Matt Williams: Elite players have failed a moral test by playing in Qatar World Cup

Players should have followed the principled example of the 1970s Wallabies who set the sporting world an example by refusing to play in apartheid South Africa

During half-time of their fourth and final Test match of their tour of South Africa, the 1963 Wallabies sat in their changing room listening to repeated shotgun blasts.

The black community of Port Elizabeth had turned up in full voice and in big numbers to support the men in gold. Their allegiance was based on the concept that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Leading the four-Test series 2-1, the Australians entered the Boet Erasmus Stadium on the brink of an historic series win. Charlie Crittle played for the Wallabies that day. He was the president of the New South Wales Rugby Union when I was coaching the Waratahs.

Charlie once described to me what he witnessed that tragic day. He explained that the Wallabies were on top of the Springboks during the first half. Then at half-time the security forces cleared the black spectators out of the stadium using extreme violence. The Wallabies were told that the black supporters had rioted.


However, the players believed that this was a lie and that the violence was committed simply to intimidate the Australians. If that was the intent then it was highly successful. After the gunshots had silenced and the Wallabies finally emerged from their changing room, they were shocked to see badly beaten beaten bodies on the now otherwise empty terraces. According to a number of Australian players, some of the black supporters had even been killed.

South Africa won 22-6.

The Wallabies returned to South Africa in 1969, again witnessing the atrocious treatment of black South Africans. Finally, members of the Australian teams decided that playing the Springboks had become a moral impossibility and began the political agitation required to break all rugby ties with the racist South African government.

Several Wallabies led the protests in the final Test matches, held in Australia in 1971. To the undying credit of the Australian Rugby Union, after this series they banned all contact with South African rugby. Sadly it took the Lions, New Zealand and the then-Five Nations teams another 15 years to follow Australia’s lead.

Driven by their conscience and principles, that small group of brave Wallabies decided that rugby could no longer turn its gaze away from such obvious violence, despair and bigotry. In their view, if rugby continued to engage with the Springboks then their involvement would be seen as condoning the actions of the apartheid government.

During this process the players who stood up for their principles came under great pressure and were heavily criticised. Yet they stood their ground and finally convinced the entire sporting world that the injustices being committed in South Africa were far too great to ignore. They convinced governments that by engaging with a regime that did not value human rights, they would be supporting their injustices.

Once that concept was established, its truth became self evident.

Australian players from 1971 to 1992 simply said they would not play in or against any South African teams. The decision to not play was a simple choice of right against wrong.

As Fifa’s World Cup has exploded into a morality train smash, I cringed with embarrassment as I watched the feeble actions of players trying to justify their presence in Qatar.

The team captains attempted to band-aid over their participation by wearing armbands with the word “One Love” stitched into the fabric. When faced with sanctions from Fifa the captains crumbled and backed down. Personifying the lack of moral courage currently on display.

Then followed the pictures of the German team putting their hands over their mouths during their team photo. All of these meaningless gestures attempted to mask the players’ guilt and lack of courage for agreeing to play in a World Cup tainted with death and bigotry.

Human rights organisations have estimated that as many as 6,500 migrant workers died while toiling in draconian conditions constructing the infrastructure for the World Cup. At one stage of the construction process, they stated that on average one worker was dying every two days.

Yet the loudest outcry came when the football public learned that there was to be no beer sold in the stands. Ironically, if the IRFU made that decision for the Aviva, most Irish rugby supporters would be cheering.

We know that more than a decade ago the process to award Qatar the World Cup, was deeply flawed and mired in allegations of corruption.

A tidal wave of reports followed documenting Qatar’s highly discriminatory laws used to jail members of the LGBTQIA+ community, combined with immoral living and working conditions that created a death toll amongst the migrant workers that read like a war zone fatality list.

Despite all this verified evidence, the multi-millionaire players from across the globe have turned up in Qatar and pulled on their national colours.

In doing so the players and their associations have sacrificed a powerful platform to advocate for those who suffer without a voice.

If the players at the World Cup in Qatar felt so deeply about the politics and social injustice that has tainted Fifa’s World Cup, then they should have followed the principled example of the Wallabies from the 1970s who said: “We will not play, because if we do, our actions will be seen as supporting the unjust policies of our opponent’s government.”

It is a vain hope that even a single player will come out and tell the truth by saying: “I know lots of people died building these stadiums. I am aware that gay people are being arrested and placed in prison. But this is my chance to play in the World Cup. That is more important to me than any of that.”

At least that statement would hold some honesty. Which would be far better than the falsehoods of the humiliating virtue signalling and spineless actions we have been forced to witness to date.

When I was offered a chance to play rugby in South Africa in 1985 I dearly wanted to go. That was until a trusted friend said: “Mate, there are some things at stake here that are far more important than you playing a game. Think very carefully before you act.”

I was not going to South Africa to play international rugby but I did follow the leadership of those brave old Wallabies and I did not go.

Such wise advice is lacking in a sporting world that is far too full of meaningless gestures and sadly void of principled actions.