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Norway’s football clubs to vote on Qatar World Cup boycott

Will Norwegian football star Erling Braut Haaland stay home or play on what fans have dubbed a "cemetery?" This Sunday, a meeting of Norway's football community will decide whether to boycott next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Norway's football clubs to vote on Qatar World Cup boycott
Norway's forward Erling Haaland (L) and teammates wear jerseys reading "Fair play for migrant workers" before the international friendly football match between Norway and Greece at La Rosaleda stadium in Malaga in preperation for the UEFA European Championships, on June 6, 2021. JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

Under pressure from grassroots activists the Norwegian Football Federation(NFF) has decided to hold an extraordinary congress to decide on whether to pass up football’s showpiece event all together.

The games on the pitches in the Middle Eastern emirate will “unfortunately be like playing on a cemetery,” according to Ole Kristian Sandvik, spokesman of the Norwegian Supporters Alliance (NSA), invoking a commonly used metaphor among opponents of Norway’s participation.

Norway, which has not qualified for a major international competition since Euro 2000, is currently fourth in its World Cup qualifying group behind Turkey, the Netherlands and Montenegro. 

So while qualification seems an uphill task, the result of the vote could have an impact on whether Norway and its young star Haaland — one of the rising stars of world football — continue to play qualifying matches. 

The movement calling for a boycott began north of the Arctic Circle when football club Tromso IL spoke out against turning a blind eye to alleged human rights abuses at the end of February.

“We can no longer sit and watch people die in the name of football,” the first division club proclaimed.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, with campaigners accusing employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare.

“There is no doubt that this World Cup should never have been awarded to Qatar,” Tom Hogli, a former professional footballer turned public relations officer for Tromso IL, told AFP.

“The conditions there are abominable and many have lost their lives,” he added.

In March, a spokesman for the Qatari organisers put the number of deaths on the construction sites at “three” since 2014, with another 35 having died away from their workplaces, challenging the heavy toll reported by some rights groups.

Push from fans
The Tromso call began gathering pace in Norway, where clubs operate under a democratic structure, and under pressure from fans, many teams now say “nei” (no).

According to Sandvik, the fans feel that the deaths on the World Cup sites would have been avoided “if they had not had to build hotels, railways and stadiums”.

Nearly half of Norwegians, 49 percent, now say they are in favour of a boycott, while only 29 percent are against it, according to a poll published by newspaper VG on Wednesday.

The Nordic country’s national squad has already protested conditions in Qatar, but stopped short of calling for a boycott.

Before recent Norway games, Borussia Dortmund superstar Haaland, captain Martin Odegaard and the rest of the team have worn t-shirts with slogans like “Human rights on and off the pitch.”

Other countries, like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark have also followed suit.

FIFA, on the other hand, argue that awarding the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar has opened the door to social progress.

“We know there is still work to be done, but we need to recognise the significant progress achieved in a very short time,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in May.

‘Few successes’ 
While the executive committee of the NFF have said they regret Qatar being awarded the World Cup, they oppose a boycott.

President Terje Svendsen said he thought it was “not the right tool to improve the human rights situation or the working conditions in Qatar,” when speaking at the federation’s ordinary annual congress in March.

According to the NFF, a boycott could end up costing Norway 205 million Norwegian kroner ($24 million, 20 million euros) in fines and compensation as well as lost revenue.

Feeling the pressure from grassroots campaigns, the NFF referred the matter to an extraordinary congress which on Sunday will bring together the eight members of its executive committee, representatives of 18 districts and of hundreds of professional and amateur clubs.

The discussions will be revolve around the findings of an expert committee which, with the exception of two members representing fans, has also come out against a boycott.

“For a boycott to succeed, you need a critical mass behind it, an opposition that calls for it in the country, the UN to put pressure on the
authorities, the business world, the trade unions and civil society to put pressure on it in the long term,” committee chairman Sven Mollekleiv said in a debate hosted by broadcaster TV2.

“Historically, there are few successes,” he said.

Rather than a boycott, the committee recommended 26 measures to consolidate and further the gains made in Qatar but also to ensure that FIFA doesn’t become complicit in so called “sportswashing” — the polishing of a country’s public image through a major sporting event.

Some initial supporters of a boycott, like Tromso’s Hogli, have since sided with these conclusions, although calls for a complete boycott remain.

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Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”

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