USMNT see big picture with World Cup in Qatar


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Soccer players do not get to choose where the World Cup is played. If they did, Qatar probably wouldn’t appear on many top 10 lists.

Put aside the logistical headache of packing 32 teams and hundreds of thousands of fans into one metro area for a tournament that typically takes place in at least 10 cities. Never mind the tournament was bumped from summer to winter — smack in the middle of most league seasons — because of the Arabian heat.

The broader concern in FIFA’s suspect 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 kafala; hundreds of deaths reportedly linked to stadium and infrastructure projects; gender inequality; and illegality of homosexuality.

In about five months, the U.S. men’s national team will arrive in Doha aiming to win group-stage matches and qualify for the knockout round. It’s a realistic goal. Of the four teams vying for two slots in the round of 16, only England is higher ranked.

Beyond the pitch, though, the players say they see the big picture and plan to use the platform provided by the planet’s most popular sporting event to illuminate human rights issues.

“This is a group that’s always been courageous,” center back Walker Zimmerman said last week during training camp in Cincinnati. “We are using opportunities at this camp to talk about, are there steps we want to take in Qatar? Are there things we want to do? We certainly want to be leaders, stand up for what we believe in.”

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The players say conversations will continue through the remainder of this camp, which ends after a June 14 visit to El Salvador, and pick up again in September when the team gathers in Europe for a week. In between, the core of the team is in regular communication.

They say they recognize the fine line speaking out while respecting their hosts.

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

It began in November 2020 in Wales, the team’s first game since the coronavirus pandemic started 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 mission.

A month later, they chose individual messages for the back 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 the individual 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, launched a foundation designed to help athletes who want to speak out about equality issues and contribute to “high-risk, minority communities,” according to its website.

On Sunday, the players issued a letter demanding Congress take action on gun violence.

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

The players believe they can effect change abroad, too.

When asked about making their voices heard before and during the World Cup , McKennie said: “We’ve definitely been in discussions. It started over a year ago and bringing in people to inform us of everything that’s going on [in Qatar]. We’ll definitely discuss within the team what kind of gestures and things we want to do at the World Cup and leading up to the World Cup.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation has provided experts to educate players about Qatar and has 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’ll contract during their multiweek stay.

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“They’ve done a lot of educating for us about the issues going on there,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said of the federation. “Now we’ve made the [global] stage. We’re going to be there. We’re going to see what action we can take to help change, help make the change and be the change. Ultimately it’s bigger than the sport.”

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

FIFA, which usually frowns on such acts, did not discipline either team, a sign it will, to a point, condone World Cup protests.

Zimmerman said the U.S. players will “decide as a group [whether] there [are] steps we can take, and those conversations will be ongoing through November.”

To Cannon, raising awareness of issues in Qatar is an extension of efforts he believes athletes should make while they hold a captive audience.

“I may not have that platform later to bring light to the issues I’ve experienced, my community has experienced,” Cannon said. “That’s important looking at the grand scheme of things. I know there is always a debate about leaving politics out of sports, but what I can do to help contribute to this world is use my platform I’ve garnered with the people I’ve touched with my experiences and shed light on the social issues that everyone in this world faces.”


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