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The moral dilemma of a Sunderland fan ahead of Qatar 2022

“It has always been club over country for me. I’m not even getting the usual pre-World Cup buzz this time, and I’m left feeling world-weary on Wearside.”

Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Although I would take Sunderland over England every time, I do still enjoy watching the national side and getting stuck into the big international tournaments.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup about to start though, I’m just not getting the same sense of anticipation this time around – usually by now I cannot wait for the thing to get started, but if anything, I cannot wait for it to be over.

I get the impression that a lot of people are feeling the same way, although most of those I’ve spoken to reckon that is down to the timing more than anything else. Indeed, the impact on the domestic season is certainly an issue for me too, but I don’t think that is the main cause of my misgivings.

Having the Christmas build-up affected is something I could do without - given the way the last few years have gone - and normally I would be looking forward to wrapping up and getting out to the match over November and December, but summer tournaments only suit the calendars of certain regions, and so I can live with my own discombobulation on that score in the interest of fairness.

What doesn’t sit so well, is the host nation. It has been a topic of conversation within the sport for over a decade now, and I’m not any closer to getting my head round it – in fact, the older I’ve got and more aware of certain things I’ve become, the more troubled I am by the whole process.

Firstly, there is the practical side of things – the area’s infrastructure is grossly unsuitable to staging a major event, with the health and well-being of players and spectators seemingly being an afterthought.

With cruise ships having to be moored offshore to act as temporary hotels and daily shuttle runs being made to get people in and out that is a lot of additional miles are being put in, which added to the requirement for air-conditioned stadiums makes me fear that this will an environmental nightmare.

Constructing that raft of said stadiums is a huge drain on resources too, and whilst the projects have been referred to as ‘zero waste’ that presumably only goes as far as the consumables, with the welfare of workers apparently being of no value whatsoever.

Even if by some complete fluke all of the grounds operate without teething problems, the treatment of those constructing them, and the people on the streets of Qatar in general, is at odds with FIFA’s supposed ideals and that is the most depressing aspect of this whole saga.

Before the draw for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar Photo by Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

The sport can, at its best, bring together folk from all backgrounds and yet is now being used instead to clean the image of a regime that governs through intolerance and fear. Rather than utilise the power football has to break down barriers, mealy-mouthed claims from its leading bodies that fans should concentrate on the action can end up doing untold damage.

The idea that relaxing some laws during the tournament is somehow a progressive step is laughable. The feeling of both sides “looking the other way” sends confusing messages to those being oppressed or abused, and there is an uneasy feeling that not everybody enforcing the rules will get the memo. You often get scare stories before a World Cup about how the venue is not up to speed, or that visitors will not appreciate the local customs and rules, but we are talking about a whole different scenario here.

I am not daft enough to think that football is spotless. Even if the competition was being played in a more liberal environment there would be sponsorships for example that do little to promote healthy or sustainable choices, and decisions being made for the most selfish of reasons – but I have never known there to be this much open questioning of whether any of it is right. Sadly though, for the regular punter, the answers are not always obvious.

Italy v England - UEFA Euro 2020: Final Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

A lot of the decisions we make in life are complicated. We all have our values and lines in the sand we wouldn’t want to cross, but there is that nagging feeling that nothing is black and white. Say for example you want to avoid buying clothes made via cheap labour – it is commendable, but if you have kids and a tight budget, not always practical.

I don’t know how you reconcile that with yourself without being extremely strong-minded, and even then, it might not be clear-cut. Using the clothes analogy still, say you find an ethical supplier, getting the items to your door when you have reasons to try and avoid online retailing and delivery firms or travelling distances to shops just adds extra challenges.

For my own part, I have started being more circumspect in how I live my life, even though there will no doubt be some contradictions in my thinking. I prefer to shop local, I walk to places where possible and try not to be quite as materialistic as I was.

I certainly put more consideration into the products and groups I use and what their ethos is, and hope to be understanding and respectful of other peoples choices; none of that might register on the bigger scheme of things, but I would feel two-faced about trying to bring my kids up to respect others and be thoughtful in what they do if I wasn’t trying to do the same myself.

Hungary v England: UEFA Nations League - League Path Group 3 Photo by Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

I’ll admit therefore that I feel conflicted about watching the games. I enjoy the social aspect of it all and would like to be able to watch England do well, particularly as I take pleasure in seeing Jordan Henderson and Pickford wearing the Three Lions, but there is something inherent within me that wants no part of this whole grubby affair and so I have to leave it well alone.

There is however the fact that turning my back will have no impact on the wider scale anyway – and I know that Amnesty International, for example, has expressed a desire that people do not boycott.

Their stance is that this should be used as an opportunity to focus on some of the ills of the world and how certain practices can be changed whilst still respecting other cultures - a view some players appear to have taken as well. Like many others, our own Bailey Wright has spoken eloquently on the matter and if footballers feel able to use their platform to speak out, I will applaud them.

They are another group caught up in all of this after all and, given the public consciousness of those that use their profile to help some of the worst off in our communities, they must be torn too.

Players that have trained for years striving to get to this point now find themselves being used as pawns in geopolitical machinations, despite often coming from humble backgrounds themselves.

I was proud to see Gareth Southgate and so many of his players speak out for inclusivity during the last Euros and in what can often be a toxic society their comments carry a lot of weight. Keeping that up is vital, as discrimination and division are problems here of course, not just in Qatar.

Australia v Peru - 2022 FIFA World Cup Playoff Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

For all the doubt and self-reflection some fans are going through, there are many who mock those that are troubled by the situation. The word ‘woke’ gets mistakenly thrown around it feels whenever anybody admits to being in two minds about social dilemmas, with whataboutery a common tactic from the deliberate contrarians or obstinate.

There are many that acknowledge the dilemma but simply need football as a break from their own troubles, and that is why I would never expect anybody to do the same and switch off just because it feels right for me.

Doing so will not be easy for me; I love to have games on the radio in the background and at the very least like to see the highlights of all the matches. I will be missing out on the communal side too – there’s going to be no work sweepstakes or trips to the pub for me this time and that is sadly probably going to be where this is felt the most for others too.

Instead of creating a bit of comradery with colleagues or being a good reason to catch up with mates, chat may become stilted due to the elephant in the room, and whilst the big corporations and organisations might not care where the competition is held as long as they get their fill, others will notice instead.

The shops that employ people to sell widescreen televisions and the pubs that pack out the bar will be the ones to feel the pinch by virtue of those for whom it doesn’t sit right deciding to do something else with their cash.

Construction site in Qatar Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images

I don’t want to sound holier than thou; in life, not just football, I am definitely more of a Wearsider than an Englishman in outlook and, if it was SAFC being dragged into an unseemly mess I’d, without doubt, be wavering a lot more than I am at the moment.

There would be a lot of internal whirring over whether I could shut myself off and, to be brutally honest, I don’t know that I could ever do so completely. I certainly like to think I wouldn’t actively celebrate the situation – there’d be no aggrandising or blinkered tweets for a start, but whether that justification is enough to dampen the soul-searching, I cannot say.

Who knows if my resolve would be tested either if England were to get to the final? I am comfortable with my decision at this stage, but it is sad that any football fan has to analyse their own morality when deciding to watch a game in the first place and work out if tuning in is somehow a tacit vote for repression and bigotry.

The game has its murky side already, but there is a dangerous precedent being set that could now take us to another level and at a point where I would normally be gearing up for a month of action, I find myself going the other way.

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