Mark Drakeford should boycott Qatar – and let the FAW do the talking
Not everyone will agree on Rob Page’s squad selection today. But there is consensus on two things ahead of the World Cup.
First, that the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and Dafydd Iwan have positioned the language as the mainstay of Welsh popular culture. To Cymrophobes, it remains a ball to be kicked hard and far. But a skilfully remastered Yma o Hyd as an official tournament song, accompanied by a music video that projects modern Wales as a product of industrial struggle, language marches and anti-Establishment protest, should refocus even those suspicious minds on the steady direction Welsh society is taking.
Iwan, in his tour this week of TV shows, reflected the majority view of his countrymen on the second matter: that the World Cup shouldn’t be in Qatar in the first place. The country’s human rights record – discrimination against women, anti-gay laws and appalling conditions for migrant workers – all make for an uncomfortable event. Keir Starmer and Ed Davey are right to boycott the whole charade. The Prime Minister reportedly has “no plans” to attend. Even the President of the English FA, the Prince of Wales, is staying away (though Kensington Place has insisted his absence is due to a “busy winter schedule”.)
By contrast, the First Minister of Wales and the Economy Minister will be there. “Why?” is the question that is being asked over and over again. Adam Price has already called on Mark Drakeford to reconsider his trip, after a report emerged of the tournament’s ambassador describing homosexuality as “damage in the mind” during a German television interview.
A spokesperson for the Welsh government says Drakeford has raised “human and workers’ rights issues directly with the Qatari ambassador to the UK and are engaging with LGBTQ+ fans and trades unions in Wales and across the world to help ensure fan safety.” But they will have to do better than that. Of course, the Welsh government has the right to attend if it chooses. And their decision to do so is not perplexing but muddled.
Free to speak
We know by now that boycotts are a complex thing. In the case of Qatar, there are two primary camps: those who want to tackle the country’s policies head on, going out there to push “the values of inclusivity” and “engage in diplomacy” as the Welsh government espouses. The other, more common thread in the UK is for political leaders to stay at home in opposition to the host country and settle the issue of “will they, won’t they” attend head on.
There is an added Welsh dimension to consider in this instance. The next few weeks are an opportunity to promote “Wales on the stage”, in Gething’s words, which is true enough. An intoxicating buzz from ’58 has propelled Wales to global attention; an opportunity emerges subsequently to showcase our modern democracy; bilateral meetings with other countries (the US top among the wish-list) could lead to future trade and investment connections.
But I cannot be the only one who wonders what cut through two Welsh politicians will have to elevate the status of Wales? Well, at least compared to the celebrity appeal of the footballers themselves, who have excelled as ambassadors for our language, culture and values. It is Bale, Ramsey, Allen & Co that can project “Global Cymru” better than the Welsh Labour government.
In short: Wales’ football association should do the talking in Qatar. The FAW has already said Welsh players will be free to speak out on issues, and will wear One Love armbands in support of the LGBTQ+ community. The FAW have also joined other governing bodies in stating that they will advocate for human rights and for migrant workers to be supported during the tournament. A unique Welsh activist in Dafydd Iwan will be there as well. Given the opportunity he – alongside the coalition of the Red Wall, on-and-off the pitch – will be more effective to ask the questions that need to be asked.
If that doesn’t convince you, how do we square the Welsh government’s position with the boycott it has announced? Deputy Sport Minister Dawn Bowden has already u-turned on attending Wales’ fixture against Iran due to recent protests in the country. Assessed in isolation it’s a decision that can be applauded, but is badly confusing in the context of ongoing calls to explain the visit to Qatar by Drakeford and Gething.
By the hour, a vacuum has emerged with no robust rebuttal of columns such as this one. The First Minister is unwell with Covid, for which we give him space and wish him well. When challenged by Price yesterday, Drakeford’s colleague Leslie Griffiths reminded parliamentarians at the Senedd she could not speak for him on whether he would reconsider his decision to go to the World Cup.
But when Drakeford returns, answers will be needed. If there is no change there will be an urgent expectation to articulate how exactly he plans to “promote inclusivity” and “respect for human rights”, and to whom. The matter has become so political, and dogged in the news agenda, that it has the potential to overshadow his visit altogether. Only an interview to one of Wales’ broadcasters would possibly settle the matter.
And when he sits down for that interview, the First Minister will surely be reminded that his government has already reversed its position on attending one game during Qatar. It would be a pity if he didn’t do the same for the others.
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