It is fair to say that England are not the most compelling story of this March international break. A pair of Wembley friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast are useful preparation for Gareth Southgate and his players given that there are only two more get-togethers before the World Cup later this year, but whatever storylines emerge, they are likely to be dwarfed by the drama of the play-offs.
While the stakes could not have felt higher in Cardiff, Porto and Palermo on Thursday night, much of the jeopardy at Wembley over the coming days will be over whether Kyle Walker-Peters debuts at left-back or right-back. The actual football will be inconsequential beyond a bit of pre-tournament experimentation, the results just a footnote in what could otherwise be a historic year.
But the low-key, mutated nature of these friendlies has allowed the space for more important questions to be asked.
The issue of Qatar’s human rights record will dominate preparations leading up to the World Cup, as the Football Association well knows. The week at St George’s Park began with a half-hour briefing for England’s players and staff members, covering issues they will be repeatedly confronted with between now and November, including the deaths and mistreatment of migrant workers during the construction of the stadiums.
This squad has earned a reputation for its social conscience since last summer’s stance against racism and discrimination through the taking of the knee. The players held firm, despite censorship from their own supporters and their own government, and eventually they won the argument. Many will expect a similar stance on Qatar, following the example of Norway and Germany’s national teams.
Previously, questions on Qatar have met with a single response from the England set-up: once qualification is secured, we’ll talk about it. “We will take the time to educate ourselves,” Southgate said during the autumn, on the night their place at the tournament was confirmed. “If we feel that there are areas that we can highlight and help, then clearly we’ve always tried to do that, and we would do that.”
This week was the first opportunity for those discussions to take place and for a stance to be taken, though it appears as though more time is required.
Harry Kane was put forward to speak to the press at St George’s Park on Wednesday in the knowledge that Qatar would be top of the agenda. The England captain spoke of “issues” in the Gulf state which need to be addressed and hinted at an initiative where he and his fellow international skippers unite behind a single message of solidarity or condemnation. But beyond that, there were few specifics.
Jordan Henderson, another of the squad’s senior players, could not expand on the nature of any planned protests when asked on Friday. Discussions are still at a preliminary stage. “I think everybody knows we stand for no discrimination, football is for everyone,” the Liverpool captain said. “We’ll always stand by that and push that in whatever way we decide going forward.”
Southgate stressed the “incredible amount of information” that his players are now taking away and processing. “They’re thinking through how they best respond and try to affect the things we might be able to affect,” he said. “There is a long period in order to do that and I don’t think we should rush into that, and I don’t think the players feel they should rush and not come to the right conclusion or idea.”
To many, there is a simple answer: boycott. There is no question that it would be the most drastic but also the most powerful measure possible. For Southgate, the question is whether it would be the most effective. The England manager addressed the potential of withdrawing from the tournament directly on Friday and, without entirely ruling the idea out, he certainly poured cold water over it.
“I don’t really know what that would achieve,” he said. “It is possible but I don’t think that is a decision the players or myself can make, and I hear various versions of this but my understanding is the discussions the FA had with organizations like Amnesty International is that they feel there would be more change if we go and these things are highlighted. That is also guiding some of the thinking.”
A boycott is unlikely in the extreme. In any case, England or any other qualifying nation do not have to refuse to play in Qatar in order to take a stand. As Southgate says, the belief among many who work in non-governmental organizations and human rights groups focusing on Qatar is that more can be achieved by taking part and protesting, especially if those protests involve making specific, concrete demands.
This would mean going further than vaguely “shining a light” on Qatar’s record or speaking of support for human rights in general terms, but clearly and boldly requesting investigations into migrant workers’ deaths and demanding compensation to their families. It would be a bold move, a departure from the cautious approach taken so far, and one step further even than those adopted by Norway, Germany and other international sides that have already taken a stance. At the same time, it could effect real change.
It may be that, in the fullness of time, having discussed the matter further, Southgate’s players, staff and the FA as an organization decide to do exactly that. One half-hour meeting on a Monday evening was never going to be enough to form a solid, coherent position on a matter like this.
More time is needed, clearly, but it is not as if a World Cup in Qatar has suddenly come around by surprise. And while this is a relatively quiet international break at St George’s Park, the questions on this issue are only set to grow louder.