Football for a better world

Nick Golüke, Robert Grantner and Thomas Hitzlsperger in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photos: THOMAS HITZLSPERGER

Former German football star Thomas Hitzlsperger played in the 2006 World Cup and knows the significance of the World Cup to football players as well as the pressure they face to use the platform to speak out on social issues. Hitzlsperger recently visited Qatar and Nepal to film his documentary  Katar, warum nur? (Qatar, why?) in which he digs into why the World Cup is taking place in Qatar this year. A lot of money was spent to put Qatar in a positive light, but the deaths and abuse of workers have also tarnished its image. The documentary was aired in Germany in November and has been viewed around the world.

Hitzlsperger spoke to Nepali Times this week about his film. 

Read also: Qatar refuses payoffs to World Cup workers

Nepali Times: How did the documentary come about?

Thomas Hitzlsperger: I wanted to show why people from countries like Nepal have to go to work in Qatar even though some of the work is quite dangerous and has even led to many deaths. The German audience did not know what it is like to be a migrant worker both in Qatar and in Nepal. There is a huge difference in standards of living. People have very little money and no jobs. But whoever we spoke to in Nepal was incredibly friendly and kind to us. It is hard to see and acknowledge the reality that there is very little future hope for many people. 

I met people like Saraswoti, the wife of a migrant worker who had died in Qatar, who shared her story and everything that had happened to her family. We also interviewed Mukesh Chaudhari who was a wage theft victim who had not been paid in full despite working in Qatar’s extreme heat. Many viewers from Germany offered to help, so we have arranged for them to help families like Saraswoti to receive some financial support including for the education of her two boys.  

Besides migrant rights issues, we have also covered LGBT and women's rights. Due to the World Cup, the situation for some has improved, however, being LGBT is still regarded as sodomy in Qatar and could send you to jail. Women often work in private households and depend on their employers. 

Read also: Rights referees blow whistle on World Cup fouls, Kunda Dixit

The DFB (German Football Federation) has been active in human rights issues. Why is this?

Indeed. In the leadup to the World Cup, the DFB spent time to learn about Qatar, about human rights issues there. It showed solidarity by wearing t-shirts that read Human Rights, and wanted to wear one-love armbands during the tournament. But FIFA said at the very last moment that it was not allowed. This became very political. Players instead covered their mouths during the game as an act of protest against being silenced. But when Germany lost the game, they got criticised for it. It is very obvious that when you lose a game, people will use that as an excuse to say they focused too much on politics and thus lost. This is what football is like. There is no simple answer on when and how to use the platform of big events to raise issues like human rights.

The German football players are also donating 1 million euros to a Nepali charity over the next five years which is very positive. None of the players I know of have been to Nepal so it was important for me to see Nepal through my own eyes and better understand what it is like here.

Read also: Labour rights legacy of the FIFA World Cup, Meenakshi Ganguly and Mohna Ansari

Indeed, how do you see a player balancing the pressure to perform in the field versus using the platform on human rights issues. 

During my time as a player, activism wasn’t as obvious and widespread as it is now. Now, players are more familiar with global issues and are being increasingly asked to take action and want to use their platform. FIFA, however, was very strict during the World Cup and did not allow the players and football associations  to raise their voices and wanted to stop players from doing anything, even to wear armbands against racism and homophobia. I see this as the core of the problem. FIFA was bent on using the World Cup for its own benefit, and pleasing the hosting nation. 

What happened this World Cup was far from ideal. I don’t have a solution to this problem.  But FAs need to stick together and find a solution together for future tournaments so they can put football at the centre stage, but at the same time use their voices. Lets finish this tournament and then sit down and have a conversation. The last five-six weeks have seen different organisations and people committing many mistakes. How can we play football when football should be played and also speak up on other issues to use the power of football for good causes? It must not be left to FIFA alone.

But some have described the activism as Western hypocrisy, and that all governments have committed abuses in their history.

Of course, they will say we should not tell them how to run their country. I understand that. I accept it. It is not an easy conversation, but the football community must not pretend that this World Cup is the best event ever and look away from the real issues. 

A part of the documentary was also filmed in Qatar. I got to meet an incredibly friendly Qatari lady who showed me bits of Doha. When I tried to confront her with some issues faced by migrant workers in her country, it became evident to me that there is a discrepancy in how Qataris view migrant worker issues versus how it is viewed in the western world. This confrontation can be tricky and isn't an easy matter to come to an agreement with. But there is no question that people who have worked in the Gulf have lost lives due to unbearable working conditions and this needs to stop. They have the resources and the responsibility to take better care of the migrant workers who work there.

What drives you to engage in social issues outside of your passion for football?

It is not always easy having a platform because I receive criticism from those who think football should not be mixed with politics. I use the platform because things are not headed in the right direction, and make sure I can make a little contribution like supporting people in Nepal. Some may not like what I do but its part of being in the public eye. Sometimes I need a thick skin. But I think its worth it and there are many people who do support good causes. It is amazing to receive emails from strangers who offer support and give money to the charity we just started.

I have seen people being discriminated against. I am in a privileged position so I do want to give something back. I cannot help everybody, of course, but I try to do what I can even if it is small. Sometimes I do receive nice emails, which is enough to give me the power to continue and overcome the criticism I receive. 

Your impressions of Nepal?

I am so happy I got to spend a few days in Nepal, which gave me a better understanding of what it is like here. I did not get to meet officials from the government, but I urge the Nepal government to invest in the education system. Only then can people really help themselves and dream of a better future. 

Read more: Cup of the world, Nepali Times