How a small club in Norway led calls for their country to boycott the Qatar 2022 World Cup
"We felt that we cannot arrange the greatest thing in football, the World Cup, on the grounds of dead people..."
The image was a powerful one. Minutes before kick-off in Gibraltar’s near-deserted Victoria Stadium on Wednesday night, Norway’s team, embarking on their qualification campaign for next year’s Qatar World Cup, lined up for their national anthem. Over their match shirts, each player wore a white T-shirt with black lettering printed across the chest. Human Rights - On and off the pitch, the message read.
There was no direct reference to Qatar on the shirts, nor did there need to be. Plenty made the connection immediately. Those who didn’t soon would, with the debate that has swept across Norway in recent weeks - one which has seen several of the country’s leading clubs call for a Norwegian boycott of the 2022 World Cup over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers - now cast before a wider, international audience.
On and off the pitch’
The Norwegian national team send a powerful message to the World Cup organisers in Qatar 🇳🇴👏 pic.twitter.com/p39oDwrh4h
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) March 24, 2021
Tromsø sits comfortably inside the Arctic Circle in Norway’s far north. Its winters are long, with the city plunged into six months of near-constant darkness. It is a world away from the searing summer heat and futuristic skyscrapers of Doha, the Qatari capital where preparations continue to be made for next year’s tournament. It was here, from the offices of Eliteserien side Tromsø Idrettslag, the world's northernmost professional football club, that the story suddenly ignited last month.
Tom Høgli, a former Norwegian international, had played for Tromsø between 2007 and 2011 and then again, briefly, before calling time on his playing career three years ago. He now works as the club's Head of Sustainability. In 2016, while playing for FC Copenhagen, Høgli had criticised Qatar's treatment of migrant workers, describing it as “modern day slavery”. After the recent publication of an article by The Guardian, which highlighted that 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the awarding of the World Cup, he decided he wanted - and needed - to speak out on the issue once more.
In a show of solidarity with Høgli, Tromsø opted to put out a statement as a club, not only condemning Qatar's treatment of migrant workers, but openly calling on the Norwegian FA to boycott the tournament if the country qualified. The statement had received the unanimous backing of everyone involved with the club: players, coaching staff, the board and, most importantly, the club's members (the supporters who vote on key club decisions).
Within minutes of it being published, the club were contacted by local news outlets; by the end of the day, the statement had made headlines nationally. Høgli and club CEO Øyvind Alapnes were suddenly thrust into the media spotlight as requests for interviews from newspapers and news outlets from across Norway and beyond poured in.
"I have to say that from the Friday we made the statement, all our lives changed a little bit," Alapnes tells JOE.
"Me and Tom had to be in the media four or five times per day. We didn't know how big the snowball would become.
"Honestly, we didn’t think we could change the World Cup in Qatar," Alapnes explains. "In the end it was about making ourselves sleep good at night. We felt that we cannot arrange the greatest thing in football, the World Cup, on the grounds of dead people..."
Clearly, Tromsø's move resonated with many other football fans across Norway. In the days and weeks that followed, several of the country's most prominent clubs followed by pledging their support for the boycott, all driven by their members.
"Club after club is following us now, saying the same," Alapnes adds. "I think what made it big was that the fundament of professional football - the supporters - are saying the same. Us as a club, it was our responsibility to follow up."
Qatar's human rights record and treatment of migrant workers has generated headlines since the tournament was awarded to the Arabian state a decade ago. The number of migrant worker deaths in the country - be it those working directly on World Cup facilities or on any of the other projects linked to the country's rapidly expanding infrastructure - has continually raised concern.
Only this week, Amnesty International addressed an open letter to Gianni Infantino, FIFA's president, urging him to take urgent action to ensure the World Cup leaves a positive and lasting legacy for all of the country's migrant workers.
The letter acknowledges and welcomes the changes the Qatari government has made to its labour system in recent years, including to the kafala sponsorship system, which legally bound migrant workers to their employer. It also explains, however, that while such legal changes make it easier for workers to escape the clutches of exploitative employers, they are unlikely to significantly reduce the abuse itself or improve migrant workers' conditions without further measures to increase protections and guarantee enforcement of such reforms.
'Poor implementation and enforcement of Qatar’s reforms to date,' the letter reads, 'has meant the impact on many workers’ lives sadly appears to have been limited, and serious labour abuses continue in the country.'
Amnesty's concerns - that in reality, very little has actually changed for Qatar's migrant workers - are echoed by Tromsø. In making their statement, they became the first professional club to make a public stand against Qatar. Alapnes stresses, however, that he takes no pride in this fact. It should not, in his view, have taken a club of their size, based on the extreme edge of the football world, to instigate the discussion.
"Obviously it was something a lot of supporters and the media had been waiting for and it was actually quite sad that it had to be our small club who was the first to do this," he says.
"When you go to the biggest clubs' websites, first you find something about football but quite quickly you will find something about what they’re doing good in their societies and how they’re treating people and something around the ethical basement of the club. But it’s damning and quite funny that most of these clubs are financed by regimes like this [in some way].
"I think the biggest problem in football right now is that when it comes to money, everything is allowed and yet you go on the webpages and they write about how much good they do for their local societies.
"I think supporters all around the world really want football to change and starting with Qatar, saying stop - it’s enough.
"I don’t think we actually can stop the World Cup in Qatar; I don’t think we can actually change how they treat the workers down there but I think it’s time to say stop to sportswashing."
Since Tromsø released their statement, Alapnes says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He does, however, understand how conflicted some Norwegian football fans feel given the emergence of what many believe is a side capable of ending the country's 23-year wait to appear at a men's World Cup.
"The national team was quite good in the 1990s and I think people are feeling now that maybe Norway can copy that. We have Ståle Solbakken as the head coach, we have international stars like [Erling Braut] Haaland in the team which we haven’t had for a lot of years.
"I can understand people, because suddenly the national team can do something. If we go to a boycott, we cannot repeat the nineties and I think that has been problematic for a lot of people. I have empathy with it because I want to see the national team do well again."
Some things in football, he believes, are more important than the results on the pitch - a view which appears to be shared by many across the nation.
The Norwegian FA (NFF) have responded to the discussion by setting up a committee that will look into the concerns raised by the discussion. The committee will look at what the country should do "in response to Qatar's handling of human rights in the country, including studying, assessing and setting on which instrument Norwegian football shall use for its reaction".
The chances of Norway making the decision to go through with the boycott would still, despite all that has happened, come as a surprise move. To Alapnes, though, this is not crucial. The important point is that, thanks to the stand made by his club, the plight of tens of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar has now been pushed firmly back into the minds of football supporters from across the world. As the 2022 World Cup approaches, ignoring the issue will prove impossible.
"That, for us, is the most important thing with this," he says. "It’s to make a big statement here, all over the football world, that enough is enough."