In deciding not to use the Qatar World Cup as a platform for virtue signalling, Gareth Southgate joins a growing football consensus that the focus should now be on the game.

The England manager’s comments on Thursday were shared by Wales captain Gareth Bale, and Welsh manager Rob Page. 

The latter even suggested that if the German team hadn’t been distracted by their mini protest at Qatari human rights abuses – covering their mouths with their hands before their match against Japan – they may have performed better.

Pundits have piled in: football, they agreed, should have made its case against Qatar twelve years ago when it was awarded the World Cup by governing body Fifa, not now when the tournament is underway. Besides, the “virtuous one-upmanship” will alienate people.

Will it? What I find more alienating is the deliberate blindness of the sport and its supporters towards rogue – or merely repellent – nations in the name of the glorious game.

Qatar, as the Economist pointed out, is a much more suitable country to host a big sporting event than either Russia, which hosted the last World Cup in 2018, or China, which held the most recent Olympics.

There is also a view, in some quarters, that western criticism of Islamic Qatar is suspect, and that we have no right to complain, given our colonial past.

Of course, the World Cup should not have gone to Russia – post its invasion of Crimea – or the Olympics to China, but that doesn’t make the Qatar event less problematic. 

Surely no one with a conscience would condone the autocratic Qatari regime’s treatment of women, demonisation of homosexuals, and near enslavement of migrant workers, none of which is in dispute.

Yet, just by taking part, that is exactly what England, Wales, Germany, Denmark and the other western democracies are doing, tacitly handing the ruling Qatari royals a propaganda coup.

What a missed opportunity this has been. Since the Romans, sport has been a powerful political weapon, deployed by dictators to manipulate the masses and lend legitimacy to evil leaders.

It is fitting that the Taliban staged a flogging this week in a football stadium, a historic venue for public lashings and executions in Afghanistan, attracting some 5,000 to see the “sport”.

Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936, which took place while the Nazis were already persecuting Jews, “sportswashed” the Third Reich. Ahead of Berlin, the Nazis invited politicians and international businessmen to Germany to reassure the world that there would be no discrimination. 

It worked. A reporter from the New York Times went as far as saying the games “put Germans back in the fold of nations and even made them more human again”. 

One of today’s most abhorrent regimes, Iran, is competing in the World Cup. Its team made the most potent political protest so far, not against the host but against their own state, refusing to sing the national anthem in defiance of Tehran’s brutal repression of female dissenters.

Sport is intertwined with politics and sportsmen who reject the link are shirking the responsibility that goes with their money and their fame.

All eyes are on David Beckham, the official ambassador for the Qatar World Cup, who has pocketed a reported £150 million for his role in promoting the Gulf state, thereby ruining his status as a good guy and gay icon.

The Beckham backlash has kicked off, with Human Rights Watch slamming his cosying up to the Qataris as “inexcusable”, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll come to rue all the hobnobbing or reckon it was worth risking his reputation to top up his immense wealth.

As such a public figure, Beckham could have made a difference had he turned down the Qatari gold and taken a stand on behalf of the oppressed.

Sporting protests can play a part in bringing change to cruel governments, as the rugby and cricket boycott against apartheid South Africa proved eventually.

Peter, now Lord, Hain, the South African born former Labour cabinet minister, claims the movement he led, first against the Springbok tour of Britain in 1969, and then the cricket tour the following year, helped turn the country into a pariah state and contributed to the end of white rule.

“It was decisive,” Hain said in a Guardian interview in 2019. “When the anti-apartheid struggle was only on the news pages it could be dismissed by white South Africans but when you stopped their rugby and cricket teams it hit them right in the gut. 

“They were shunned by the rest of the world politically but their cricket and rugby teams were feted in sports stadia around the world….I knew sport was the one arena where we could expose white South Africans.”

The rewards of sport, football in particular, have clouded the judgement of participants who pride themselves on their liberal credentials. 

Beckham, Southgate and Bale – and we could add any number of football figureheads and commentators “uneasy” about being in Doha, but there nevertheless – could have done a Hain. But they didn’t and they, and football, should hang their heads in shame.

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