Marianne van LeeuwenImage KNVB

    On her phone, director of professional football of the KNVB Marianne van Leeuwen sees statements made by Fifa chairman Gianni Infantino on Saturday during a press meeting in Doha, on the eve of the World Cup. That he feels Arab today, gay, migrant. That he labels the approach of the West towards the World Cup in Qatar as racism, that Europe owes the rest of the world an apology for 3,000 years for past exploitation.

    A day earlier, Van Leeuwen had confirmed that the KNVB will support Infantino in the next election, provided he commits to continue putting human rights on the agenda and will pursue constructive cooperation with Uefa. Fifa is working on reforms, including the substantiated promise to be more careful about which countries you award tournaments to, through an included section on human rights. Plus the head-to-head vote, in public.

    Very different agenda

    Van Leeuwen: ‘Guarantees cannot be given in the world of Fifa. That is a large, global organization, with 211 members, unions from countries, some of which are teeny tiny, all with one voice. Of those 211, maybe thirty think like us. The rest are busy with completely different issues. I realized that this year, at my first conference. Then you sit there, like a kind of United Nations, all alphabetically in a very large room. Then you see all those different faces. They have a completely different agenda. From their perspective, that makes sense.

    ‘Previously, a secret ballot of the board decided on the allocation of the World Cup. Now you have to justify who you voted for. That is transparency. I can’t secretly vote for a country without everyone else knowing. But of course you can still do politics like Fifa.’

    With regard to Qatar, everyone in the Netherlands has ‘the same problem.’ She reiterates that the KNVB has never been in favor of the World Cup in Qatar. ‘The choice was: just play football, not participate, or go and try to contribute to ‘positive social development, among migrant workers and for equality’. That choice, after advice from Amnesty and other human rights organizations, was made and I think it is wise. Because then we have an impact, and that fits why the KNVB is on earth; raising football to a higher level and using the connecting force in a positive way.’

    Became less free

    The question remains what such efforts will yield in the longer term. Research shows that countries such as Russia and China have become less free after they held major sports tournaments. In Argentina it is different. The Foolish Mothers are still thankful that the world’s spotlights were on them in 1978. We’ve been working for two years to gain influence, to change things. We do this with others, with Gijs de Jong (secretary-general of the KNVB) as a pioneer. We will have to keep working hard after the World Cup. You can think all kinds of things, that it’s not enough and that it should have been different, but you can’t say it’s not real. This World Cup is different. It is also about human rights and it should continue to be about that, although we are also looking forward to the competitions.’

    The KNVB itself keeps it sober. The Supervisory Board flies in for Monday’s game against Senegal and spends a day talking to various organizations about the situation of migrant workers and how we can stay involved with Qatar. Football and politics are inseparable, as much as some would like them to be. Van Leeuwen: ‘Football is intertwined in every nook and cranny, in all countries, in all societies. You can use it, because it is binding, for social improvements. But politics must ultimately decide.’

    WC of discomfort

    Van Leeuwen hopes that the players can close themselves off. ‘Playing football, that’s their job.’ Furthermore, it remains a World Cup of discomfort. She spoke at a farewell in Zeist for 150 employees of the union. ‘Then I give a speech about human rights and migrant workers. Halfway through the speech I also thought: I look like a pastor. It was silent in the hall. You felt that everyone also wants to enjoy football, but that you also have that other, double feeling. That’s the hard part: how do you get from this double feeling to cheering and cheering. Many people are in that dilemma. We will also continue to return to Qatar several times after the World Cup, because the problems have of course not been solved.’

    She also sees the positive in Qatar. ‘What I think is cool is that there are so many different people together. The street scene is incredibly diverse, you really see all kinds of people mixed together, men and women, from all over the world. One looks Western, the other doesn’t.’

    She is not worried about the behavior of the Dutch supporters, although she is curious. And she is happy that Minister of Sports Conny Helder is coming to watch the third group match against Qatar, ‘that she is joining the dialogue that we want to have. I am also curious whether others will come on behalf of the Netherlands when we get further.’

    The same ambition

    The World Cup may begin, as far as Van Leeuwen is concerned. National coach Louis van Gaal recently called her a ‘Van Gaal dressed woman’. “I’ll take it as a compliment, because I think he thinks he’s pretty good too.” At a press conference, she shouted ‘world champion’ from the back of the room when it came to ambitions. “We want to win a big tournament anyway. That could also be the Nations League. But this is my first tournament, who knows…. You have to set the bar very high. When I got home they said Louise to me. And that’s right, I have the same ambition as our national coach.’