Sport is politics.
There is no question about that at the beginning of a year when the Winter Olympics are taking place in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar.
You only have to open the newspaper these days. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Guardian, the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza and other quality media, which gather many voices to report on the world, deal on their sports pages with the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the USA, Great Britain and other countries, the silent diplomacy of the IOC and workers’ rights in Qatar.
There was one news item that received particular attention worldwide.
Out of concern for the life of Peng Shuai, the former world number one in doubles, the women’s tennis players’ organisation, the WTA, has suspended all tournaments in China.
In total, around 30 per cent of the WTA’s revenue comes from China, with the annual finals in Shenzhen paying out the equivalent of around €12 million, more than any other event in women’s tennis.
But the players are now saying: “We’ll do without”.
A strong stance is a tradition in women’s tennis, whose history is marked by personalities.
In the sixties, WTA founder and multiple Grand Slam winner Billie Jean King campaigned for equal treatment and pay for both men and female players.
Later, multiple Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova campaigned for gay rights. The supposedly weaker sex actually dominates the fighting mode. The female athletes have turned their federation into an independent institution.
The WTA’s consistent approach sends a signal: You can say no in sport. Negotiations require an interplay – approaching each other, but also pulling away from time to time.
Countries in which human rights are not for all citizens also invest in football. These countries are part of global sport and offer so much money that many find it difficult to refuse.
German television ZDF recently ran a hidden camera investigation. The reporter spoke to workers from Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh who build stadiums and roads in Qatar.
Eight of them live in one room, earn €300 a month, but have been waiting months for their salaries. The research revealed that not 6,500 but 15,000 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded 11 years ago.
The report also featured attractive match scenes from the 2021 Arab Cup and all eight new stadiums. In a country with 2.7 million inhabitants, half the size of Slovenia, there are now eight of the most modern, expensive and beautiful stadiums in the world, less than an hour’s drive apart.
The ZDF report was an anticipation of the dilemma facing next year’s World Cup. People know about the situation in Qatar and still enjoy watching the spectacular pictures and the best teams.
This dilemma is perceived.
When the 1978 World Cup took place under the direction of the Argentine military regime, many players had no answer to questions about human rights.
Today, the world can no longer be viewed in such a naïve manner. Thanks to continuous reporting, everyone involved knows better than before about what is going on in faraway continents.
Most footballers also have more time to deal with such issues.
Public figures like them are also expected to inform themselves outside their bubble. Now that the world has become a village, everyone knows the conditions in Qatar.
Some footballers are stepping in and calling for human rights to be respected.
“I think more attention needs to be paid to this kind of thing in the future when awarding contracts,” says German international Leon Goretzka.
“We woke up too late, I woke up too late,” wrote Tim Sparv in an open letter. In it, Finland’s captain calls on players, media and fans to talk about working conditions in Qatar.
On a small stage, this argument is already bearing fruit. When a black player was racially abused by a spectator during the third division match between MSV Duisburg and VfL Osnabrück in Germany in December, it was the teams who forced a stop.
All players quickly agreed that they wanted to set this example: players, both clubs, referees, associations, and fans from both camps. The individual is not powerless, people can make a difference.
Small is where you start, big is where it can end.
Greta Thunberg was 15 years old when she stood alone on a street in Stockholm to draw attention to climate change.
Many joined in, and Fridays for Future has since put the environment on the global agenda. This has changed politics.
Football too, for example, European Championship 2024 in Germany can only be judged a success if it takes ecological aspects into account. Our preparations are already underway.
I can consider myself lucky to have been born into a democracy. It was not long ago that the conditions in my home country were different.
A good three decades ago Germany was divided, the eastern part was a dictatorship. Other nations in Europe were also going through a change.
The 1964 European Championship took place in a fascist state, and Spain’s team won its home tournament in front of General Franco. He was still in power when the 1982 World Cup was awarded to Spain. By the time it took place, Spain was a democracy.
Major sporting events, especially in football, generate enormous attention.
Nowadays, European and World Cups require everyone who takes part to deal with working conditions and human rights in Qatar and Beijing.
At UEFA Euro 2024 in Germany, too, Europe will negotiate with each other how we want to live together.