As the world’s most popular sport, football has long been much more than a simple leisure pursuit. Through its ability to bring together immense crowds, it has been used on many occasions to convey all sorts of political messages, from fascist propaganda to democratic protest. What is the relationship between football and human rights today?

Of men and stadia: football as a political instrument

From the FLN team led by Rachid Mekhloufi to Romario’s campaign for the 2014 World Cup to respect indigenous and social rights, a number of well-known players have demonstrated a commitment to human rights: Caszely who stood up to General Pinochet during his dictatorship; Sócrates who, with others, established the Corinthian Democracy at his Sao Paulo Corinthians Club in the middle of the 1980s; Pašić who allowed the children of Sarajevo to take refuge in football during the Siege; and, more recently, Drogba, captain of the Elephants, who publicly implored his Ivory Coast compatriots to end the civil war. All stories which prove that football can play a decisive role in the respect for human dignity, whether by making it possible to forget violence through the game and its values, or by establishing democracy at a club in the capital city of a country under military dictatorship.

Unfortunately, other episodes have shown us that football is capable of good and bad: players in the Iraq team were the victims of Uday Hussein, son of the Baath leader and President of the Iraqi Football Federation. Intimidation, death threats, beatings, torture: anything and everything was used to terrify the players if results were bad. Further, if footballers were thought to be too cosseted by the population to be a target for attack, their families suffered the abuse, such as the families of Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Veliz, both chosen to play for Chile at the 1974 World Cup, who were detained and tortured by General Pinochet’s men. Football players have sometimes been the victims of human rights violations but so are the stadia where they played. The most striking example would certainly be the Estádio Nacional de Santiago (Chile) which the military regime turned into an immense concentration camp for 40,000 “suspected opponents” who were imprisoned and tortured after the coup d’état in September 1973. Sadly, other authoritarian regimes have also used these sporting arenas as a place of execution: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, Iran, or the shabaab militia of the MSSI1 in Libya…not to mention the deaths carried out in sporting arenas in China, such as at the Yining stadium in 2014.

On other occasions, it is the organisation of the competition itself which violates the most fundamental rights: those of the Nepalese workers who died on the building sites of the Qatari stadia for the 2022 World Cup; or the workers employed to build the Russian stadia for the 2018 World Cup. The rights of the indigenous people and the poorest populations, who were dispossessed when the stadia for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were to be constructed, were also violated.

New world football focusing on human rights?

Despite this rather joyless summary, FIFA, football’s world governing body, has shown a few encouraging signs over the last few years: adoption of new Statutes including better consideration of human rights, drafting of Article 3 for the respect and promotion of those rights, transposition of the conclusions of the Ruggie report2 and compliance with the UN’s guiding principles3 relating to companies and human rights. FIFA wants to prevent its name from being associated with human rights violations again.

What can we reasonably expect in the future? Today, the insertion of a “human rights clause” into applications to hold the World Cup seems to be underway4. This would be a strong signal from FIFA. However, will it be tenable when organisational costs keep increasing? Will any country have enough resources to organise such a competition? The next European football championship will be shared between several countries and, unless there’s a last minute surprise, the 2026 World Cup will be organised by a consortium of North American countries (USA, Canada and Mexico). If this kind of organisation were to be developed, would it not favour the richest countries? And we know that having a seat at the top of the table does not necessarily guarantee respect for human rights.

Further, the recent announcement to consider the “human rights criteria” to separate Germany and Turkey with regard to holding Euro 2024 seems to suggest that proper consideration of the problem by world football’s leading bodies has begun.

Although these reforms are certainly going in the right direction, optimism must be curbed. FIFA is sometimes prepared to exclude or punish a member which has allegedly gone against international law, particularly when that country allegedly does not recognise the borders defined by the UN (Russia, Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia)5, thereby falling into line with the international community. But sometimes it refuses to punish a State whose actions are judged to be contrary to international law by the UN and the International Court of Justice because “it doesn’t do politics” (Israeli clubs established in the West Bank)6. Similarly, it decided to punish Kuwait and bang its fists on the table with Iran when political interference took place in the nomination of the president of the (national) federation7, but it has shown great caution about the idea of punishing the same country when it executes people in the stadia of the same federation8. In sum, it has a very variable attitude with regard to international law and respect for human rights.

Although congratulations are due for the turn events have taken, it should also be remembered that the “match” isn’t over yet. Paul POUCHOUX