Of all the images to have captured the opposition to a World Cup staged in Qatar, one of the most striking came in Copenhagen last year.
The Little Mermaid, a bronze focal point of Denmark’s capital on Langelinie Pier, was given a temporary makeover the day after Kasper Hjulmand’s side had qualified so impressively, dropping just 3 points.
As well as the red and white hat perched on the statue’s head, a stinging message was hung around the neck. “15,000 deaths in Qatar,” it read. “Hooray for the World Cup.”
If Denmark was a nation deeply uncomfortable with sending its footballers to Qatar 12 months ago, little has changed. Some are content to now park the controversies after their tournament began with a 0-0 draw against Tunisia on Tuesday, but others continue to be troubled by the human rights abuses that have made this World Cup possible.
At best, it is a country conflicted.
One survey, published by the liberal broadsheet newspaper Politiken last weekend, said four out of 10 Danes believe this World Cup should have been boycotted by their national side.
Another recent barometer of public opinion, carried out for the Copenhagen-based daily Berlingske, said 69 per cent of people wanted to see scrutiny of non-football issues continue throughout the World Cup. A wish to focus only on football would appear to belong to the minority.
Denmark’s critical voice has also been heard loud and clear in Qatar this week. A punchy press conference, staged in Doha on Wednesday, saw Jesper Moller, chairman of the Danish FA, tell the world he would not be supporting Gianni Infantino for re-election and would even give thought to leaving FIFA.
Moller also made his disappointment clear that plans to wear the One Love armband had been blocked by the governing body.
“The situation now is simply extraordinary,” said Moller, in stark contrast to a week of radio silence from the English FA. “I have never experienced anything like it. I’m not just disappointed, I’m angry. What we are experiencing is completely unacceptable.”
Denmark have become the noisiest critic of this World Cup and those who have organised it. Although attempts to wear protest T-shirts carrying the message “Human rights for all” ahead of World Cup games were blocked by FIFA earlier this month, the kits worn by players are still able to send a subtle message.
Hummel, the kit manufacturer, has hidden its logo and that of the DBU with one-colour shirts for this World Cup. A third kit is all black, the colour of mourning, as is the training wear worn by players and backroom staff. “We wish to make a statement about Qatar’s human rights record and its treatment of the migrant workers that have built the country’s World Cup stadiums,” said Hummel in September.
All three shirts have been well received by Danish football fans, with the black kit sold out in sports shops across Copenhagen.
Hummel have known their audience. Denmark’s leading fan group – Danske Fodbold Fans – made clear their advice to members earlier last year, urging them to avoid travelling to Qatar.
“It’s not easy to turn your back on the sport’s biggest event,” they said last November. “But football has been taken hostage by power-hungry authoritarian rulers, greedy rich men, power-hungry and incompetent leaders.
“The only way we can win football back is by saying stop. And a total boycott of the sport’s biggest event would be the best and most effective place to start.”
Not everyone has listened. The Danish FA say that between 600 and 800 Denmark fans were expected for the three group games but those numbers are significantly down on previous tournaments. Close to 10,000 travelled to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Sponsors of the Denmark team have also become a telling extension of public opinion. Danske Spil and Arbejdernes Landsbank, two major companies, walked away from their commercial partnerships in the year leading up to Qatar, while Stark and Forenet Kredit, ongoing backers, have made it clear they do not want to endorse a World Cup in Qatar by removing branding from shirts and sponsor walls. None of their employees have travelled to the tournament either.
Carlsberg, the brewing giant, also remains on board but say they have halved their marketing budget for this World Cup compared to the European Championship staged in 2021. A World Cup in Qatar, it seems, is bad for business in Denmark. Or at least not considered the positive it normally would.
So, what makes Denmark and its population of just under six million people the most outspoken of the 32 nations involved with a Qatar World Cup? Why so engaged in the debate when others do not want to know?
“It’s about our culture,” says Vibe Klarup, general secretary of Amnesty International Denmark. “Almost all of us are brought up in sports clubs out in our home towns. We’re part of our local associations and learn about sports. Many of us play football, with our parents driving us around.
“We are the football clubs. It’s rooted within us. We’re not just consumers watching an entertainment show — it’s us. The money that’s in the game now is taking away something that is ours.
“When we see what’s happening with corruption and to democracy, a failure to live up to basic human rights, we feel that we are under attack. It’s not just a show, it’s our culture that’s being attacked.
“We have also shown in the past that we are very strong believers in freedom of speech and expression. Whenever there’s an attack on that, we react very strongly.”
Klarup has invited The Athletic to the offices of Amnesty Denmark in central Copenhagen a week or so after addressing Hjulmand and his players ahead of their flight to Qatar.
“I told the players about migrant worker rights and LGBT+ rights,” she says. “It was important that if they were asked, here are the numbers, these are the key points. Also, to tell them that there has been improvements in Qatar because of the pressure that’s been placed on them.
