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The Football World Cup in Qatar


By Alberto Giubilini


The forthcoming World Cup in Qatar is perhaps the most controversial in football history.  Qatari social, religious, and legal norms clash with values that many people from other parts of the world hold dear.  For example, things like extramarital sex, same-sex behaviour, and importation of religious books are illegal in Qatar. A Qatari ambassador for the World Cup said that homosexuality is a ‘damage of the mind’ and a ‘spiritual harm’. He added that people going to Qatar will have to accept their rules.

This flies in the face of the fact that many players, commentators, and other stakeholders who will go to Qatar have been openly condemning Qatari social, religious, and legal norms in many ways. For example, Australian footballers have released a video condemning human rights violations in Qatar, including the treatment of migrant workers. German defender Leon Goretzcka said that by displaying messages against Qatari norms players want to “set an example for the values we want to stand for”. Is this hypocritical?


Hypocritical or genuine condemnation?

If one is committed to condemning local Qatari values, one alternative to going to Qatar while condemning their norms is, well, not going to Qatar. In fact, many football fans are calling for a boycott of the World Cup. If the point is “to set an example for the values we want to stand for”, not going would certainly work better. It would show that footballers are prepared to pay a personal cost for the values they believe in.

One indicator of honest condemnation, as opposed to mere, self-righteous virtue signalling is the fact that one is prepared to pay at least some small personal cost for the values one claims to uphold. If one is not prepared, this person’s interest in relatively trivial things – those that can be given up for a small cost to the individual – seems to prevail over the interest in promoting the good cause. Which casts doubts on the actual commitment to the cause.

This does not mean that one necessarily has to pay a cost in order for one’s act of condemnation to be genuine, rather than informed by one’s self-righteousness. A lot depends on the circumstances, and sometimes it can be difficult to see what kind of cost one is in a position to pay. However, it seems that being prepared to pay a cost for the sake of a good cause means, at the very least, that one would need to pay it when the option of doing so is easily available, when it is not supererogatory to do so, and when the values at stake are sufficiently important that the cost is worth paying for them.

In such cases, it seems that paying that cost reflects a genuine act of condemnation, rather than self-righteous virtue signalling.

None of this seems to be true for footballers and other stakeholders who are expressing their condemnation of Qatari norms. At the end of the day, they know that they will be praised by their own society for their act of condemnation and will get to fulfil their desire to be at the World Cup. It does seem a win-win situation. German midfielder Joshua Kimmich said: “I think we’re 10 years too late to boycott the World Cup”.  But it’s not clear why. Footballers have contractual obligations towards their own clubs, but not towards their national teams. They really are free to not go to Qatar even now.

One could reply that playing in the World Cup is not trivial for a football player. It is probably what football players have invested the most energy in and made the largest sacrifices for throughout their life. So giving up playing in the World Cup in the name of what they take to be a good cause would be too large a cost for them. And on many views of morality, we cannot be morally required to engage in exceedingly demanding acts. This is probably true. Two things need to be noted, however.

First, interests can still be relatively trivial even if they are not trivial in non-comparative, absolute terms. Playing in the World Cup is not trivial in absolute terms for a professional football player, but is arguably trivial relative to, say, the infringements of human rights that these professionals are claiming to condemn. So it seems that football players are still prioritizing something relatively trivial over a cause they claim to be committed to.

But maybe by expecting players to give up something that is relatively trivial in this sense we are setting the standard too high. Indeed, it is a standard very few of us adopt, as it seems to require us to make very large personal sacrifices whenever they can promote some good that is large enough to make such sacrifices proportionate, relative to the good. Perhaps there is a threshold after which personal sacrifices are beyond the call of duty, regardless of how large the good at stake is. One might suggest that this is the case for professional footballers who give up on their opportunity to play in the World Cup. I am happy to leave this issue open.

The second thing is that it is not clear whether it is justifiable for someone to voluntarily go to a foreign country while openly condemning the local norms, or even expect the host country to change them. We do expect people visiting our own country to respect some basic local norms and values. For instance, we would not consider it acceptable for people who disagree with our liberal stances about, say, same-sex behaviour to come into our communities and openly condemn our liberal values, promote illiberal values, or expect us to change our liberal values to accommodate their views.

