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Is it too late for FIFA to tell players to ‘focus on football’?

FIFA, the ultra-woke, famously scandal-hit international governing body for football, last night urged players to ‘focus on the football’ at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, the first to be held in the Middle East.

As the controversial build-up to the impending World Cup continues to sizzle, FiFA – in a letter penned to all 32 teams participating in the winter tournament – urged players that football should not be “dragged” into ideological or political “battles”.

The letter from FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura came in the wake of a number of protests made by World Cup teams over Qatar’s laws forbidding homosexuality and the country’s treatment of migrant workers, many of whom helped prepare the tiny emirate for the Middle East’s first World Cup.

The letter, seen by the BBC, reads: “We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world.

“But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.

It adds: “At Fifa, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. No one people or culture or nation is “better” than any other. This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination.

“And this is also one of the core values of football. So, please let’s all remember that and let football take centre stage.

“We have the unique occasion and opportunity to welcome and embrace everyone, regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality”.

The statement, in my opinion, is breathtakingly brazen, and it only serves to expose the woke hypocrisy of FIFA.

While some may see the credibility of the call to ‘focus on football’ on paper, a look at the context surrounding the statement shows a governing body at the centre of a world of football which has never practised what it now preaches. How can footballers be expected to do the same?

Take a look at the UK, where sports stars have long become conditioned to wade into just about every political and cultural war which makes it to Twitter.

FIFA, which itself took up the battle to ‘lead the fight against racism’ and is a staunch public promoter of Pride month, has increasingly become a vehicle for woke campaigns. The conditioning of footballers to come down on one side of most issues is in part thanks to governing bodies including the likes of the Premier League and FIFA. As a result, the expectation for players to suddenly remain apolitical is drenched in a special kind of pretence.

Cast your mind back to 2020, when, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the US, pandemonium descended upon sports, and the Premier League, supported by FIFA, started the routine of beginning every single premier league match with asking players to ‘take the knee’, supposedly to protest against racism. Of course, all the while, such players’ pockets were partially being lined with multi-million-pound deals struck with no other than Qatar.

The political statement of all political statements continued at every game right up until the present season. The gesture, and explicit political spectacle, was only dropped from being used before the start of every match at the beginning of this season, over two years on from when it first started. It has not been consigned to the history books just yet though – and reappeared as part of a ‘No Room for Racism’ campaign during the UK’s Black History Month in October. It will also be brought back for Boxing Day games, and before Cup Finals, a sign the explicit political symbol is, in fact, here to stay.

This is in spite of the fact that even some top names have grown fed up with the taking of the knee, disillusioned, in part because of its perceived pointlessness, and also because of the politicisation of football – something FIFA now has the audacity to warn against, simply because it might actually cost them in Qatar.

Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to refuse to take the knee. Zaha, a black man who himself was a victim of racial abuse online at the hands of a 12-year-old boy in England in July 2020, highlighted the futility of the taking of the knee.

“There is no right or wrong decision, but for me personally I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse,” the 28-year-old Palace star said. He added that little was truly being done outside of the sport to combat racism.

“The whole kneeling down – why must I kneel down for you to show that we matter?” he said while speaking passionately about the “degrading” routine on a podcast.

“Why must I even wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my top to show you that we matter? This is all degrading stuff,” he said.

He also described it as a “box tick exercise”, adding: “All that stuff that you lot are doing, all these charades mean nothing”.

While Brentford striker Ivan Toney remained defiant on his feet last month when the taking of the knee returned to the Premier League. Choosing not to drop his knee, Toney said in February, that the symbolic act was largely ineffective, adding that he felt: ‘We are kind of being used as puppets”.

“Everyone agrees we have been taking the knee for however long now and still nothing has changed,” he said.

In the eyes of several high-profile footballers, the action is simply divisive, and has little to do with kicking racism out of sport. Yet, FIFA are on record publicly backing the ‘taking of the knee’ in support of the now-beleaguered Black Lives Matter movement, which has since found itself the subject of Candace Owens’s blistering new documentary ‘The Greatest Lie Ever Sold’.

