The outcome of the World Cup group stages showed the teams that advanced without complication were those best prepared mentally and not distracted by political issues, according to the former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.
Referring to shock exits by Germany, Belgium and Denmark, Wenger, speaking during a technical analysis of the group stages by Fifa, said it was notable the teams that focused on football and started well – such as Brazil, France and England – had easier passages to the last 16.
“The teams who were not disappointing in their first game performance – because when you got to the World Cup you know you have not to lose the first game – are the teams with experience, they have results … they played well in first game,” Wenger said. “The teams as well who were mentally ready and had the mindset to focus on the competition and not on political demonstrations.”
At the Qatar World Cup there has been an unusual amount of political discussion from teams, with some voicing concerns about the host country’s treatment of migrant labour, its approach to LGBTQ+ rights and Fifa’s threats to penalise players for political statements.
Germany’s soccer federation was the most vocal in pressing for anti-discrimination “OneLove” armbands to be worn by players and said “extreme blackmail” led to Germany, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Wales, England and Switzerland abandoning plans to wear them.
Before their surprise opening defeat by Japan, the Germany team posed for a pre-match photo with their hands on their mouths, alluding to them being silenced by Fifa.
Denmark also made a stand over the armbands and last month wanted to use a training kit with slogans in support for human rights.
Serbia supporters displayed fascist slogans and aimed racist chants towards ethnic Albanians during their side’s match against Switzerland on Friday night, according to an eyewitness account given to the Observer.
The scenes at Stadium 974 in Doha, where Switzerland won 3-2 to secure a last-16 place in a match that spilled over during the second half, raise questions about Fifa’s stewarding and in particular its apparent tolerance of offensive insignia. Hasan Rrahmani arrived at the match wearing an Albanian flag around his neck but says he had it confiscated at the entrance while derogatory nationalist symbols were allowed through. He says he was shown a WhatsApp message that Fifa had sent to security staff containing pictures of items, pictures and phrases that were not allowed.
“I was completely dumbfounded to see the number of fascist slogans, T-shirts and flags,” Rrahmani said. He has shown the Observer photographic evidence of a supporter wearing a green hat closely associated with atrocities committed in the Kosovan and Bosnian wars, and says the man was part of a group in the same attire. Among other items of clothing worn freely around the stadium, he says, were T-shirts reading “From Serbia to Tokyo”, a nationalist slogan employed by Serbian football fans invoked during the wars of the 90s. Rrahmani says police were not interested in complaints relating to the items, or to three-fingered gestures considered offensive in many contexts.
Fifa may find the supporters’ chants more straightforward to deal with, having issued a public address message in the 77th minute asking for “discriminatory chants and gestures” to cease. Rrahmani says those were audible from an early stage of the evening. “I was shocked at the vitriol, absolutely dumbfounded,” he says. “They were singing the most vile racist chants.”
Among those he says he heard were songs involving the word “Šiptar”, a well-known derogatory term used against Albanians, and a call-and-response routine of “Kill, kill, kill the Albanians”. Fans also sang “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, related to their country’s refusal to recognise Kosovan independence, he says. “It would start in one corner and the rest of the fans would pick it up,” Rrahmani said. Such songs are not unfamiliar at matches where tensions between Serbia and Albania have ignited, including the infamous “drone” game in October 2014 when a Euro 2016 qualifier in Belgrade spiralled into chaos.
Rrahmani describes retrieving his flag from a collection point after the game, and also seeing Serbs being handed back some confiscated items. He describes being set upon by “seven or eight” Serbia supporters upon exiting the stadium area. “They shoved me, saying: ‘Go fuck yourself Šiptar,’” he said. “They threw water at me. I tried to walk away but seven or eight big blokes followed me. In the end I ran towards the police, who didn’t do anything. Everything that happened around the evening was just frightening. What I expected to be a good night rekindled all those memories of the past that I thought had gone.” He says the police were polite and reassuring but let the group walk away.
Serbia are already under investigation by Fifa for displaying a flag showing Kosovo as part of their territory, along with the words “We do not surrender”, in their dressing room before facing Brazil last week. Rrahmani says similar flags were visible inside the ground.
“Fifa’s inconsistency shocks me,” he says. “How on earth, in 2022, can you allow fans in a World Cup stadium to shout about killing another nation? I came away feeling marginalised and not welcomed by Fifa.”
Rrahmani emphasises that this was an anomaly in an otherwise enjoyable experience at World Cup stadiums. He was born in Kosovo and lives in London; he has been following England and Wales in Qatar but attended Friday’s match to support Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, Switzerland players who have Kosovan roots. Their goal celebrations in the same fixture at Russia 2018, forming Albanian “eagle” symbols with their hands, caused controversy and set much of the context for the second-half scenes in Doha.
