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Regimes have long used the World Cup to hide human rights abuses

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Picture: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP – Art school teacher Sagar Kambli draws a painting of Brazil’s football player Neymar Jr. ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football tournament in Mumbai on November 18, 2022.

By Ulices Piña

The FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, and over 1 million spectators are expected to attend. With Qatar hosting soccer’s biggest tournament, the country’s human rights record has been in the spotlight. Protests from human rights organizations and from soccer associations have highlighted Qatar’s poor record on labor rights and LGBTQ+ equality. In response, Qatari leaders have denied claims of migrant worker exploitation, while the country’s World Cup ambassador recently declared that homosexuality is “damage in the mind.”

Addressing the controversy, FIFA wrote to all 32 participating nations urging them to focus on soccer and “not the ideological or political battles that exist” and emphasizing the governing body’s commitment to diversity, mutual respect and nondiscrimination.

For activists, it appeared that FIFA, even in embracing these principles, was dodging the key problem. Amnesty International called on FIFA to finally “start tackling the serious human rights issues rather than brushing them under the carpet.”

Despite international criticisms, the matches will go on.

This isn’t the first time FIFA has come under scrutiny for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. During the 1970s, Chile and Argentina endured episodes of state-sponsored terrorism. In both cases, despite evidence of human rights atrocities committed under conditions of military dictatorship, FIFA still moved forward with plans to host a decisive 1974 World Cup qualifier in Chile and the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

History reveals FIFA’s failures to speak out about the importance of human rights matters, and regimes have found ways to use the spectacle of soccer to hide abuses.

On Sept. 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist in the Americas, was overthrown by a military coup. In the ensuing melee, the armed forces and the new military regime detained, tortured, killed or disappeared thousands of people.

In its efforts to assert control, the regime set up at least 80 detention centers in the capital, Santiago. The national stadium was one of these sites. The venue was transformed into the largest detention center in the country – a concentration camp where political prisoners were tortured. From September to November of 1973, the national stadium held at least 20,000 prisoners who were waterboarded, beaten, shocked, sexually abused and assassinated.

The stadium soon became the focus of global interest. Shortly after the military regime began detaining prisoners there, it invited the press to tour the premises to assure Chileans and the international community that detainees were being treated humanely.

The move backfired. Reporters observed the cruel treatment of prisoners, and shocking images of people in the stands held at gunpoint by armed guards reached the international media.

Nevertheless, FIFA chose the city of Santiago – and the national stadium – to host a decisive World Cup qualifier between Chile and the Soviet Union that November. Outraged over the treatment of Chilean political prisoners, the Soviet team refused to play at the venue. Soviet soccer officials defended their actions: “Soviet sportsmen for moral considerations cannot at present play at the Santiago stadium stained with the blood of Chilean patriots.” They proposed the match be played at a neutral site.

But FIFA officials balked, declaring: “We are not concerned with politics or what regimes are ruling a country. . . . If the Russians refuse to play Chile, then they are out of the World Cup.” The Soviet team responded with a boycott.

When FIFA’s delegation inspected the grounds, prisoners were hidden in dressing rooms and tunnels away from the playing field. The military regime then cleared prisoners out of the national stadium and sent them to a concentration camp in the Atacama Desert. The game went on as planned. Without a Soviet team on the field, Chile won unopposed and, thus, qualified for the 1974 World Cup.

In the following years, an authoritarian wave continued sweeping through South America, and only a handful of constitutional civilian governments endured. In March 1976, Argentina’s armed forces overthrew the government of Isabel Perón and began waging a war of extermination against left-wing and Marxist revolutionary movements. Seeking to reshape political life, they banned political parties and public demonstrations, shut down unions and suspended civil liberties. With echoes of Chile, thousands of Argentine people disappeared, and thousands more were tortured in concentration camps and detention centers.

Argentina had been selected to host the 1978 World Cup, a decision made back in 1966. The military’s human rights violations, however, made the country the subject of intense international criticism, most notably from human rights organizations.

But, from the perspective of the new authoritarian government, the World Cup offered an opportunity to soften perceptions of Argentina abroad, while also manufacturing popular support at home. The military enlisted the help of an American public relations company, Burson-Marsteller. The agency advised the regime to counter criticisms by generating positive coverage in leading newspapers and magazines, “which will help put the Argentine reality in its correct perspective.”

The regime also used television. TV’s growth fueled soccer’s global reach. Estimates predicted that nearly a billion people around the world would watch at least some of the tournament’s matches on TV.

Two weeks before the start of the tournament, Amnesty International circulated a report to national teams and journalists. The organization didn’t call for a boycott but, instead, urged the millions of spectators around the world planning to watch the sporting event on television to seek information about the countless victims of torture, imprisonment and disappearance, “which the television will not show.” It also accused the Argentine government of exploiting the World Cup to paint an “image of a stable and peaceful country.”

Activists around the globe amplified the message. The West German arm of Amnesty International partnered with activist groups to launch a “Yes to Football, No to Torture” campaign, mobilizing tens of thousands of Germans in protest. In France, more than 200 chapters of the Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina were established to raise global awareness about Argentina’s human rights violations. Similar efforts were launched in six other European countries, the United States, Mexico, Spain and Israel.

In Argentina, the Montoneros – a leftist revolutionary movement – also pushed back against the military’s manicured narrative. They published and circulated a detailed pamphlet for journalists, leaders, sports fans and tourists about “the real Argentina,” asserting that the military intended to mislead the global community with a slick public relations campaign.

The presence of the international media in the country brought visibility to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an organization of women, mothers and relatives of disappeared Argentines. Dutch television journalists, for example, filmed one of their weekly demonstrations in front of Buenos Aires’s main city square. One mother told a reporter on scene: “We just want to know where our children are. Alive or dead, we want to know where they are. . . . Please help us. Help us, please. You are our last hope.”

But the military government got its grand finale. Argentina defeated the Netherlands, 3-1, in the final to become World Cup champions.

As the 2022 World Cup in Qatar begins, TV networks around the globe are divided about how to present the spectacle to the estimated 5 billion people who will tune in. Human rights organizations, however, have demanded that FIFA match the $440 million in prize money and set it aside for payment to migrant workers. LGBTQ+ activists also recently protested in front of FIFA’s Museum in Zurich “to make sure FIFA and Qatar know the world is watching and that citizens around the world expect action.”

So far, FIFA has chosen profits over action. The question now is whether soccer’s global governing body will continue to ignore the human rights violations in Qatar, as it did in the 1970s in Chile and Argentina, or if it will commit to establishing a fund to compensate migrant workers and ensure that LGBTQ+ people do not face discrimination or harassment.

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Ulices Piña is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Long Beach. He is currently working on a book about revolutionary Mexico and the varied roles of ordinary people in the country’s long fight for democracy.