Are you enjoying the World Cup? For those of us based in Australia it's great being able to get up at 6am in the morning and watch a game before going to work. However, for some they would sooner pluck out their eyebrows with a pair of blunt pliers than endure even a few minutes of football. But there are others who love football but have decided not to participate even by watching, because they consider it would be a sin. If you are a Scotland fan of course you can virtue signal by pointing out that Scotland decided to boycott by the subtle method of not qualifying!
There are an intriguing number of articles and posts by Christians stating that, in answer to the old wristband question WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), the answer is clearly 'have nothing to do with it'. And so the question arises, in enjoying the World Cup, am I sinning? Am I letting my own personal delight in the beautiful game override the biblical command to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God? It's a serious question which deserves a serious answer. So let's consider the reasons for a boycott.
Firstly, there is the 'fact' that thousands have been killed so that the World Cup could be held in Qatar. Surely, we cannot participate and thus endorse the exploitation of the poor migrant workers who have built the stadiums in conditions of exceptional heat and inadequate pay. The figure most often cited is that over 6,500 workers were killed in the construction of the stadiums.
Then there are the other human rights issues. The one that has attracted all the attention in the Western media is gay rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and some have expressed concern about the safety of fans who are homosexual (although why that sexuality should be a factor in watching a football match puzzles me?). A Qatar World Cup ambassador got in trouble for telling a German broadcaster that homosexuality is a result of "damage in the mind".
Finally, there is the issue of religious freedom. According to Open Doors, Qatar is 18th on the list of countries where Christians are most persecuted. The treatment of Christians in the Middle East has worsened – surely Christians need to stand with their persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ?
Case closed. Or is it?
I took these points seriously and did not automatically dismiss them. So I began to investigate. The 6,500 figure comes from an article in the Guardian which immediately set my alarm bells ringing – the Guardian is not noted for its accuracy, and like far too many papers, uses click bait headlines which give the wrong impression.
When you read beyond the headline you discover that the figure is not 6,500 construction workers who died on the job building the stadiums – but rather 6,500 migrant workers out of a total of two million who have died over a period of ten years (something the Guardian was forced to correct) – from ALL causes – and this includes 250-plus from Covid. Officially there have been 37 deaths related to construction work of which 34 are classified as non-work related.
The Qatari government says that the 6,500 includes white collar workers who have stayed in the country, that only 20 per cent of expatriates from the countries named in the Guardian's report are engaged in construction, and that work-related deaths account for less than 10% of the fatalities in that group. They also point out that all foreign nationals get free first-class healthcare.
It's a very different picture from the headline - even though I don't really doubt that there is exploitation and some things that are wrong. Yet it is that headline which I have seen cited as evidence by Christians. Perhaps of all people we should know not to rush to judgement?!
Gay rights. Yes, it is true that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, as it is in another 68 countries in the world – and a further 128 do not allow same sex 'marriage'. Are we going to boycott all of them? Why do we think that Western countries have the right to impose our un-Christian cultural values on the rest of the world? Especially when these 'values' have no biblical warrant? Apart from the cultural imperialism, what sticks in my throat is the hypocrisy.
If there was a World Cup for virtue signalling, the England team would win hands down. The picture of English players 'taking the knee' ostensibly for an African American, whilst facing an American team containing several African Americans who were all standing – was cringeworthy. The England manager announced that his players would bravely defy FIFA and wear a rainbow 'One Love' armband to show their support for the LGBTQI cause. But facing the threat of a booking, they backed down. It's hardly the stuff of martyrs!
And it gets worse with the commentators. Gary Lineker who is never backward in telling us all how we should live, gave a dreary monologue about gay rights before the opening game of the World Cup. What he neglected to mention is that he was paid £1.6 million by Qatar for fronting their football coverage on Al Jazeera for four years. I suspect they were no more 'enlightened' 10 years ago. And he is still there in Qatar – with the BBC.
Even the normally sensible Alan Shearer joined in the 'aren't we Westerners more enlightened than the Arabs' rants. But Mr Shearer also exults in the fact that his beloved Newcastle are now serious challengers in the English Premier League – thanks to so much Saudi Arabian money being spent on them that their new nickname is 'Al -Toon'! If you are going to condemn Qatar perhaps you should also condemn Saudi Arabia – and boycott Al-Toon?
In fact if we were going to boycott all teams funded with dodgy money, shady companies and unpleasant rulers, which English Premier League team would be left? Let him who is without sin kick the first football!
The more salient point is that of religious oppression. Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, but it will be a cold day in Qatar before English football players will wear a badge with a cross on it! But does that mean we should have nothing to do with any country where they are persecuted? Perhaps. But maybe we should ask the Christians in that country what is best for them?
I can't stand the corporate greed and corruption of FIFA - and maybe the day will come when I will turn my back on the World Cup – but that day is not today.
Mind you I was interested to read this week that professional footballers in Scotland are to be banned from heading a ball the day before or after a match. This is to protect their health. Maybe they should ban heading, tackling and just make football a non-contact sport. Or better still, for the health and safety of us all, perhaps all football could be virtual, with Gary Lineker giving us life lessons as we watch emojis tackle one another?!
Maybe when it is held in the US, Mexico and Canada in four years' time we should refuse to support it. Whilst 6,500 immigrant workers have died over the past 10 years in Qatar, over 600,000 babies are killed every year in the US. In Qatar abortion is illegal except in extreme circumstances. Who is the more barbaric?
It may be that as a Christian you come to a different conclusion from me – and that you cannot in all conscience watch or support the World Cup. Good for you! Go for it brother/sister! No one has a right to impose anything upon your conscience that is not explicitly from God's word. Just lay off the 'I'm doing what Jesus would do' guilt trips. You are doing what you think is right. I don't think that another person's freedom should be judged by your conscience. Let each be persuaded in their own mind (1 Corinthians 10:29).
As a Christian I know this world is corrupt. I don't make light of the difficulties, exploitation and injustices. I know that I am to be in the world but not of it. So I will join my new local team fans in the centre of Sydney to watch Australia win the World Cup and bask in the glory! (At the time of writing we are still in it!)
But I won't place my happiness and faith in how my team does. I will rejoice at the pleasure given to so many millions and hope and pray that those who know the joy of football, will come to know the real joy of Christ and that one day all the injustices in this world will come undone!