Xhaka could face investigation for grabbing his genitals in front of the Serbia bench and other figures from both camps may fear censure. An Albania fan was seen being escorted from the stadium during the second half after making the eagle gesture.
Fifa declined to comment about the prospects of disciplinary action or on the issues described by Rrahmani.
Look who we are, we are the dreamers. We make it happen. There is something seductively inane about the soundtrack to Qatar 2022, present in the slogans plastered across its surfaces, the sonic assault of the World Cup PA, the playlist of official anthems, centralised messages, approved corporate machine-feelings.
“Believing is magic” read the words across the back of the T-shirts worn by a column of men filing through the service exit of the vast fibreglass tent that is Al Bayt Stadium in the wee hours of Friday morning. The power of dreams. The power of football. The power of Football Dreams. What could ever be wrong with that?
Across a 12-year process that has generated so many inane slogans – so much love, so much tolerance – Football Dreams is probably the grand-daddy of them all. This was the name given to the outreach element of Qatar’s Aspire Academy during the early days of the baroque procurement process for this World Cup.
Football Dreams has been slightly lost in the years since, obscured by more immediate issues. But it is worth revisiting now, viewing with the facts laid over one another like an architect’s carbon drawings. A cold case, it makes for remarkable reading with what we know now. There are no smoking guns when it comes to why and how at Qatar 2022, just an endless plume of unexplained smoke. But here is a little more.
With hindsight Football Dreams was always a strange concept. At vast expense (is there another kind?) Qatar sent a team of elite football scouts on a series of people-hunting trips to 15 developing nations, touring villages in their column of SUVs, harvesting children for a Willy Wonka-style golden scholarship to the Aspire school and academy.
Between 2007 and 2014 Qatar screened more than 3.5 million 12- and 13-year-old boys. At its height Football Dreams had six thousand staff and volunteers. Out of this mass of hopeful humanity up to 20 Aspire scholarships were awarded each year, pathway to becoming a Champion In Sport or A Champion In Life (we are, and Qatar can’t emphasise this enough, The Dreamers).
The point of this process was never really clear beyond the messaging. Qatar called it “a humanitarian project”. Pelé lurked vaguely at the fringes. Towards the end there was some charitable work involving mosquito nets and a video that showed Lionel Messi looking worried about malaria. Some human rights bodies likened Football Dreams to people trafficking. Even Sepp Blatter called it “an exploitation” before abruptly changing his mind.
Looking back it seems like a strange and unworkable concept. From a blur of practice games in nations such as Guatemala and Vietnam Qatar planned to unearth star talent. Actual established professional academies spend years trying and failing to do this with endless monitoring and space to bloom late or fall away. Children are vulnerable beings. Sport is unforgiving. This thing, the footballing equivalent of game-hunting from your open helicopter bay door, was never going to work in any serious fashion.
The Dreams programme ran from 2007, plateaued after the winning bid and was shut down in 2014. But Aspire, its launchpad, remains key to Qatar’s sporting ambition.
The Aspire dome is a beautiful soft blue glass curve rising up out of Doha’s eastern suburbs like an igloo of the gods. Speakers pipe the sounds of birdsong across the wider Aspire Zone, which houses a full-size football pitch, accommodation, a school, an Olympic-scale swimming pool, sports science centres.
Chasing it down on foot past the vast craning Khalifa Stadium, following the line of the Italianate-themed shopping mall with indoor gondola lake, there is a familiar feeling of fruitless pursuit. That blue glass horizon peeps out through the gaps in the buildings like the sea over the crest of a hill, never really getting closer.
In the shadow of the Doha Torch, the dome finally reveals itself, the egg that hatched the World Cup. Witness Excitement reads a vast beige sign at the edge of the Zone. Except, there is no excitement here. On the morning after the Qatar national team’s World Cup ended in limp defeat to the Netherlands, the Aspire Zone is shuttered. For now any visible sign of Qatari Aspiration is on hold.
It should be said Aspire has been a great success on its own terms. The programme to create a Qatar national team was initially under the care of Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, a genuine football fanatic rumoured, as John McManus writes in his wonderful book Inside Qatar, to have suffered insomnia from watching so much football on the banks of screens in his bed chamber.
Qatar does not have an ingrained outdoor sporting culture. Even its winter heat is draining, creeping under your skin like a dose of flu. So Qatar built a kinder blue sky under its dome. Every kid with any kind of talent was enrolled and ranked and rated, the emphasis always on detecting elite potential.
It is an extreme version of the systems rolled out by the British Olympic programmes or Premier League academies. Sport for the few. Sport as entirely outcome-based, sport as an elite level gloss on a sedentary society.
But it worked. Aspire graduates (this is misleading: every player here is an Aspire graduate. Where else are you going to train?) won age-group competitions and then the Asian Cup in 2019, sparking mass celebrations on the Corniche.