Tolerant, pluralistic societies are committed to being as accommodating as possible towards individuals with different cultural norms. But that is true only up to the point where the core, identifying values of the local community – say, a basic respect for individual freedoms – would need to be given up in order to accommodate other cultural norms. If we accept the principle that visitors should respect our basic values, we need to acknowledge that it is the same principle that the Qatari ambassador requested with regard to foreigners visiting his own country for the World Cup. We might well think our values are universal and apply everywhere, and that their values are simply mistaken. But surely Qatari people think the same of their own values compared to ours.


Respect for others’ values and moral relativism

If one is a moral relativist, one might have to say that Qatari norms are as good as ours. Moral relativism is, roughly, the theory that the validity or truth of moral views is relative to certain systems of morality, but there is no independent, objective moral standard to assess and rank different moral views or systems.  Moral relativism seems to imply that there is no scope for genuine moral disagreement among individuals committed to different systems of morality. The same thing can be good according to one system and bad according to a different system, and that is all that moral relativism allows one to say: there is no independent criterion to determine which one is right. It seems moral relativism would provide a reason to respect Qatari norms, because it would prevent us from saying that our moral values are objectively better. However, moral relativism is not an appealing view, as it seems to be consistent with an ‘anything goes’ approach whereby we can never say that someone doing something that seems clearly immoral is actually doing something wrong.

Unappealing views can sometimes be true, unfortunately. But in any case, we don’t need to be moral relativists to say that there are reasons to respect local norms and values of a country we visit. Indeed, respect for local norms is itself a principle that one could say is objectively valid, and therefore that one can even more strongly uphold if one rejects relativism.  If you reject moral relativism, you can certainly put yourself in the position to disagree and condemn others’ values, because rejecting moral relativism allows you to think that your values are better, and to provide justifications for your view. But rejecting moral relativism does not justify you visiting a country and expecting that locals change their values to accommodate yours. That would still violate a principle of respect for local norms and for moral differences that does not depend on being a moral relativist. If you can’t visit a country and respect local norms because you think your values are superior, then the best alternative is, quite simply, to condemn and argue against those norms while not going there.

Here is another issue, however. Unlike football players and football fans, some people will be required or expected to go to Qatar as a matter of professional or contractual obligation. Think, for instance, of reporters, technicians, staff supporting teams in various capacities, and so on. Ethical reasons to challenge or condemn local norms might arise because of the harms that such people might suffer while doing their job there. But it is hardly the responsibility of Qatari people to accommodate lifestyles that are not consistent with their social, religious, or legal norms. We might well have good reasons to disagree with them, but it is not clear that our disagreement is or ought to be a reason for them to change their norms. If anything, the retrospective responsibility for the situation and the prospective responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of visitors lies with those who made the decision to assign the World Cup to Qatar.


A global community?

What does this largely foreseeable situation tell us about the so-called globalized world? Perhaps it casts doubt on the feasibility of something like a global, multicultural community that shares enough values to allow for peaceful cohabitation or peaceful gatherings, as a World Cup is supposed to be. There is a natural, understandable human tendency to identify with the values, ideas, traditions that form one’s own culture. A sense of who we are is not separable from a sense of belonging to a certain culture. After all, humans are defined, among other things, by having a culture, and cultures develop within communities of people living together and sharing common goals. It is hard to see how there can be such a thing as a global culture or a global identity that can ground some kind of ‘cosmopolitanism’ – though some do argue for something like that.

Indeed, our firm condemnation of some Qatari social and cultural norms is itself an expression of this tendency. Even communities within the Western world can differ radically among one another with regard to fundamental values (think, for instance, about different stances on abortion rights, and therefore on the value of human life and bodily autonomy, among people in Western countries).

Unfortunately, sometimes the values that define different cultures are irreconcilable and don’t allow for peaceful cohabitation. Perhaps many have been hoping that the same political tools and values that allow us to manage pluralism within more localized communities could be extended to something artificially created like a ‘global community’. If we had something like that, there would be no issue with hosting a football World Cup in Qatar. But perhaps there cannot be such a thing as a global community. If we expect to go to Qatar and be part of one whole community there, then the problem might well be with our own expectations, rather than with Qatari values. It seems reality hits back against our ideals.



