Can you ask a footballer not to go to Qatar? ‘They are more or less held hostage’

Defending your country’s colors at the World Cup is every footballer’s dream. For Evgeniy Levchenko (44), this dream never came true. Not only because during his time as a professional footballer, Ukraine only managed to qualify for the tournament once, but also because one of the best players of the time played precisely in his position: Anatoly Tymosjchuk.

Despite this, ‘Lev’, as he is known in the football world, wore the blue and yellow of the national team eight times. According to Levchenko, it is quite logical that playing for your country has more meaning for a footballer than playing for your club. ‘Almost nobody plays for one club for their entire career, which means that as a player you have much less ties to the club. This is also what the clubs themselves want. It is of course different with your country’.

In the coming weeks, the best soccer players in the world will compete against each other in Qatar. Holland is there, Ukraine is not. As a sports enthusiast, Levchenko is looking forward to the tournament. But it won’t be carefree enjoyment. This has everything to do with the questionable allocation, the deaths that occurred during the construction of the stadiums and the precarious situation of minorities in the strict Islamic country.

As chairman of the VVCS, Levchenko has drawn attention to this for more than a year and a half, he says at the union’s office in Hoofddorp. Tens of thousands of workers have worked at the stadiums in appalling conditions. I think it’s ridiculous that FIFA more or less denies this. This has been clearly demonstrated by organizations such as Amnesty International.’

‘You have to take into account the culture of the country you are a guest in, but a country that organizes the World Cup also has to take into account the values ​​of the people who are guests.’

Many people died during construction, possibly as many as 6,500 victims. These are primarily guest workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and India. “They have come to Qatar to support their families. However, that income has disappeared. Therefore, I think that these families should be compensated. It’s the least FIFA can do. But so far they reject this.’

It is not the only stone in Levchenko’s stomach. “In September, a document was published stating how fans should behave in Qatar. This shows that there are many restrictions on freedom. Men should not hug each other, women should not kiss. I think you should take into account the culture of the country where you are a guest, but a country that organizes the World Cup should also take into account the values ​​of the people who are guests.’

‘In 2014 I decided never to go to Russia again because the Russians then annexed Crimea.’

You can almost say: as a footballer, but not to Qatar, to send out a strong signal.

You can’t ask that of a football player. The WC is organized only once every four years, and the chance of you being there is small anyway. I think it is painful that football players are more or less taken hostage. But I think that players should take responsibility by, for example, making a statement. When players want it, I think that as a football association you should always support it, for example OneLove’s captain’s armband.

At the same time, I don’t think you should put too much pressure on players. I am therefore also happy that national coach Louis van Gaal has spoken out clearly and said that the World Cup is only held in Qatar for the money, not to make football more popular there. In any case, I think that you can expect much more from other parties. From FIFA, the KNVB, the government, sponsors, you name it. I therefore find it very disappointing that our government simply goes to Qatar. Give such a regime a finger and they will take your whole hand.’

Do players ever come to you because they have to play in a country they don’t want to go to?

“No, if something like that happens, they will discuss it with their club before. It could be, for example, that a player is not allowed to enter a country for political reasons, for example, Armenian players not allowed to enter Azerbaijan. It can also happen that it is just not safe to walk.

Even in 2014 I decided never to go to Russia again because the Russians then annexed Crimea. I don’t want to spend a penny in a country whose government invades a neighboring country and destroys people’s lives there. I am very principled about that. That’s why I said no several years ago when I was asked to become a football analyst for Russian TV. I could have made a lot of money from that, but it really doesn’t matter to me’.

Evgeniy Levchenko during the benefit match for Ukrainian victims between Team Wesley Sneijder and Creators FC at Sportpark Wesley Sneijder on March 27, 2022 in Utrecht, Netherlands. – image credit / Gerrit van Keulen

Did you therefore think that the World Cup in Russia in 2018 was more difficult?

Not necessarily more difficult than the World Cup in Qatar. The task is hypocritical in both cases. A lot of money has gone to FIFA from these countries through backroom politics. The World Cup acts as a money laundering machine in both Russia and Qatar, because these countries get the chance to pretend to the rest of the world that everything is fine. But the population does not benefit at all from such an event. Yes, there can be a month of joy. But it doesn’t get much further than that.