“Some of them were very engaged in this but others were very focused on this being the biggest time of their lives. That’s absolutely understandable. And it’s not all their responsibility either. The Danish FA are the ones who lay out the politics and protect them but the players are still key in this debate.”
Denmark’s players and the association they represent have done more than most. Although they followed the lead of England when bowing to FIFA’s threats over wearing the One Love captain’s armband for their opening game against Tunisia, they have previously worn T-shirts saying “Football supports change” during the qualification process. They, too, had wanted to wear another in Qatar, promoting human rights.
That was blocked by FIFA due to “technical reasons”. “We believe the message ‘human rights for all’ is universal and not a political call, but something everyone can support,” said the Danish FA’s chief executive Jakob Jensen.
“We were in dialogue with our FA about that T-shirt and encouraged them because it would have been a powerful message to send,” explains Klarup. “It was brave of them to at least go public and say they were denied this opportunity. People around the world thought that was crazy.
“What’s happened in the last few days has just heightened the awareness. The stupidity of the armband. I hope this is a turning point and that it begins to change things inside FIFA.”
Klarup is encouraged by what she has seen and heard among Danish football fans, particularly the youngest generations. “This has never happened before,” she says.
To others, though, there is regret that the Danish FA have not done more.
Amalie Bremer is a host on Danish station Radio 4 and co-founder of the women’s national team fan club. Despite travelling around Europe in previous years, she has taken the decision not to watch any of this World Cup.
“It’s just a personal choice that I made,” she tells The Athletic. “I’ve been working on the World Cup for quite a while now and I don’t want to watch it. It’s making me depressed. I watch all types of football way too much. I watched the Euros here in Denmark and have travelled to watch football, but this time around it’s not for me.”
“As a radio host, I interviewed migrant workers, politicians, the Danish FA, spent a lot of time working on it,” she explains.
“We’ve seen sportswashing many times before — it’s become normal in these times. But to me, this is the one worst example of them all. You have thousands of migrant workers who have died just because of this World Cup.
“In China we know they’re treating part of the population really poorly and it’s horrific but they’ve not treated them extra poorly because they’re staging an Olympics. This World Cup is directly linked to people dying. To me, that’s the worst part, but then there is also LGBT+ rights, women’s rights, the lack of football culture in the country.
“It’s just so obvious. It’s not because they want to celebrate football there, it’s because they want to have a very large commercial for Qatar to show the whole world.”
Opposition to this tournament endures in this corner of Europe. Germany, neighbours to the south, made their distinctive protests ahead of their loss to Japan on Wednesday, while Norway went as far as holding a ballot last year to decide if their national team should play in Qatar during the qualification process. That eventually fell short but only after a handful of top-flight clubs stated their case for a full boycott.
“The Danish FA has been working behind the scenes and you have to respect that,” says Bremer. “The other side is that they spoke for so many years about the statement T-shirts, the armband, the critical dialogue. They had this phrase — we’re not threatening to boycott, we’re threatening to show up and show them what our beliefs are.
“The disappointment of many fans is that now they’re focusing on the football only. The black shirt that the sponsors framed as a migrant worker mourning shirt, they’re not going to wear that at the World Cup (due to no kit colour clashes). There were no statement T-shirts, they didn’t wear the armband. All the things we hoped to see, we didn’t really do a lot.”
There has been very little discernible buzz in Denmark around the World Cup’s first week. Flags flying are few and far between and the fast-approaching winter has prevented any outdoor screenings of games. It has been a very quiet atmosphere, they say, when compared to Euro 2020, when Copenhagen staged four games.
That is not to say there has been no interest, though. DR, the national broadcaster, reported this week that just shy of one million people watched the Tunisia game (one in six of the population) on what was a working afternoon. More still will tune in to see Denmark face France this afternoon.
And others will be in Qatar. The Athletic spoke with Danish fans ahead of the Tunisia stalemate on Monday outside the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan. Frederick, who had travelled from Copenhagen, was among them.
“I know there is a fine, political line about all this but, at the end of the day, I want to support my team and as the Danish players are going out to the field, showing off the country, I want to do the same in the stadium and support them all the way through,” he said. “I have been through a lot of ethical considerations about this, to be honest, I’ve read everything there is to know about this but at the end of the day, I just want to be with my team.”
Asked if there had been a backlash for attending, he added: “It was OK, but it was not something you were showing to everyone that you were going; you were a little bit quiet about it.
Mickey, another from Copenhagen, added: “Of course I’m sad that there aren’t more fans, but I’m supporting my team — we’re Vikings.
“It’s all politics man, it’s all politics. Let’s just play football. The ball is round and anything can happen, that’s all I care about.”
Those in Qatar will agree, but at home in Denmark there is still a level of introspection like nowhere else in Europe.
“These discussions have needed to happen and, for some people, I am sure that has taken some of the enthusiasm out of it,” says Klarup. “Sport is not an island and cannot be unaffected by what goes on around it. Danish people will watch this World Cup but it is not with the same enthusiasm as it normally would be. That says a lot about how people are feeling.”
Additional reporting: Luke Bosher
(Top photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)
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