By Joe Gorman

Jackson Irvine has heard all the arguments why footballers shouldn’t speak up about social issues.

He gets that many fans are more interested in his performance on the pitch. He knows that the Socceroos still have a hard road ahead to qualify for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. He understands the pressure placed on his colleagues to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. 

But Irvine, who last month joined the PFA Executive, has decided that some things are more important than football. “I’m moving into a different space in my life where I’m more comfortable taking a public role on Qatar,” he said.

Irvine, 28, was one of several current and former national team players who this week met with representatives from Amnesty International and FIFPRO to discuss the role and responsibility of athletes participating in the World Cup.

The players were presented briefings from Amnesty International Gulf Researcher May Romanos, FIFPRO General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, PFA Chair Francis Awaritefe and PFA Life Member Craig Foster. Romanos outlined the legal and regulatory situation in Qatar, while Baer-Hoffman, Awaritefe and Foster spoke about the options for players to advocate for their fellow workers. 

Irvine said the briefings provided crucial information for the players to consider.

“I’ve made it clear to the playing group where I stand on Qatar. I would never try to speak on behalf of the group, but I think it’s important they have the information in front of them so they can make a decision whether they want to be involved,” he said.

“The conversations that I’ve had with them have been really promising. I think a lot of people in the game feel that they are ‘just a footballer’, and that they don’t know enough about certain issues to have an opinion. 

“That’s the reason why I was so keen to get as many players as possible on the call. When you’re confronted by stories and statistics, it does make these issues hit a bit closer to home. Maybe that will be the difference between a player toeing the line and speaking their mind.”

One of the players keen to learn more is goalkeeper Mat Ryan, who worked alongside Irvine to encourage current Socceroos to participate in the call. 

“As players, we know we have a powerful platform to positively impact the lives of others and in the case of Qatar, our fellow workers and their rights,” said Ryan.

“As a union, we have always fought to protect the rights of others and the session with Amnesty, FIFPRO and Fozz gave us a deeper understanding of the issues in Qatar and how we as players can make a positive impact.”

According to a report by the Guardian, more than 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. 

The country’s kafala system, which binds workers to their employer and leaves them open to exploitation, remains in place despite some improvements for those working on the construction of World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. Footballers such as Zahir Belounis, who played for Qatari side El Jaish SC, have also been victims of the country’s restrictive employment laws.

“If we qualify, we’ll roll into Qatar, stay in a six-star hotel and play in an amazing stadium,” explained Irvine. “But, as May Romanos said, the second we walk off the plane to the moment we run on the pitch, our presence will affect people’s lives in that country. As players, that’s something we need to wrap our heads around.”

PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch encouraged players not to be fearful and reminded them of the power of collective action. “At our best, PFA members have helped save the life of a refugee in Hakeem al-Araibi, championed same-sex marriage, achieved equal pay, reformed the labour rights system in 1995 in the face of fierce opposition, and established Australian sport’s first Equal Opportunity Code,” he said.

Baer-Hoffmann, who is based in Amsterdam, pointed out that while the players didn’t vote for the World Cup to be held in Qatar, they would inevitably be the face of the tournament. 

That tension is not lost on Irvine, who is one of several Melbourne-born Socceroos currently being used to promote the national team’s World Cup qualifier at AAMI Park in January. It is a privilege for someone who, over the past 20 years, has been part of World Cup qualifiers as both a player and fan.

In 2001, eight-year-old Irvine was one of 85,000 people present at the MCG for the Socceroos’ first leg qualifier against Uruguay. Four years later, in 2005, he was at Stadium Australia to witness the Socceroos qualify for its first World Cup in 32 years.

“I do think being in the stands in ’05 gave my generation that explosion of belief that the game in our country was ready to go to a different place. The confidence it gave me as a young player was enormous,” he said.

“That explosion of confidence has created a level of expectation, which is totally understandable after the success we’ve had in winning an Asian Cup and qualifying for four consecutive World Cups. We recognise that expectation and embrace it.”

Still, Irvine is adamant that players are capable of doing two things at once; to be able to function within a team environment whilst having firm views on wider social issues.

Irvine tuned in to the call from his apartment in Hamburg, where he is playing for St Pauli, a club famous for its progressive culture. Last month, he wrote a column for the PFA about how the fans view him “as a person, not a performer.” Such a positive environment has strengthened his resolve to add his voice to the growing athlete-driven movement for human rights.

“In every dressing room that I’ve been in throughout my career, there has been a hesitancy to speak up about social issues,” said Irvine. “Being at a club like St Pauli over the past six months has shown me that it’s possible to have a football culture that lives and breathes its values and has a strong voice.”

Irvine echoed Craig Foster’s view that all players who choose to speak up will exist on a continuum of supporter, advocate or activist. Regardless of the possible repercussions, Irvine feels as if he is shifting from supporter to advocate. 

“There is always a little bug in the back of your head that starts to cling onto self-preservation. The first instinct is to think, how will speaking up affect me?” he said.

“But when you consider the conditions for workers in Qatar, any negative impact that it may have on my career is minuscule compared to the potential impact we can have as players to drive sustainable change.”