“They are the best players you see at the World Cup, but this is in a country that abuses sport for its own image.”

A regime really doesn’t change if they have to hold again for a month. Therefore, I think that the rules surrounding the awarding of the WC should be much stricter. You must not only submit a plan in the short term, but also show that you want to change in the long term. Make a checklist, where it’s about human rights, for example, and make hard contracts.’

What can you do as a viewer? Because you can say: if the viewers massively ignore this tournament, it might not be organized in a country like Qatar anymore.

‘I think that is difficult. Because like athletes, the viewers are more or less taken hostage. They are the best players you see at the World Cup, but this is in a country that abuses the sport for its own image. I can’t shake it when I look. I don’t want that either. When I was younger, I could only concentrate on football. Now I can’t do it anymore, football is only one thing. My vision has become much wider.’

A statement heard around the World Cup in Qatar, but also around the Olympic Games in China, for example, is: keep sport and politics separate. Is it possible?

‘None. I’m very curious how people who claim that do it themselves. Especially in a world like ours where everything is intertwined through social media. I therefore think that as a footballer you cannot say: I concentrate on football and what happens around me does not interest me. Famous football players have a big influence.

I am of course well aware that as a footballer you cannot have an opinion on everything. But then dive into the current topic so you develop an opinion. We now know much more about what is happening in the world around us. You cannot therefore say: China is far away, so what happens to the Uyghurs there, I have nothing to do with it.

‘When I played football in Russia, I sometimes went to the streets to demonstrate against the regime.’

I sometimes ask football players who play in Russia why they don’t speak out against the war in Ukraine. We must live here, they say. Yes of course, but are you happy with yourself if you keep quiet? No, they say. Then say something, I think. If you don’t dare to do it alone, do it together. In Russia, sport is clearly part of politics. It is an instrument that the regime uses to exert influence and present itself in a good light’.

You are very open about this World Cup, have you been in your career?

‘Yes. When I played football in Russia (in the 2009-2010 season in FK Saturn, ed.), I therefore sometimes went to the streets to demonstrate against the regime. It was insane then, and it’s only gotten worse since then. My club didn’t know but I had a lot of friends doing this at the time and I joined them.’

Does the war in Ukraine make sports less important to you?

‘Yes of course. In recent months I have mainly worked in Ukraine, for example by receiving refugees and sending ambulances. For this, we work together with the Respiratory Foundation. I have now found a certain way to be able to do my work at VVCS well, but certainly in the beginning I worked day and night with Ukraine.

I now understand much better that everything is relative. When someone invades your country and starts killing people there for no reason, you realize how far we are from the ideal world and how precious human life is. I cannot believe that there are parents in Russia who want their son to go to the front without any experience. Why? What does your son give his life for?

Do they really believe he will do it for his country instead of a maniac who always wants more? Why do so many Russians accept this? Sure, the public has been brainwashed by the propaganda for years, but who thinks to go to war against people you called your brothers a few months before? I simply don’t understand it’.

Have you considered fighting yourself?

“Certainly at the beginning of the war. I want to defend my country. In 2014, by the way, I might have had even more. I still feel sometimes that I have to fight, but when I am sober, I know that I can achieve much more in the position I’m in now. I have many contacts and can be a voice for Ukraine here. That’s also what soldiers at the front say to me. It gives me a lot of support.’

Evgeniy Levchenko

Evgeniy Levchenko (44), abbreviated Lev, played almost his entire football career in the Netherlands. In 1996, he made his debut in the Eredivisie with Vitesse, but he played the most matches for Sparta Rotterdam and FC Groningen. He also played in Russia and Australia. He played eight times for the national team of Ukraine. In 2014 he retired as a professional footballer and since 1 July 2019 he has been chairman of the Association of Contract Players (VVCS), a trade union for professional footballers. “We are the voice of the players. We help players if they have problems with the club, but we also make sure they can get training through the VVCS Academy so they don’t end up in a black hole after their career. It’s over faster than you think.’

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