or alive, we want to know where they are. . . . Please help us. Help us, please. You are our last hope.”

But the military government had its World Cup. Argentina defeated the Netherlands 3-1 in the final and became the world champion.

As the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar, television networks around the world are divided on how to present the show to the estimated 5 billion people who will tune in to the games. Human rights organizations, however, have demanded that FIFA match the $440 million in prize money and use it to pay immigrant workers. LGBTQ+ activists also recently protested outside the FIFA Museum in Zurich “to make sure that FIFA and Qatar” know “that the world is watching and that citizens around the world expect action.”

Jorge Rafael Videla hands over the cup to the Argentine team, in the 78 World Cup
Jorge Rafael Videla hands over the cup to the Argentine team, in the 78 World Cup

Until now, FIFA has opted for profit over action. The question now is whether world soccer’s governing body will continue to ignore human rights violations in Qatar, as it did in the 1970s in Chile and Argentina, or whether it will commit to establishing a fund to compensate migrant workers and ensure that LGBTQ+ people do not experience discrimination or harassment.

The Washington Post

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