This process hit its outer limit in the last two weeks. Hundreds of millions of pounds in the making, every detail refined and finessed, Qatar’s footballers were the most feeble World Cup hosts in men’s tournament history. They had six shots on target. The players looked stunned by the glare. At times there was almost a sense of opponents going easy on them.
In a way it was apt. The Qatar team is essentially a construct, a slogan made flesh, an expert replica of a live sporting culture. It embodies brilliantly the question that hangs over so much at this World Cup. Is this actually real? Qatar wants a World Cup. Qatar wants a turn at the show. Today I feel like … a professional footballer.
But one thing is also clear. Qatar always has a plan. We are the dreamers. But we also make things happen. And this is where Football Dreams re-enters the Aspire picture. The dots have not really been joined. Let us join them here. This is no doubt unfortunate coincidence, yet another case of Qatar unfairly tainted by other people’s corruption. But here are some facts. Of the 15 countries awarded the Football Dreams mission, five were also the home nations of a Fifa executive committee (exco) member. Fifa exco members decide who gets to host a World Cup.
Some were a baffling fit for the programme. This issue floated up at the time and did not really go anywhere. It is mentioned in the Garcia report into Fifa corruption but was then largely lost in the fug. What Garcia did not know, as his report predated the key arrests and bans, is that all five of those Fifa exco members, the Football Dreams converts, have turned out to be demonstrably tainted by corruption. This fact has never really been adequately reverse-engineered into the Football Dreams puzzle. Exhuming its details now, this is what it looks like.
Worawi Makudi was a member of the Fifa exco. Qatar’s Football dreams programme came to his home nation Thailand. He voted in the Qatar World Cup bid. He was banned and fined in 2016 for forgery and falsification but the ban was overturned by Cas after the Thai’s criminal conviction was quashed.
Rafael Salguero was a member of the Fifa exco. Qatar’s football dreams programme came to his home nation Guatemala. He voted on the Qatar World Cup bid. He pleaded guilty in October 2016 to criminal conspiracy to commit bank fraud and launder money.
Amos Adamu was a member of the Fifa exco. Qatar’s Football Dream project came to his home nation Nigeria. Adamu did not even get to the start line in Zurich. He was suspended from the vote after apparently agreeing to take a bribe in a newspaper sting.
Issa Hayatou was a member of the Fifa exco. Qatar’s Football Dreams project came to his home nation Cameroon. He voted on the Qatar World Cup bid. Hayatou has been accused of, and firmly denied, allegations of corruption relating to the activities of Mohammed bin Hammam at Fifa.
Most startling of all, Fifa exco member Nicolás Leoz of Paraguay, who was instrumental in shepherding the South American bloc to vote for Qatar, has since been accused of taking bribes and assorted other nefarious practices, blame-loaded into the grave by his former colleagues. A Qatar Football Dreams project opened in Leoz’s home country shortly before the vote.
At the end of which we have a £100m programme that made little practical sense installing itself in a series of locations where football administration is governed by people who are with hindsight tainted by corruption; all of whom have a say on the success of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup vote.
There is no evidence that any of this is connected, or any undisputed evidence of unsound influence around votes cast for Qatar’s bid. But Garcia was already concerned about Aspire. The report states: “There is evidence that Qatar 2022 employed an entity that at least contemplated diverting Aspire resources to countries associated with Executive Committee members or otherwise using Aspire resources to influence those members.”
As Garcia notes, Football Dreams was run in its early stages by Sandro Rosell, who would later wire £2m to an account held by the 10-year‑old daughter of Ricardo Teixeira, a discredited Fifa exco member; payment that was, the relevant parties have insisted, “unrelated to Qatar’s World Cup bid”.
Garcia circles around a meeting in January 2010 at Itanhangá Golf club in Rio attended by the emir of Qatar plus Julio Grondona, Leoz, Teixeira and João Havelange, plus Aspire officials. The meeting was described by Qatar as “an opportunity for the charismatic and progressive Emir to meet the leaders of South American football”. Garcia accepts, as Qatar contends in its defence, that “the Emir is not bound by Fifa’s rules”. Which sounds, on the evidence of this World Cup, about right.
The Guardian tried to talk to Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy about Aspire, about these issues, about the successes and future direction of the programme, but nobody was able to reply to requests. Qatar has already had its say in response to Garcia. “In the upside down world where the Qatar Bid committee finds itself, the Aspire programme is now described by some media as using its influence in countries with Executive Committee members in order to improperly influence the outcome of the bid. This allegation is disproven by a neutral version of its history.”
What to make of all this now, as Qatar 2022 gallops on through its winter fever dream? As ever with Qatar it is useful to apply the filter of furiously literal-minded Qatari realpolitik. How do you get your hands on a World Cup? You give the world what it wants. OK. Let’s do that times a million, do it better than anyone else, do it better and more lavishly than, say, Australia, who also made entreaties towards Africa, or England, who seemed to think handbags would do the job. Lads, this is how you do it.
