Explained: How sporting fields are becoming protest sites and officials are looking the other way


When Norway travelled to Gibraltar on Wednesday, and Germany hosted Iceland a day later, both teams brought attention to 2022 World Cup host Qatar’s alleged mistreatment of migrant workers.

Shared News: Updated: March 27, 2021 3:10:54 pm
Germany’s starting players pose for a team photo at the beginning of the World Cup 2022 group J qualifying match between Germany and Iceland in Duisburg, Germany, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool via AP)

In their respective midweek World Cup qualification matches, the Norwegian and German national football teams walked onto the pitch wearing t-shirts with slogans highlighting a human rights issue.

For most of 2020, sporting leagues across the world have allowed and encouraged clubs to ‘take the knee’ before a match as support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. But when Norway travelled to Gibraltar on Wednesday, and Germany hosted Iceland a day later, both teams brought attention to 2022 World Cup host Qatar’s alleged mistreatment of migrant workers.

The Norway team walked out with identical tops with the message “Human Rights – On and off the pitch,” while the German team had the words “Human rights” spelt out as each player wore a t-shirt with a single letter. Both teams won their respective match 3-0.

Though such a demonstration goes against FIFA norms, the governing body of the sport asserted that no action will be taken against either team.

When did Norway and Germany make this statement?

Reportedly, a discussion among Norway’s top-flight clubs – led by Tromsø – has been underway for a few weeks regarding the possibility of the national team boycotting the World Cup next year.

The national team players and coach Ståle Solbakken were all seen during warm-up wearing t-shirts that read “Respect – On and off the pitch,” before swapping it for the one with the words “Human Rights – On and off the pitch” when they stood for the national anthem.

“This is a little bit what we have been talking about, to put the focus on some of that that has been a discussion off the pitch,” Solbakken said to Norwegian TV2. “The boys were keen to do this and I am here as an example of that.”

Meanwhile, the German team lined-up for the national anthem wearing t-shirts with a single letter on it that eventually spelt “Human Rights.”

“The players have drawn everything on their shirts,” German team coach Joachim Loew was reported saying by The Guardian. “It was supposed to be the first statement by us, by the team. We stand for human rights, no matter the location. Those are our values. Therefore, it was a very good and important statement.”

Why were these statements made?

Ever since Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, back in 2010, there have been reports of inhumane conditions for construction workers, most of whom are migrant labourers, building the planned new and upgraded stadia.

A report by The Guardian last month revealed that over 6500 migrant workers from the Indian Subcontinent had died since the oil-rich nation had been awarded hosting rights.

On Thursday however, according to The Guardian, the spokesperson for the Qatar World Cup organiser (Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy- SC) asserted that the country had “always been transparent about the health and safety of workers.”

The spokesperson further added: “Since construction began in 2014, there have been three work-related fatalities and 35 non-work-related deaths. The SC has investigated each case, learning lessons to avoid any repeat in the future. The SC has disclosed each incident through public statements and or annual workers’ welfare progress reports.”

What has FIFA’s response been on Norway and Germany’s statement?

FIFA issued a statement on Thursday, after the Norway demonstration, that “(no) disciplinary proceedings in relation to this matter will be opened. FIFA believe in the freedom of speech, and in the power of football as a force for good.”

The governing body’s stance comes in contrast to its disciplinary code stating that any case of “using a sporting event for demonstration of a non-sporting nature” will result in sanctions.

Is it the first time FIFA has not issued a sanction against such an act of protest?

No. When the German Bundesliga resumed after the break forced by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Borussia Dortmund players Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi displayed the message “Justice for George Floyd” under their jerseys, FIFA President Gianni Infantino commended the players and refused to sanction any punishment.

“For the avoidance of doubt, in a FIFA competition the recent demonstrations of players in Bundesliga matches would deserve applause and not a punishment,” he reportedly said. “We all must say no to racism and any form of discrimination. We all must say no to violence. Any form of violence.”

According to the Evening Standard, FIFA’s Law 4 Section 5 claims that “players are not supposed to have slogans, statements or images on their kit or other equipment which could be deemed as political.”

Like FIFA, will IOC too look the other way?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been debating the implementation of their infamous Rule 50 – which disallows any athlete from promoting an issue of any nature during the Olympic Games.

According to the IOC website: “Rule 50 intends to preserve the field of play and podium from any protest, to respect our fellow athletes and their special “moment” and allow them to focus on their performance. Examples of what would constitute a protest include displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands; gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling; and refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.”

Ever since the death of George Floyd that sparked a renewed BLM movement, sporting events such as, but not limited to, football leagues across Europe, Formula One, the NBA, NFL, MLB, and West Indies’ tour of England last year, have all seen players taking the knee before matches.

There have been numerous organisations, such as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – that made it clear in December that it will take no action against an athlete who takes a stand at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics – and even World Athletics.

“I’ve been very clear that if an athlete chooses to take the knee on a podium then I’m supportive of that,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe was quoted by Eurosport.

“Athletes are a part of the world and they want to reflect the world they live in. For me, that part is perfectly acceptable as long as it is done with respect – complete respect – for other competitors, which I think most athletes properly understand.”

Where is that discussion now?

The IOC’s Athlete’ Commission had conducted a survey to get Olympians and elite athletes’ take on Rule 50. The deadline for the survey ended in January.

Other bodies conducted their own surveys, as reported by Inside the Games. The Australian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission found “majority believed they should be able to express themselves but without impacting other athletes’ performances or the overall Olympic Games experience.”

The Panam Sports Athletes’ Commission surveyed 218 athletes across 25 countries. It found that 189 believed the IOC should address discrimination and 191 claimed the IOC should update its rules regularly. 153 claimed Rule 50 is completely or partially unjust and 39 called for it to be abolished. 98 presented amendments while 81 were fine with Rule 50 as it is.

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