Liverpool fans ask questions of Qatar as Club World Cup approaches
"The fact the tournament has been awarded to a country where migrant workers’ rights and LGBT+ fans rights are not respected is a really massive concern"
Confirmation that Liverpool will participate in the 2019 Fifa Club World Cup came only last week. Taking place in Qatar in December - a notoriously hectic spell for Premier League clubs - there had been concern that the European champions' involvement might lead to a fixture pile-up on their return to England.
As well as this year's edition of the Club World Cup - a six-team knock-out tournament in which Liverpool will face five other continental champions - Qatar will also be the venue of the 2020 tournament. Staging both will help the Gulf state with its preparations for the World Cup it will host in little over three years' time.
Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy since Fifa's shock decision to award it the tournament nine years ago. As well as the implications a winter World Cup will have on the European club season, reports highlighting workers' rights and the deaths of migrant workers in the country - some involved with the construction of the stadiums that will host World Cup games - has sparked condemnation. Others have voiced concerns for the safety of LGBT+ fans, given that homosexuality is currently illegal in Qatar.
Confirming their intention to travel to Doha in December, Liverpool said in a statement that they will continue to take part in "fact-finding" meetings and consultations along with Fifa and the Qatar Supreme Committee as part of their preparations for the tournament.
The statement also thanked supporters' groups Spirit Of Shankly and Kop Outs, who have both noted their concern about Liverpool playing in Qatar, for their input on the matter. On the same day the club confirmed it would be taking part in the tournament, the two groups released a joint statement, calling on the Qatari authorities to take immediate steps to investigate and address the deeply troubling pattern of deaths of migrant workers.
"We’d taken a particular stance a few years ago when the World Cup was announced in Qatar - primarily because of the workers’ rights issues and the subsequent deaths of migrant workers over there," Joe Blott, Spirit of Shankly chair, told JOE.
"Our concern, now Liverpool were going to be playing there, was what does that mean for us and what position should we take as a union given the knowledge we’ve had and the stance we’ve taken?
"We put the statement out primarily because we’ve been thinking about it long and hard and many people had contacted us and said there should be a boycott, many people have contacted us and said we don’t really know what the issues are."
To provide fans with as much information as possible, SoS and Kop Outs worked with a number or organisations, also speaking to members of Qatar's Supreme Committee.
"We did a lot of research," Blott adds. "We took it upon ourselves to work with a group called Fair/Square. They do a lot of work in the Middle East bringing to attention the migrant workers’ death, the issues around their employment, the issues in relation to poor worker right they had out there.
"We felt it was important to get a rounded view though."
Contact was eventually established with Qatari authorities, with members of the Supreme Committee holding meetings with the groups in which they insisted improvements were being made. While this has been treated with caution, Qatar's willingness to engage on such matters has been seen as a positive step towards change.
"The fact the tournament has been awarded to a country where migrant workers’ rights and LGBT+ fans rights are not respected is a really massive concern," says Paul Amann of Kop Outs. "But interestingly, what Qatar are trying to focus on is trying to make things better, trying to produce a games that they are saying is going to be open for everybody.
"I’m not taking anything on face value from what they’re saying. I’m interested to hear from the International Labour Organisation, from ITUC and from others who speak with great independence on behalf of workers. Similarly, I want to hear from ILGA and other LGBT+ rights organisations about LGBT+ people in the country and visiting the country.
"I’m really pleased they’re choosing to engage though. At least Qatar seem interested to have the dialogue. Is it enough? Probably not. Will it be enough? Let’s hope so."
“The fact that the tournament’s been awarded to a country where migrant workers’ rights and LGBT+ fans’ rights are not respected is a massive concern.”
Ahead of the Club World Cup, Liverpool supporters union @SpiritOfShankly have raised urgent questions to the Qatar authorities. pic.twitter.com/DeL07sdOct
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) October 30, 2019
While time will tell if Qatar's openness will lead to substantial long-term change, there are tangible signs that improvement for migrant workers is coming.
The International Labour Organisation announced earlier this month that the kafala system, a so-called sponsorship by an employer which restricts workers from moving jobs or leaving the country without the employer’s consent, is to be abolished as of January as part of reforms made by the Qatari government.
The key now, says Jay McKenna, a Liverpool fan who has also worked for Spirit of Shankly on Qatar in the past, is to make any changes permanent, not just temporary fixes in the approach to hosting a major football tournament:
"This isn't just a football tournament. Everyone’s going to pack up and go after four, five or six weeks in Qatar. Those stadiums are going to be left and they’re going to be the graveyards of many workers. Those families back in Nepal or wherever, what are they going to be left with?
"Football can do real positive, good work provided it has a proper legacy. The legacy we should see from Qatar is that we pay a bit more attention to these places that we give World Cups to and what football really should be doing in those places, which is lasting change."