People don’t generally attend the AGMs of international sporting bodies if they are looking for drama. Consensus, backslapping and forelock tugging are usually the order of the day. But Fifa’s Congress in Doha this week took place in a period of unique political volatility and disruption duly followed.
On Thursday Lise Klaveness, the president of the Norwegian Football Federation, stood in front of Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, the head of Qatar’s Supreme Committee, Hassan al-Thawadi, and more than 250 other – almost entirely male – football bigwigs and told them they needed to do more. More to help migrant workers in Qatar, more to protect LGBTQ+ supporters at the World Cup, more to make the global game welcoming to all.
Immediately she was told her remarks were “not football” by the speaker who followed her, and Thawadi suggested she needed to “educate” herself better on the progress made in Qatar. But Klaveness says she is clear on what has been achieved before the World Cup and what needs to be done.
“We have met [Thawadi], we have educated ourselves, we’ve had very good meetings,” she tells the Guardian. “They are welcoming, they try to inform us, they try to show us how many changes they’ve made and we believe them. But it’s our job to push further.
“Our members [in the Norwegian FA] have asked that we follow up, that we should pressure for real implementation. The kafala going away, minimum pay system, acts that protect against heat stress and give a break in the day, all these are very good changes, but we hear from Amnesty, from Building and Wood Workers’ International, from many organisations, that they can still be improved. Now it’s our task to push more because the spotlight from the World Cup can be effective and we have to use it.”
Norway has been perhaps the most outspoken of all football nations about concerns over hosting the World Cup in Qatar. But in a vote, federation members stopped short of calling for a boycott. Instead they chose to participate and push for change. The country is not as radical in its ambitions as some of its critics (or supporters) paint it and Klaveness insists it involves accepting limitations on what football can and should hope to achieve.
“Of course we have an ethical responsibility,” she says, “but I do think that the biggest strength of football is that it can be played anywhere by anyone. So it should be a place where both left- and right-wing players can play, both politically and literally. I do think it’s very important that we do not become ourselves.”
Making demands of Qatar is further complicated by the fact that no human rights considerations were made in awarding the World Cup. “We are very firm about having our own values at the core of whatever we do but it requires a due-diligence process about awarding championships,” Klaveness says. “I don’t mean to judge any country; I think it’s very important to have football everywhere. I also think it’s important that Fifa and all the federations speak to the values, that we speak about the game being for all.”
A female leader in men’s football, and one who is also gay, Klaveness is a rarity and she is serious about change. In her speech she spoke about her “dream” of football where “boys and girls of all colours, straights and queers, are treated with equal respect and recognitions”. But she also observes that this equality should mean the freedom to be treated as just another participant in the game.
“It’s very important that your daughter can see professional women at the top of the pyramid, because if we want to have girls who really dream and have ambition in football then they need to see role models,” she says. “But it’s also true that if the structure is such that there are so few exceptions they will most often speak in the newspaper about equality issues and not about football. I imagine half the interviews with women footballers will be done on equality matters and not on the football itself. This is no one’s fault, it’s how it’s always been, but little girls will see this and it will not engage them in the same way. We should try to address that.”
Norway’s men’s team did not qualify for the World Cup but the country’s prospects are improving on the pitch and in Erling Haaland and Ada Hegerberg they have two of the leading stars in the world game. Klaveness is hopeful that they can point a way to a brighter future where ethics in sport need not be an afterthought.
“In Norway we should not hit our chests with our football performances,” she says. “On the men’s side we have not been in a championship for 20 years [since Euro 2000] and on the women’s side there are so many countries coming up that we should have a humble approach. But I’m very proud of Ada Martine Stolsmo Hegerberg and Erling Braut Haaland because they are excellent players but also very good people. I’m very proud of the generation that we have now.”