Qatar is like your no-filter friend who sees this stuff, the transactionalism, the commodification of human lives, the sharp edges of global capitalism, and strides straight through to its endpoint, without the elements in other cultures that soften or obscure this process. Want a World Cup? Here is a literal desert astro-turfing project, because this is how it works.
The Aspire dome sits at the centre of this thing, crouched behind its opaque reflective walls. The fields of its public zone are also empty. A massive frozen football screen displays a heap of broken images to no one. Wandering about this place there is a sense of the loneliness of the enterprise, the sheer force of will required to create this imagined world. Aspire will re-gear itself, will set its sights on securing the much-coveted Olympic Games. For now the deep green pitch beneath the mirrored dome is empty, the lights blazing down, a lone guard patrolling the centre, a place, still, of Football Dreams.
World Cup organisers are increasingly open to discarding the new three-team group format for the 2026 tournament in the US, Mexico and Canada. It comes after concerns that too many dead rubbers in the last round of matches could dilute the expanded, 48-team event.
Although Fifa’s official position remains unaltered, multiple sources say there have been “informal talks” and “corridor chats” in Doha about the benefits of going with 12 groups of four teams rather than 16 groups of three.
That could lead to a 104-game World Cup if the top two in each group, plus the best eight third-placed sides, go through to a 32-team knockout stage – which is 40 more than will be played at Qatar 2022.
Nothing has been decided and stakeholders are expected to talk more formally about a potential switch in the coming months. Any decision would have to be taken next year.
One well-placed observer said that if the tournament were extended by a few days to fit in more matches then neither Fifa nor the major sponsors would likely object. They pointed to the vast extra revenue that would be generatedthrough ticket sales and concessions.
However, such a move would risk a conflict with clubs and players’ unions given the sensitivities around the increasingly busy calendar and the likelihood of the best teams having to play eight matches and not seven.
There is acknowledgment in the game that three-team groups have severe flaws. One is that it may lead to unofficial deals being struck in the last match if, say, both teams needed a high-scoring draw to go through on goal difference. Similarly, if one team lose the first two matches, the final match of the group would only decide where the other two countries ended up in the knockout stage.
If Fifa needed any reminder of how a four-team group format can generate extraordinary tension and chaos it was illustrated in Group D on Wednesday as the Poland v Argentina and Saudi Arabia v Mexico matches went to the wire.
Whatever happens, the number of World Cup games will rise. The tournament has consisted of 64 matches since the switch to 32 teams in 1998. Increasing it to 48 teams for 2026 will lead to a minimum of 80 games, the figure under a three-group format.
Today I feel … largely invisible. Today I feel like a boggle-eyed despot-groupie. Today I feel like essence of human avarice distilled through a series of filters, poured into a dark suit and presented on stage looking like a discredited small-town mayor with a secret.
Today I feel like I really should, for the sake of world football, start to get a grip on this chaotic Fifa World Cup.
It is hard to know whether Gianni Infantino feels any of these things right now. It is nine days since Infantino delivered his opening press conference speech, his Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock moment, his I Have a Really Horrendous And Deluded Dream.
For all its hallucinogenic qualities, that speech suggested Fifa’s president intended to run this World Cup under strict standing orders. However, in the days since, the most notable aspect of Fifa’s presence at its own super-show is its diffidence.
Infantino has gone into stealth mode. Fifa itself has seemed marginalised. An organisation defined by control-freakery, its tendency to assume quasi-governmental powers while hovering over its host like an alien tripod, has gone quiet.
Even worse, this has happened just as fires have begun to break out across this thing. A cast ranging from an angry Carlos Queiroz, to the massed brain-shouts of social media, to Infantino himself, has continued to debate the rise of the global south and the decadence of Europe, as expressed via World Cup group standings.
Mohammed bin Salman continues to circle the feast. Antony Blinken has used Wales versus the USA as a platform to present to the world Uncle Sam shaking hands with its keenest current Middle Eastern ally.
And right now Qatar 2022 feels less like the usual soft-power stage, more like a kind of real-time super-Davos, Yalta with a K-pop soundtrack. Is this really the moment for a closed-circle monarchy to start driving the world’s greatest sporting spectacle?
There have been no more public Fifa briefings in Doha. This is not unusual as tournaments go. But it is unfortunate given the many issues arising. Reporters and football administrators have spoken of being passed back and forth between host nation and governing body, questions left unanswered. Fifa’s handling of the informal/nonexistent semi-ban of rainbow items has involved vague, delayed statements. There is a sense of waiting always for the nod from the Supreme Delivery Committee.