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5 Comment on this post

  1. I have no bone to pick with Qatar. They have their values, some of which are not mine. Sobethat. Values, teachings, traditions and the like are
    different in different cultures, partially due to religious differences, partially because of the ideas and practices of the cultures themselves. I cannot
    make that better or different to what it is. The football (soccer) world cup is a big event for many. NCAA college football (football, in the western
    sense) is bigger in the USA. Some individuals and groups wish to politicize such things to promote or enhance agendas. I will not go with that.
    Reading SJ Gould, years ago, I encountered his assertion regarding non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Specifically, Gould held that religion
    and science needed to abstain from each other’s business. Made good sense to me. Other people, many of whom probably had their own agendas,
    roundly criticized or condemned his position. Politicization of any such matters, in my view, is disingenuous from the get. My view, which has not
    changed, is not popular. Neither are subjugations, of any sort, in the modern, western world. Still—stuff happens.

  2. Two random thoughts:

    There is perhaps a useful scale from values which are genuinely embedded in the culture to values which are merely imposed by the government (and would quickly lose their grip if the ruling regime fell). I do not know where on that scale the Qatari values lie. But values at the government-imposed end should perhaps be challenged more readily, including (if one does not mind taking the risk) by going to the country and subverting those values – even if only by wearing armbands. I am thinking of people who challenged censorship in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe by smuggling in material and facilitating discussions (eg the philosophy groups in what was then Czechoslovakia).

    We should consider this line from Joseph Schumpeter:

    “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.”

    (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, page 243, also quoted by Isaiah Berlin at the end of Two Concepts of Liberty)

  3. Well considered, reasoned and stated, Mr.Baron. Appreciated, as well. A pragmatic assessment advises me that, in all probability,
    religion in some rudimentary form, emerged before government. If that is anywhere right, we need to consider government as a
    construct of religion. Additionally, to flesh out a skeletal framework, there followed a need for some structural adjunct to do the
    dirty work religion wanted no part (active) of. Voila,politics was born. History necessitates emergence, if you follow this. But, wait. Things are not working so well now? They never have. God and the Eden myth, notwithstanding, they never could. Or would.

  4. Well I would only add some general reflection.
    Qatar is a wealthy country as for the natural sources above all oil and gas.
    Islam is the state religion.
    The climate is dry.
    These three factors are the great obstacles for democracy.

    Islam is the religion connected with the strict hiearchy in the society.
    And if the country is rich due to the natural wealth it supports very high level of life for the most of inhabitants even for the common ones.

    If the health care is free for everybody, the taxes are low and the oil costs just a penny in such country
    you will not find any opponents againts the regime.

    The society prefers money not freedom. The same prefered FIFA.

  5. It seems that a main, but very fundamental issue has been largely ignored in these discussions to which the article itself made some reference but seemingly avoided reflecting upon. Truth, coupled with a sort of consistency. Qatar have showed themselves to have been untruthful in their negotiations and the contract they accepted when they won and signed up to the world cup bid. When ignoring those obligations and altering the situation the parties expected to exist at the last minute, they therefore revealed a society which is not an honourable one. And yet where hierarchical societies exist which rely upon a form of consensus they require honour do they not? So Qatar appears to have openly stated it relies on nothing more than the exercise of raw power to maintain its culture/structure. In that type of situation would not moral and ethical values be made to structure themselves along those same lines ‘using’ everything to maintain a stable state, and by actions of that type weaken rather than strengthen what are internally seen as the important issues. Inevitably in most of those power situations a blindness exists which perceives the exercise of more power as generally answering any difficulties. It would appear that blindness is what needs to be carefully addressed as a means of providing friendly assistance. Not visiting, may be one way of expressing strong disapproval; also visiting and expressing, in a way which is acceptable/nearly acceptable how wrong values can mislead and lead to damage is another way.

    Whilst moral relativism may be argued against when a single common value is sought, surely it may be that a freedom to fully comprehend many truths as spoken becomes more valuable than any single and rigid value, which in plural societies existing in changing environments, frequently singularly mislead. Perhaps recognizing another has become less respectable as stability is sought, but that necessity continues to exist.
    Right (as in correct value(s)) continues to exist within social groups as well as individuals, ignoring that by trying to imposing a single set of values appears to be where the exercise of power gains an importance, forcing other value sets to privately form their own social groups and perceive the need for their own power to counter the other. So why do so many become so strongly resistant to moral/ethical relativity?

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