On Sunday, the United States men’s national team was supposed to open its annual January training camp for its many North American-based players who are out of season. Only this year, instead of Southern California, where it had been for decades, it was supposed to be in Qatar.
The USMNT would hardly have been alone there. Several European club teams are spending part of their winter breaks in the tiny Gulf oil state as well, getting ready for the second half of their seasons in training camps. And from a soccer perspective, it makes sense. The weather is reliably good and the facilities are top-notch. Besides, the presence of other teams makes for the easy scheduling of scrimmages and friendlies – the U.S. was slated to play against American head coach Jesse Marsch’s Red Bull Salzburg.
For the Americans, there would have been the added benefit of beginning to prepare for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, even though it’s almost three years away, by becoming more familiar with the facilities and conditions ahead of the start of qualifying this year.
In the end, it didn’t happen. On Friday, U.S. Soccer announced that it was relocating the camp to Florida because of the escalating standoff between the United States and Iran, inflamed further by the drone strike killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraq.
But that doesn’t take away the sense that going to Qatar was problematic in the first place. Sure, lots of soccer teams go, but when they do, it strengthens Qatar’s sportswashing – buffing up its international image through elite sports – of its long record of mistreating migrant workers, the gay community and women.
For the USMNT, there’s the added wrinkle that its presence tacitly validates a World Cup that was likely stolen from the United States through bribery, something even FIFA itself seems to have accidentally conceded. And while it isn’t going in the end, the factors that caused the USA to reconsider weren’t human rights concerns.
Other clubs are going regardless, and are rightly being taken to task over it.
Bayern Munich has longstanding ties and sponsorships with Qatar and is training there for a 10th time this month. Its fans have protested on several occasions. Once, they raised a banner during a game showing two club executives talking about “fantastic training conditions” while workers were whipped in the background, according to the Deutsche Welle news agency.
Longtime club president Uli Hoeness, who was recently replaced, once stated simply that Bayern couldn’t afford to turn away Qatar’s money if it wanted to stay competitive. The club maintains that it’s addressed the human rights issues with Qatar and that things have improved.
But for Bayern’s fans, it hasn’t been enough. “It should be self-evident that Bayern Munich, as a prominent flagship club, should clearly and unmistakably acknowledge human rights,” the Munich’s Red Pride fan group told DW. “Unfortunately, the club’s engagement with Qatar shows that the opposite is true.”
Last month, European champion Liverpool took a different approach. It had no choice in traveling to Qatar for the Club World Cup – just as four Spanish clubs will compete, unenthusiastically, in an expanded Supercopa de Espana in Saudi Arabia this coming week. But when the subject of the Gulf state’s human rights record was brought up, manager Jurgen Klopp, who has been outspoken about his political views in the past, stopped well short of criticizing the hosts or entertaining notions of a boycott.
“Organizers have to think about these things, not the athletes,” Klopp said. “When sportsmen have to decide to be part of a competition, it’s not right. I have an opinion on football but this is a real serious thing to talk about I think and the answers should come from people who know more about it.
“I have to be influential in football but not in politics,” Klopp continued. “Anything I say wouldn’t help, it would just create another headline, positive or negative. My personal opinion, I have one of course, is of course I think we should all be treated equally, that is clear. But we don't have the time to judge things when we are here, we only have time for training.”
Liverpool did take a stand in a different way, refusing to stay in its designated luxury hotel, the Marsa Malaz Kempinski, because it had been found to violate labor laws in the past.
Ajax Amsterdam, last season’s European semifinalists, took even less responsibility for the effect its presence in Qatar can have. “We can’t change the situation over there. That’s also not our role,” club general director Edwin van der Sar told a shareholders meeting. “We’re a football club, not a political party.”
Van der Sar added that it was up to the Dutch government and its multinational firms to take a stand against human rights violations, and that criticism of the club was simply down to soccer tribalism.
But this notion abdicates responsibility entirely. Ajax, by dint of being a professionalized organization that has shareholders, is as much a company as Shell or KLM, the companies to which van der Sar was referring. And while it may not be a political party, by choosing to go to such a controversial nation, Ajax made itself party to politics.
There’s no great mystery about what Qatar is and isn’t. And any soccer team that goes on its own volition, rather than for a tournament put there by somebody else, is saying that it’s with all of that. For those teams, there’s no hiding behind the sports exactly because Qatar tries to mask its ugly side behind a sporting façade.
When you let Qatar sportswash itself with you as the soap, you have to accept that you’ll get dirty.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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