Arsene Wenger sparks backlash after 'disgraceful' World Cup comments

Arsene Wenger is pictured speaking during a press conference at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Arsene Wenger was met with backlash after suggesting teams who had made political demonstrations at the FIFA World Cup had performed worse. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

Arsene Wenger has prompted an almighty backlash after the former Arsenal manager suggested teams who had avoided making political statements at the FIFA World Cup had performed better. Wenger, who is now FIFA's head of global football development, made the statement during a press conference at the conclusion of the group stage.

Interpreted by many as a none-too-subtle poke at the expense of nations like Germany, who were among several teams to attempt gestures in support of human rights, Wenger said some sides were more 'mentally prepared' than others. The 73-year-old said 'political demonstrations' detracted from the game.

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“When you go to a World Cup you know you must not lose the first game,” he said. “And the teams as well who were mentally ready, who had the mindset to focus on the competition and not on political demonstrations.”

FIFA's decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has drawn widespread criticism, particularly in the wake of a corruption scandal relating to the Middle Eastern nation's winning bid. There has also been significant unease about the treatment of thousands of migrant workers recruited to construct and renovate the eight stadiums required for the tournament, with some estimates that as many as 6500 may have died during the construction efforts.

Several teams had planned to make demonstrations at the World Cup, with Germany memorably covering their mouths during their team photo ahead of their first match after being prevented from wearing 'One Love' armbands in support of LGBTQ+ rights. Homosexuality is criminal in Qatar.

Wenger's comments were met with derision from many in the football world, in particular Australian great Craig Foster. A prominent refugee advocate outside of football, Foster took to Twitter and slammed Wenger's comments.

“Disgraceful comments by Wenger,” Foster wrote. “Propagating the FIFA line that athletes shouldn’t stand up for human rights & that a desire for social justice inhibits athletic performance.

“Human rights aren’t politics, Arsene & values shouldn’t be for sale.”

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Many others suggested the results at the World Cup simply didn't stack up with the suggestion that politics had played a role in the early demise of some teams. Several examples were produced of teams either playing well after making gestures, such as England's victory over Iran after they took a knee prior to the match, or Argentina's shock opening game loss to Saudi Arabia.

Even the Socceroos formed a persuasive argument against Wenger's comments, given the team had produced an entire video prior to the World Cup expressing several concerns. The Socceroos spoke out about laws prohibiting homosexuality and demanded protection for LGTBQ+ fans, as well as raising human rights concerns relating to workers.

In a statement earlier in the tournament, the German football federation backed the stance being taken by their players, arguing sport was a crucial venue for protest to occur. “Human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important for us," the statement read. “Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position.”

The Socceroos line up for the national anthem before a match at the FIFA World Cup.
The Socceroos published a video raising concerns about human rights in Qatar in the weeks before the FIFA World Cup, before going on to make the top 16. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Australia's sports minister Anika Wells said Qatar's government wanted wider acknowledgement of recent reforms progress in the strict Islamic nation. "On behalf of the Australian government I made clear ... we acknowledge the progress that has been made," she said, after discussions with officials at the beginning of the tournament.

"There is more to be done but I really feel like we had an constructive, frank discussion about that ... I was quite surprised by how humble, honest and constructive they were about it. I conveyed to them what has been made very clear to me in Australia, which is that Australians want to see more done.

" ... I put that in the broader context of that is the case for all of us, we could all do more to advance human rights. And that this global scrutiny will turn itself upon us in July next year (when) we host the Women's World Cup."

The FIFA World Cup 2022 is on SBS and SBS on Demand.

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