Nobody puts Gianni in the corner. Except, it would seem, Hassan Abdullah al-Thawadi, chief executive of Qatar 2022, who some say is having a significant final pass on key details that affect supporters, federations, world football generally.
The past few days have seen confusion over the right to express even the most broadly sketched political views, most notably the spectacle of stadium guards taking away Iranian protest flags. Fifa’s statutes contain a commitment to “respecting all recognized human rights” and “striving to promote the protection of these rights”. This is in effect part of Infantino’s job description.
And yet it seems T-shirts with words as inoffensively universal as “Women” and “Freedom” are now banned in Fifa-land. Meanwhile Iran and Qatar share the world’s largest gas field. You really think you’re in control?
The end result is a dangerous and rancorous mess. Fifa and Qatar always looked the perfect fit, the perfect master and client-state. In the event Qatar appears to have overwhelmed its enablers, seized the starship controls and confined the captain to his quarters. At times one half expects to find Qatari government officials out there sternly pronouncing on refereeing appointments, player of the match gongs and the fact Gareth Southgate MUST now pick Phil Foden or squander a golden legacy.
This matters, because it is getting hot out here. The soundtrack of Qatar 2022 is a glaze of hope, love, We-Are-The-Dreamers stuff, undercut by a babbling undertone of anger and macro-grudges.
This runs right from Queiroz and Jürgen Klinsmann going toe-to-toe over cultural slights, to Serbia’s dressing-room flag reclaiming Kosovo, to John Herdman’s statement (Why John, why?) that Canada would “fuck” Croatia, to government ministers on all sides wading into the cultural frictions.
Fifa has bowed to Qatar’s will on the armband-of-love, even as Qatari officials wear their Palestinian rights symbols in the seats. LGBTQ+ bodies have called on Infantino to speak out, to feel as gay as he did nine days ago when he stood before the world as Football Jesus and promised love, harmony and a level of basic governance.
Instead Fifa’s most recent public guidance on all this is to announce that Germany are under investigation for not putting a player up at their press conference; and that the media need to use cabled internet connections as the press box wifi is in crisis. Thanks for that.
Meanwhile Infantino sits on top of this bonfire of greed, vanity and despotic power like a boggle-eyed Guy Fawkes mannequin, occasionally paraded about the place in his wheelbarrow or allowed to stand in the VVIP box and crunch his toffee apple for the cameras.
This leadership vacuum matters beyond simply the chaos on the ground. Fifa’s unchallenged primacy, its endless growth, is not a given. There has already been talk of some European nations getting itchy feet. Plans have been mooted now and then for a European and South American breakaway. Money, and the ongoing primacy of money, suggest the World Cup is too valuable to nobble itself in this way. But bridge-building and concessions are part of its success. Nothing lasts forever.
Infantino was supposed to be a technocrat when he took the top job, a safe-ish pair of hands after the debauchery of the Blatter years. He has turned out to be something much harder to gauge. Who is this person anyway? A despot’s glove puppet? An oleaginous pinocchio? A highly competent dissembler, smart enough to give a speech the western media see as deluded, but which was also perfectly pitched towards the Fifa members who will keep him in power?
With Blatter there was evidence of simple human vanity, the dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize and so on. The question of what Infantino wants is less clear. One remarkable aspect of Qatar’s control of this World Cup is that Infantino has not blinked, has not wavered in his total support. Either he simply loves power, or those powers have a degree of leverage over him that is not immediately clear.
More likely this game is being played at a level beyond such petty concerns as order on the ground. There may be fraught and divisive days in store before the final whistle. But Fifa is still expected to rake in a record $7.5bn (£6.3bn) from this messiest and most divisive of World Cups.
Saudi Arabia 2030 seems to be hardening as a possibility every day. Ignore the white noise. Just keep your eyes on the balance sheet. You get the leaders you deserve, or in football’s case the leaders your leader most wants to stand next to. Either way the global game has never looked quite so managed and muzzled and at the same time so out of control.
Hansi Flick sat alone at the top table of press conference room 1, a visible demonstration of an isolated Germany manager under pressure. The reason for his solo appearance may result in a fine from Fifa, but will be worth every Swiss franc should it help the four-time world champions pull away from a humiliating early exit.
Things are done differently in Qatar, as you may have heard, and media duties are no exception. A manager plus a player must appear at a press conference the day before a game – only at this World Cup that does not take place at the stadium or a team training ground, but at Fifa’s main media centre in Doha. For Germany, that involves a 210km round trip from their Al Shamal training base on the northern tip of Qatar. For Flick, who knows defeat to an in-form Spain on Sunday will spell almost certain elimination from the tournament, that is no way to prepare for the most loaded assignment of his international reign. So he showed up alone.
“We can’t expect a player to come along and drive for three hours. It’s a very important match so I told them I’m going to come and do it on my own,” Germany’s manager said. “Every player in the 26 is important so I asked them not to come along because it is important they devote energy to the training session.