The organisation has never remained apolitical. Speaking in 2021, FIFA President Infantino said the body felt it had a duty to “lead the way in the fight against racism” which doesn’t sound much like avoiding engaging in political or ideological battles.

“Today, and every day, FIFA and football stand united against racism,” Infantino said when asked for its stance. “There is no place for racial discrimination in football or in society. As the governing body of football worldwide, FIFA recognises and embraces its responsibility to lead the fight against discrimination,” it added, continuing:

“This fight also relies on the implementation of measures by FIFA, by the continental confederations, and by FIFA’s 211 member associations at the national and local level. As such, FIFA remains determined to work together with our stakeholders to eradicate racism, indeed discrimination and violence of any kind, wherever it still exists”.

Football bodies like FIFA and the Premier League have not remained apolitical. Rather, they have sent a very clear message to millions of fans, through players taking the knee, that our society at large is one which is inherently and deeply racist. That’s an assertion which many people across our society believe is objectively untrue, and totally insulting.

Advocacy has extended into the promotion of the Pride message, with football bodies including the FA and the English Premier League supporting their players wearing rainbow-coloured armbands and rainbow-coloured laces, with a planned Stonewall campaign to “support LGBT people in football and beyond” set to kick off from 30 November.

In June, as it does every year, FIFA came out to celebrate Pride Month, another indication that the body has never been neutral.

Flying the rainbow flag at its headquarters in Zurich, it described such obvious advocacy as a chance to celebrate the ‘LGBTQIA+ community, and as an opportunity to peacefully protest and raise political awareness of current issues”.

Notice the word: ‘political’? And FIFA didn’t stop there. Like so many other businesses sticking by the status quo, it went on to stamp the rainbow flag branding on its corporate social media accounts for Pride Month, adding that it would implement a “wide set of measures” to ensure the FIFA World Cup is “welcoming and inclusive. It would be easy to mistake FIFA, from the way that it talks, as an NGO or a virtue-signalling United Nations department, rather than what it actually is, a profit-making private company.

It’s little wonder World Cup captains, including England’s Harry Kane, have now asked to wear rainbow armbands at the World Cup, with FIFA facing, perhaps inevitably, a head-on collision between abiding by its own rules and social campaigns. The armbands – a recipe for disaster in an Islamic nation – have not yet been approved, with FIFA citing its strict dress code, and doubts about the appropriateness of inserting social issues and politics onto the football field.

Indeed, the question should be posed: Where was FIFA’s examination of human rights in Qatar when allowing that country to host the World Cup? Surely it did not truly think this winter’s World Cup could be a legitimate ‘celebration of unity and diversity’ when it is being staged in Qatar of all places, the tiny gulf state where homosexuality is punishable by a prison sentence? The same place where 6,500 migrant workers are estimated to have died since Qatar won the right to host the tournament back in December 2010.

Could it be that FIFA, for all its flowery language, and gushing advocacy, and emotionally-charged talk of values and unity and positive vibes, is, in truth, not really motivated by genuine feeling – but rather – and maybe you’ll argue this is just the cynic in me: by cold, hard cash?

There have been a string of allegations of bribery between the Qatar bid committee and FIFA members and executives, long fuelling suspicion that the decision to choose a country with such an abysmal record on human rights was about cash over values all along.

The sporting world’s richest organisation, with a membership bigger than the United Nations, and a long history of corruption, has always been about the money. It should perhaps come as no surprise that their quest for ready funds has led them, over any supposed values or conviction, to choose the single-city desert state of Qatar, where summer temperatures reach a torturous 50°C, to host the World Cup ahead of less restrictive nations including England.

At the end of the day, a simple ‘Show me the money’ mentality is the real and only reason why FIFA has suddenly urged players to stay away from politics or voicing their views: because now, being woke won’t make them money: it’ll cost them.

This sporting body, historically ruptured with corruption, but an expert in knowing how to virtue-signal to the masses, has no authority to tell its players not to get themselves involved in the culture war or entwined in political debates.

It’s too late for FIFA to tell footballers to ‘focus on the football’.

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