Sports stars can no longer plead ignorance. They have political power and must use it | Philipp Lahm

As the Qatar World Cup nears, football can learn a lesson from tennis: turning down money will make your voice heard

Sport is politics. There is no question about that at the beginning of the year when the Winter Olympics are taking place in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar. You only have to open the newspaper these days. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Guardian, the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza and other quality media, which gather many voices to report on the world, deal on their sports pages with the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the USA, Great Britain and other countries, the “quiet diplomacy” of the International Olympic Committee and workers’ rights in Qatar.

One news item received particular attention worldwide. Out of concern for the life of Peng Shuai, the former world No 1 in doubles, the WTA has suspended all tournaments in China. In total, about 30% of the WTA’s revenue comes from China, with the annual finals in Shenzhen paying out the equivalent of about €12m (£10m), more than any other event in women’s tennis. But the players are now saying: we’ll do without.

Taking a strong stance is a tradition in women’s tennis, whose history is marked by personalities. In the 1960s, the WTA founder and multiple grand slam winner Billie Jean King campaigned for equal treatment and pay for the genders. Later, the multiple Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova campaigned for gay rights. The supposedly weaker sex actually dominates the fighting mode. Female athletes have turned their federation into an independent institution.

The WTA’s consistent decisions send a signal: you can say no in sport. Negotiations require an interplay – approaching each other, but also withdrawing from time to time. Countries in which human rights are not universal also invest in football. These countries are part of global sport and offer so much money that many find it difficult to refuse.

The German television broadcaster ZDF recently ran a hidden-camera investigation. The reporter spoke to workers from Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh who build stadiums and roads in Qatar. Eight of them lived in one room; they earn €300 a month each but have been waiting months for their salaries.

The report also featured attractive match scenes from the 2021 Arab Cup and all eight new stadiums. In a country with 2.9 million inhabitants there are now eight of the most modern, expensive and beautiful stadiums in the world, less than an hour’s drive apart. The ZDF report was in anticipation of the dilemma facing the 2022 World Cup: people know about the situation in Qatar but they enjoy watching the spectacular pictures and the best teams.

When the 1978 World Cup took place under the direction of the Argentinian military regime, many players had no answer to questions about human rights. Today, the world can no longer be viewed so naively. Everyone involved knows better than before about what is going on in faraway continents. Most footballers also have more time to deal with such issues, due to advanced professionalisation. Public figures like them are also expected to inform themselves of matters outside their bubble. Now that the world has become a village, everyone knows the conditions in Qatar.

Bayern’s Munich’s Leon Goretzka.
Bayern’s Munich’s Leon Goretzka is among the footballers to have spoken out about the Qatar World Cup. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Some footballers are stepping in and calling for human rights to be respected. “I think more attention needs to be paid to this kind of thing in the future when awarding contracts,” the Germany international Leon Goretzka has said. Finland’s captain, Tim Sparv, wrote in an open letter: “We woke up too late, I woke up too late.” Sparv called on players, media and fans to talk about working conditions in Qatar.

On a small scale, this argument is already bearing fruit. When a black player was racially insulted by a spectator during the third division match between MSV Duisburg and VfL Osnabrück in Germany in December, the teams forced a stop. All parties quickly agreed that they wanted to set an example: players, both clubs, referees, the association and fans from both camps.

The individual is not powerless; people can make a difference. Small is where you start, big is where it can end. Greta Thunberg was 15 when she stood alone on a street in Stockholm to draw attention to climate change. Many joined in, and Fridays for Future has since put the environment on the global agenda. This has changed politics. Football too: the 2024 European Championship in Germany can be judged a success only if it takes ecological aspects into account. Our preparations are under way.

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I consider myself lucky to have been born into a democracy. It was not long ago that the conditions in my home country were different. Three decades ago Germany was divided, the eastern part a dictatorship. Other nations in Europe were also going through a change. The 1964 European Championship took place in a fascist state, and Spain’s team won its home tournament in front of General Franco. He was still in power when the 1982 World Cup was awarded to Spain. By the time it took place, Spain was a democracy.

Major sporting events, especially in football, generate enormous attention. Nowadays, European Championships and World Cups require everyone who takes part to deal with working conditions and human rights. At Euro 2024 in Germany, too, Europe will negotiate with each other how we want to live together.

Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.


Philipp Lahm

The GuardianTramp

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