“We are disappointed. We have a very good media centre [at the training ground] and it would have been possible for a player [to come] if the press conference had been held closer.”
The DFB, Germany’s football federation, asked to relocate the press conference but Fifa refused, fearing it would set an inconvenient precedent. Fifa’s response is also expected to include a fine for the player no-show.
After his media appearance Flick returned north to conduct another training session before the Spain showdown. There is work to be done following the shock opening defeat to Japan, and to address the prolific threat of Luis Enrique’s young team.
“The main focus for me has been the football,” said Flick, when asked about the many distractions that have surrounded Germany in Qatar such as the OneLove armband and the team’s subsequent protest. “I’m convinced about what we want to do and how we want to play football, even if we can’t get to 100% and are less intense than our opponent.
“Japan was hard to take, it was bitter and it could have been avoided. But we need to stick to our guns. We have the quality and we are optimistic. This is what it’s all about – be brave. We are going to see a team tomorrow that gives its utmost to make sure we get into the final 16. The door is still open.”
Spain have an ominous recent record of closing tournament doors on Germany. Flick was assistant to Joachim Löw when Germany lost to Spain in the 2008 European Championship final in Vienna and the 2010 World Cup semi-final in Durban. “I’ve been present for many games against Spain in the past, when we lost in 2008 and 2010 as well,” he said. “That doesn’t matter any more. The other games are in the past and tomorrow is the future.
“If you look at the last two tournaments [Euro 2020 and the 2018 World Cup] we didn’t do as well and we want to stop that happening. Tomorrow is the first final for us in this World Cup. This is what it’s all about. We want to prevent going out.”
Germany finished bottom of a group containing Sweden, Mexico and South Korea at the last World Cup. At last summer’s delayed European Championships they were beaten in the last 16 by England. Those two poor performances paved the way for Flick to succeed Löw, but the change of manager has not altered the reservations about the team and trepidation stalks the buildup to Sunday’s crucial game at Al Bayt Stadium.
The loss of German self-confidence and standing was underlined by Flick’s response when asked whether the country could still consider itself a favourite on the international stage. “Sunday’s match will show that,” he said. “Wait and see. Maybe I can answer this question better then.”
Flick has come in for criticism over his starting selection and substitutions against Japan. He is not losing sleep over what to do next. He said: “I am not quite certain of the lineup yet, there are several positions open. But I’m going to look at training, have a good night’s sleep and tomorrow I’ll know what lineup I’m going for.
“We have had clear discussions as individuals and as a team. We need to articulate to the players what to do against Spain, where they can find the gaps and be brave, and I’m convinced they know.”
The saga of the OneLove armbands that were going to be worn by a number of team captains has been annoying and frustrating from start to limp finish. In many ways, the clamp down by Fifa on the wearing of them is ironic, too, because everyone within the federations who put together this show of support has worked hard to build a new OneLove brand almost to detach from the rainbow, to dilute and depoliticise an issue that is unavoidably political.
The whole episode was disappointing because even the most watered-down attempt to show that football should be an inclusive and welcoming space was too much. For Fifa to threaten players and the federations for trying to promote a symbolic message of unity, togetherness, tolerance and inclusion goes against all the values and principles that it says it stands for and wants to promote as the global governing body of the game.
There have been plenty who have argued that players, fans and federations should “stick to football” and that “we should respect the culture” of the host nation, but this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues. If we accepted segregation as part of the culture of a place or time then we would still be living with anti-interracial marriage laws and who knows what else.
Arguing this is the liberal west trying to impose its values and principles on a country and a competition that don’t want it also hugely negates the lived experiences of any LGBTQ+ players competing in the tournament, as well as the LGBTQ+ fans in the stands. Perhaps most criminally, it also lets down representatives of the LGBTQ+ communities within Qatar, who need global support and the platform of the World Cup to have a voice about what’s going on for them and the freedoms they’re fighting for.
The accusation that it is racist to discuss these issues because it shows a lack of respect for Qatari or Islamic culture is wrong, but there has been a tinge of racism regarding discussions. In many forums the narrative becomes that this is the uncultured Middle East v the progressive west, but that undermines the issues and leads to whataboutery. We should not be coming across as holier than thou but acknowledging that problems can exist all over the world, in all societies, at the same time.
In Britain we have a lot of issues. I would argue that rising homelessness and people not being able to afford energy is also a human rights abuse, that people should not have to be suffering in the way they are because of the negligence of the government.
All of these things can exist at the same time. I can be critical of our government, our country and the way things are operating here as well as being critical of other countries. Human rights abuses and discrimination should not even be up for debate. It should be a given that you take an ethical and moral position on these issues, but at the first sign of a pushback from Fifa the federations folded.
