The start of the tournament has been dominated by off-field issues such as the exploitation of migrant workers who built the stadiums and infrastructure, and LGBTQ+ rights in the host country.
The flames were stoked by the extraordinary opening address of Fifa president Gianni Infantino in which he conflated his experiences as ginger-haired child who moved from Italy to Switzerland with that of discriminated groups in Qatar like south Asian labourers, the gay community and disabled people.
There has also been a growing furore around the OneLove armband, which Vertonghen’s Belgium side were due to wear in Qatar along with several other European nations including England and Wales, as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in a conservative Islamic country where homosexual relations between men are illegal. However, Fifa successfully applied pressure on those nations with the threat of sporting sanctions such as yellow cards which provoked a switch to Fifa’s ‘no discrimination’ armband.
Vertonghen says players are now afraid to state their support for social causes or basic human rights in the current climate at the World Cup.
“If you make a statement by wearing the armband that would mean punishing yourself,” the former Tottenham centre-back said in a press conference. “I don’t feel comfortable, and that is telling enough. We are put on the spot, and I am afraid that if I say something about this, I might not be able to play and that is a situation I have never, ever experienced in football, and I hope I will never, ever have to experience again because it is not good.
“We are being controlled. I don’t like making political statements. We are here to play football, and if we can’t even do that because we are making a statement and just saying normal things, like ‘no to discrimination’ or ‘no to racism’, and you cannot say that, then hey, then what?”
Belgium begin their Group F campaign against Canada on Wednesday evening.
Vertonghen added: “I shouldn’t be saying anything about it because (on Wednesday) I want to appear for the kick-off at 10 o’clock so I will leave it at that, and that says enough.”
Fifa has meanwhile ordered Belgium to remove the word ‘love’ from the collar of their white away shirts due to a commercial conflict of interest.