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January 22, 2023

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Football players cannot choose where the World Cup is played. If they did, Qatar would likely not appear on many top 10 lists.

Put aside the logistical headache of packing 32 teams and hundreds of thousands of fans into a single metropolitan area for a tournament that is typically held in at least 10 cities. Regardless, the tournament was pushed back from summer to winter – smack in the middle of most league seasons – because of the Arabian heat.

The broader concern in FIFA’s suspicious selection of Qatar to host this year’s tournament centers on the country’s human rights record: migrant workers trapped in a restrictive employment system known as name of kafala; hundreds of deaths were reportedly linked to stadium and infrastructure projects; gender inequality; and the illegality of homosexuality.

In about five months, the United States men’s national team will arrive in Doha aiming to win the group stage matches and advance to the knockout stages. It is a realistic goal. Of the four teams vying for two places in the round of 16, only England are ranked higher.

Beyond the pitch, however, the players say they have the big picture and plan to use the platform provided by the most popular sporting event on the planet to shine a light on human rights issues.

“It’s a group that’s always been brave,” center back Walker Zimmerman said last week during training camp in Cincinnati. “We are using the opportunities of this camp to talk about it, are there any steps we want to take in Qatar? Are there things we want to do? what we believe.

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The players say the conversations will continue for the rest of this camp, which concludes after a June 14 visit to El Salvador, and will resume in September when the team meets in Europe for a week. Between the two, the core of the team is in regular communication.

They say they recognize there is a fine line for teams wanting to express themselves while respecting their hosts.

“It’s obviously a different country with a different set of rules, but this group has always been adamant about being the change, always spreading the word,” right-back Reggie Cannon said.

It started in November 2020 in Wales, the team’s first game since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and social justice protests ignited in the United States and spread around the world. With “Be the Change” plastered across the front of their warm-up jackets, the players locked arms during the national anthem. “Be the Change” became their motto and their mission.

A month later, they chose individual messages for the backs of their jackets. Among the selections were “Black Players for Change”, “Unity” and “We Are All Equal”.

“The guys really take it seriously and really believe that if we want change, it’s up to everyone to take responsibility for it,” coach Gregg Berhalter said at the time.

It’s a conscientious group, fueled in part by its diversity. In the current camp, 17 of the 26 players are black or Latino. Midfielder Weston McKennie has been outspoken on racial issues and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who is not in this camp, has started a foundation designed to help athletes who want to speak out on equality issues and contribute to “high-risk minority communities,” according to its website.

On Sunday, the players released a letter asking Congress to take action against gun violence.

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“We’re an incredibly diverse group made up of so many walks of life, and it’s a common cause that we can all believe in,” Zimmerman said. “When we have the unity we have, we want to affect the United States on and off the field.”

Players believe they can make changes abroad as well.

When asked to make their voices heard before and during the World Cup, McKennie said: “We certainly had discussions. It started over a year ago and has people coming in to update us on everything that’s going on. [in Qatar]. We will certainly discuss within the team what kind of gestures and things we want to do in the World Cup and before the World Cup.

The United States Soccer Federation provided experts to educate players about Qatar and engaged with them in potential efforts to raise awareness of issues surrounding the event.

To ensure fair labor practices, the USSF said it has hired a compliance officer to vet Qatari vendors and companies they will contract with during their weeks-long stay.

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“They told us a lot about the issues there,” right-back DeAndre Yedlin said of the federation. “Now we have done the [global] arrange. We’ll be there. We’re going to see what steps we can take to help change, help make change, and be the change. Ultimately, it’s bigger than sports.

Other national teams have used their popularity to make statements. Ahead of the respective qualifiers in March 2021, German players lined up to spell “Human Rights” with t-shirts and Norwegian players wore shirts saying: “Human Rights on and off the pitch “.

FIFA, which generally frowns on such acts, has not disciplined either side in a sign that it will, to some extent, tolerate World Cup protests.

Zimmerman said American players will “decide as a group [whether] the [are] steps we can take, and those conversations will continue through November.

For Cannon, raising awareness of Qatar’s issues is an extension of the efforts he thinks athletes should be making while they hold captive audiences.

“I may not have that platform later on to shed some light on the issues that I faced, my community faced,” Cannon said. “It’s important to see the grand scheme of things. I know there’s always a debate about keeping politics out of sports, but what I can do to help contribute to that world is use my platform that I’ve collected from people that I have touched with my experiences and shed light on the social issues that everyone in this world is facing.

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