I am 39 years old, which means I have now lived through 10 England defeats at World Cups. But the familiar feeling of disappointment that I found arriving on Saturday night had less to do with their defeat, and more to do with what they’d stood for during this tournament.
As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, English football was, for a long time, synonymous with excessive drinking and smashing things up. The footballers of my youth seemed to me largely arrogant, image-obsessed prima donnas, and their fans seemed to me, largely, scary hooligans. I kept well away from football for years. Then, tentatively, of recent years I’ve started creeping back.
This England team seemed to offer something different. I saw Marcus Rashford campaigning tirelessly for children to be properly fed and I admired his dedication and eloquence. “Doesn’t he play football?” I asked my husband incredulously. “Yeah, they’re pretty decent people now,” he told me. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I continued to admire Rashford’s work, and then saw more footballers standing up for what they believed in, and fewer flashy cars and over-publicised trips to the hairdresser. Maybe they were decent role models these days.
This World Cup promised so much. Not just because they’d previously reached the final of the Euros, and not just because England, for the first time in my recollection, seemed to have learned how to play as a team instead of a collection of individuals who’d bought in too much to their own hype. This World Cup promised that our team would really stand for something.
At least 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded, a large proportion likely to be involved in building projects connected to the tournament. 37 deaths have been directly linked to the construction of stadiums. And it’s not just workers’ rights that are lacking in Qatar. Homosexuality is illegal, and the LGBTQIA+ community experience frightening abuses. Women are essentially the property of their husband or male guardians. And freedom of expression and assembly are stifled, meaning critics are silenced.
There was talk of boycotting the tournament altogether, but that went quiet pretty quickly. Then the team were going to wear pro-LGBTQIA+ rights armbands. But then the FA said they wouldn’t do that because they might be fined. Because goodness knows the FA doesn’t have the money to pay a fine. Some said it wouldn’t fair to the players because they might get sent off. I’m not sure these people understand how protest action works. But there is no way that FIFA would risk sending off entire teams – if everyone stands together, that is how you get a political point across.
We folded, in the end, on all counts, and we played the game obediently, supporting a country that enacts untold horrors on the people within its borders. We said and did nothing.
Sporting boycotts aren’t new. England revoked an invitation to South Africa’s cricket team in 1970 at protest over apartheid. A British Lions rugby tour of South Africa was cancelled in 1986 for the same reason. Great Britain supported a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Most recently, England cancelled a cricketing visit from Zimbabwe in 2009. These instances might not bring about immediate change in themselves, but they send powerful messages to governments and cost them valuable tourism money.
If England had chosen to boycott this World Cup, they would have had the support of 56% of people at home, according to YouGov. 67% of England football fans said they would support England players raising awareness of or criticising Qatar’s human rights practices.
And if every player had been sent off, or our team had been kicked out of the tournament, for protesting, wouldn’t that have been a more noble way to go out than the familiar weary shuffling away at Quarter Final stage, after yet another missed penalty?
This World Cup promised so much from England, and I can’t help but feel, once again, disappointed.