Debate: The morality of being a football fan

Manchester City are on course to become the greatest club side that English football has ever witnessed.

Based on recent results, the club is in line to break its own records set in the 2017/18 season by scoring more goals and winning more points.

For a club languishing in the third tier of English football just over two decades ago, this footballing domination is beyond the dreams of the club’s most positive supporters.

Following a takeover in late summer 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group, Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the owner of the group, has invested over £1.3billion into the club. Mansour is the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a member of the country’s royal family.

At the start of May this year, Matthew Hedges, a 31-year old British PhD student, was due to fly back to the UK following a research trip to the UAE.

At the airport he was promptly arrested on accusations of espionage. Late last month Hedges was given a life sentence for his ‘crimes’ after a five-minute trial in which he was not represented by a lawyer. Less than a week later, Hedges was pardoned and allowed to return home.

Hedges’ case rightly caused outrage in the UK and he joins an ever-increasing list of British citizens who have been jailed in the UAE under Sharia Law for similarly controversial reasons.

It was only in 2017 that Jamie Harron, an electrician from Stirling, was arrested in the country for touching a man’s hip as he made his way through a busy bar.

These cases have highlighted the corruption and injustice of the UAE legal system and celebrities have spoken out against the country’s government on Twitter.

Ex Liverpool player Stan Collymore and divisive TV broadcaster Piers Morgan (who seems to have forgotten that the name of his beloved Arsenal’s stadium is the Emirates) have been among the most vocal and have urged Manchester City fans to boycott the club’s games in protest of its Abu Dhabi owners.



In response, many Manchester City fans felt like they were being publicly shamed. Many replied by asking why they should, as lifelong supporters of a club whose investment they could not control, be made to feel guilty about events happening in a different country that they feel powerless to affect.  

And to an extent they’re right. The debate about the morality of being a football fan should not be placed entirely on Manchester City and its fan base.

If City fans are morally obliged to take a stand against the club, then we must consider other parts of the game, including other clubs and major tournaments, which should have been boycotted due to ethical reasons.


Paris Saint Germain (PSG) is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, led by Qatari businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi. Al-Khelaifi is a minister in the Qatari government and was voted the ‘most powerful man in French football’ in 2016.

Much like the UAE, Qatar has been plagued by accusations of human rights failings. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup in the country, a 2017 Amnesty International Report identified “abuses of migrant workers at all 10 of the contractors […] investigated.”

Foreign workers in the country who have been ‘employed’ to help build the new stadiums and infrastructure needed for the tournament are being exploited. They are trapped in Qatar and made to work long hours for little pay by a government that Al-Khelaifi is a part of.

As in Manchester, fans in Paris must ask whether loyalty to their club is being used to abuse human rights.

If the answer is yes, then fans should boycott the Qatar 2022 World Cup in solidarity with the workers. And on that note, the last three World Cups in Russia, Brazil and South Africa should also have been avoided on human rights grounds.

Russia, host of the 2018 tournament, is a country in which racism and homophobia is rife. In 2013, an amendment was passed in the country to ban “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” and as a result of a spike in homophobic hate crimes, an emergency WhatsApp helpline was set up earlier this year to allow vulnerable fans to report attacks.

The question must therefore be asked why a country with such a poor recent track record of LGBT crimes was allowed to host a major tournament.

Looking back at the Brazil tournament four years ago, a 2014 Guardian report found that favelas were being “socially cleansed in the run up to the World Cup to make way for new infrastructure.”

Some poverty-stricken districts of the country were removed to make way for new roads and sporting complexes.

Adding to this, those who have analysed the economic situation in South Africa in the eight years since it hosted the tournament have concluded that although the World Cup was “an overwhelming success for FIFA from a footballing and financial point of view […] South Africans did not get any real tangible benefits.”

In fact, nine out of the 10 new stadiums built for that 2010 tournament have not made any profit since and the South African government is accused of ignoring the plight of its poorest citizens in favour of a tournament it couldn’t afford.

Hosting World Cups in both Brazil and South Africa, countries that have 25% and 55% of their populations respectively living under the poverty line, must be questioned.

And it’s not just Manchester City or PSG fans who should question the ethical implications of watching football, this should be a question for the whole of the sport.

In reality, not turning up to a football match in England will most likely not have an effect on human rights breaches in the Far East. And with the World Cup being among the most watched sporting events in the world, it is naive to suggest that a boycott of the tournament would ever truly happen.

But it is important that these debates happen in the hope that eventually someone with far more power than a Manchester City fan from Stockport might feel a pang of guilt and act accordingly.  

Image courtesy of Manchester City via YouTube, with thanks.

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