There are huge pressures on players. Many don’t just support themselves financially but their extended families, too. And there is a real feeling of powerlessness. There is a feeling that whatever they do, nothing will change. That is why federations need to take a stand, as governing bodies but also in supporting their players’ voices.
If everyone gave up at the first hurdle in the fight for freedoms and equality, then where would be today? Look at John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman, who stood on the 200m podium at the 1968 Olympics and risked everything – Smith and Carlos raised their fists in support of the Black Power movement, with all three donning badges in support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
It’s a sacrifice, and sometimes it is a personal sacrifice, but the long‑term effect and the impact that acts of solidarity or protest can have are far reaching. We should be taking pride in the position we want to stand on and should be reflecting on how we want to be seen in the next 100 years.
The decision to set the armbands aside in the face of sporting sanctions is incredibly weak and stands in stark contrast to the actions of the players of Iran. They have risked being disowned by their own nation, their own government and put themselves, their families and their friends in potential danger by not singing the national anthem before the game against England in support of the protests back home. They understand, though, that the World Cup is a platform and an opportunity to bring global attention to a very important and critical issue within their own country. That shows courage and strength and it should empower others.
If a women’s team had been put in the position of the teams involved and been threatened with sporting sanctions, I feel like the response would have been different. Why? Because as women we’ve been used to having to sacrifice and make difficult choices just to be able to play football, even when we know there’s a consequence. Indeed, the two people to wear the armband despite Fifa’s condemnation have been women – the former England international Alex Scott and Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser.
The Germany players covering their mouths in protest against the threat of sanctions and a number of federations and players speaking out strongly against the pressure to not wear the armband should be applauded, but it’s not enough. Every day, migrant workers, women and LGBTQ+ people put their lives on the line just by existing in Qatar. Not being able to stomach sporting sanctions in that context is incredibly weak.
If you’re on your way to Qatar and looking forward to strolling up to Al Bayt Stadium in a bikini with a plastic sword in hand, OneLove band on your arm, rainbow hat on your head and a pint in your hand, you’re going to be disappointed.
The list of items banned at the World Cup continues to grow, most recently with reports that England fans have been told not to wear “crusader” costumes, occasionally favoured by middle-aged white men as misguided-at-best clothing for international matches.
Here we take a look at the items banned in Qatar so far.
Alcohol was banned for fans at the grounds in a last-minute and unprecedented volte-face two days before the tournament started. The sale of alcohol was limited to the Fifa fan festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues.
Fifa in effect banned the wearing of the armbands when it threatened to impose sanctions on any players who did so. A number of players, including the England captain, Harry Kane, had intended to wear the armband as a gesture, in part to highlight Qatar’s appalling human rights record, including but not limited to the treatment of LGBT+ people and the plight of potentially thousands of migrant workers who built the infrastructure for the tournament.
Football Association of Wales staff and Wales supporters have reportedly had rainbow-coloured bucket hats confiscated. Fifa and the Qataris were said to be in talks on the matter on Tuesday, where Fifa reminded the hosts of their assurances before the tournament that everyone was welcome and rainbow flags would be allowed.
Among reports were incidents of Welsh FA staff and fans being confronted by security for bringing the hats into the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and a US fan with a rainbow flag being confronted on the metro. But on Friday, Fifa said fans would be allowed to wear rainbow bucket hats and take rainbow flags into the stadium for Wales’s match against Iran.
The Fifa stadium code of conduct states that fans must not “remove items of clothing or otherwise remain in a state of undress” – including being shirtless. And they must not “reveal intimate body parts”.
The Times reported that England fans had been told not to dress as St George, the patron saint of England, portrayed as a “crusader knight” with mock chainmail and, often, a plastic sword.
The Crusades were a series of bloody religious wars in which Christian invaders, directed by the Latin church attempted to recover Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule. Estimates of the death toll vary widely from 1.5 million to as many as 6 million. Fifa said: “Crusader costumes in the Arab context can be offensive against Muslims. That is why anti-discrimination colleagues asked fans to wear things inside out or change dress.”
England, Wales and five other European nations feared their captains would be exposed to “unlimited liability” and would have faced suspensions if they had defied Fifa’s banning of the pro-diversity OneLove armband during the World Cup.
Despite facing criticism for backing down after coming under pressure from Fifa, the English Football Association’s options were limited by concerns that the sporting sanctions for Harry Kane could have been worse than an instant booking if the captain had worn the armband against Iran. There were also fears that Gareth Southgate’s side could have been prevented from entering the field.
The FA’s worries were shared by the other six countries involved in the OneLove campaign after talks with world football’s governing body, with those close to the process left with the impression that “Fifa could do anything” to any captain who wore the armband in Qatar.
The German federation has described Fifa’s behaviour as “extreme blackmail” and sources have indicated there was no clarity over whether the captains would merely receive a caution.
England, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark feared their captains could be banned. It was unclear whether any suspension would be limited to one match. None of the countries were prepared to put their players in that position. A source said that the captains would have risked “unlimited liability” if they had defied Fifa’s warnings.
Separately the FA was concerned that England’s game against Iran would not have started if Kane had tried to leave the dressing room with the armband. The FA is exploring if it will be legally possible to challenge the threat of sporting sanctions, and there has been fury within the seven associations about Fifa’s behaviour.
Suggestions that Kane could have created an iconic moment by walking on to the pitch with the armband and receiving an instant booking are misplaced. The yellow card would have been shown in the dressing room, stripping away any potential symbolism.
Southgate, speaking before Friday’s game against the USA, was asked about the threat of sanctions for Kane. “I don’t know all the ins and outs because I wasn’t in the meeting but there was definitely a feel there were sanctions and not all of those were really clear, I think, so the decision was taken out of the hands of Harry,” England’s head coach said.
“The decision from the organisation was: ‘We’re not even putting the armband in the dressing room.’ There is no discussion. The player had no say.”
Germany’s players were praised for covering their mouths with their hands to suggest they had been gagged by Fifa before their game against Japan on Wednesday. Six players, including the captain, Manuel Neuer, also wore Adidas boots with rainbow stitching during the team’s shock 2-1 defeat against Japan, and the squad sported tops with rainbow colours on their sleeves in the warm-up.
Germany have faced no punishment from Fifa but Southgate questioned whether there would be any value in England mounting a similar form of protest on Friday.
“I’m quite comfortable with our position and I think we should be confident in what we stand for,” Southgate said. “There was a plan – we weren’t able to carry out that plan. What do we do now? Do we all try to outdo each other on a gesture that, however we do it, probably won’t be enough.
“We want to support the LGBTQ community in particular and recognise that a lot of those people aren’t here with us, and we wanted them here with us. But we could also rush into doing things that don’t really make any difference.
“I understand that is going to be uncomfortable for people because I could be criticised, the captain has been criticised, the organisation will be criticised. I’m very comfortable with what I stand for, and how I deal with people every day of my life is more important than a statement that might land well and might not.”
Kane trained on Thursday and will start on Friday after an injury scare. Southgate indicated that England, who would seal progress from Group B by beating the USA, will name an unchanged side against Gregg Berhalter’s team. James Maddison is still recovering from a knee injury.
Harry Maguire, who has recovered from the dehydration that forced him off against Iran, has opened up on the criticism he has faced and compared it to the negativity aimed at his former Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. “He’s one of the greatest players ever and gets criticised day in, day out,” he said. “So if it’s going to happen to him I think it’s part and parcel of the game.”
Southgate revealed that Prince William had told England’s players to block out distractions on social media. “We couldn’t have paid him for better advice,” Southgate said.
After the shock defeat Germany faced criticism that their protest had caused a lack of focus. Van Gaal was asked about this. “That is the question,” he said. “I don’t want to run that risk – we’re here to be a world champion … We put a full stop behind all the political issues [last] Thursday when we invited the migrants and we have this purpose. We are not going to have that tarnished by the actions of Fifa or whichever other organisation.”
Belgium’s Eden Hazard echoed Van Gaal. “Germany’s gesture? They would’ve done better if they didn’t do it and tried to win,” the forward told RMC Sport. “We’re here to play football, I’m not here to convey a political message.”
It was put to Van Gaal that those back home were experiencing the World Cup differently because the spotlight remained on Qatar’s human rights issues. “That has got to do with the environment in the Netherlands,” said the 71-year-old. “A different environment than what we see here.
“Everything has been organised in an excellent way. No criticism whatsoever. Perhaps it’s all about human rights [at home] and maybe rightly so but also perhaps not rightly so. I believe I’ve responded enough to that.”
Cody Gakpo scored the Netherlands’ second in their opening 2-0 win against Senegal, the 23-year-old’s fourth goal in his 10 games. Van Gaal believes the PSV forward can be a breakout player of the World Cup. “He is a player with a lot of talent and possibilities,” said the coach.
“He is young and is a player who is still evolving and has a lot of room for improvement and has a personality that will do everything that it takes. Whether he will be a star at this World Cup, I don’t know, but it is possible.”
The Netherlands face Ecuador on Friday with Memphis Depay, who had had a hamstring problem, being fit to play a half at least after managing half an hour against Senegal. Van Gaal admitted selecting him in the squad contravened his usual code regarding players who are not fully fit.
“This is a player that is quite extraordinary [so] I’ve set aside my principles because I believe he is incredibly important to us,” Van Gaal said. “I explained this to the players. I do all this for Memphis and the players understand this. He played 30 minutes and really isn’t grappling too much with the issue so we’re proceeding to the next step, which is 45 minutes.”