Last year, an estimated 1 billion people watched the World Cup Final, making it the most watched televised event in history. Around the world, soccer is not just a sport. It is a way of life, a religion. Part of the reason soccer is so massively popular is because regardless of poverty level, virtually anyone can play it. FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, has 209 member countries. There is also a Woman’s World Cup, and even a Homeless World Cup, which works in 70 countries to “transform the lives of homeless people all over the world”. It is truly a world sport. However, the sport, and especially FIFA, has been the subject of recent criticism regarding their choice for the 2022 World Cup host nation: Qatar.
In 2009, FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, beating the United States by a vote of 14 to 8. This was a historic moment in the sport’s history, because Qatar would be the first Middle Eastern country to host the largest event in soccer. A World Cup in Qatar promised to be a lavish event. Yet since the vote, there have been allegations of corruption amongst voting officials. Former FIFA Vice President and CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football) president Jack Warner has been accused of being “personally paid $1.2 million from a company controlled by a former Qatari official shortly after the decision to award the country the tournament.”
The FBI is currently investigating these charges. In 2014, British newspaper The Sunday Times stated that it had obtained incriminating emails suggesting that former Qatari soccer official Mohammad bin Hammam had payed over $5 million to top soccer officials for support in Qatar’s 2022 bid. FIFA’s independent ethics adjudicator has since compiled an investigation on corruption charges against the soccer organization, but has since found Qatar innocent of any involvement. Yet shortly after the investigation was published, Michael Garcia, the lawyer heading the inspection, stated that the report, “contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations”. Since then, President Sepp Blatter has gone on record for saying that the corruption charges against FIFA and Qatar are fueled by “discrimination and racism”.
Corruption charges are not the only factor in a possible rebid for the 2022 World Cup. During the summer, Qatar has an average daytime temperature of 106 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures peaking at over 114 degrees at noon. Because of the extreme heat of the Gulf state, Sepp Blatter has admitted that choosing Qatar as the host country was a “mistake”. FIFA has since seriously considered moving the World Cup to sometime between November and January, when the weather is more forgiving. This poses a serious problem in interrupting top soccer leagues that play during the winter. Teams run the risk of having key players being injured during the competition, and unable to play when the season resumes. Leagues in Europe, where the majority of star players participate in club play, take winter breaks, but a world cup during this winter break would take away valuable recuperation time from individual players. The English Premier League, arguable the largest league in Europe, does not even have a winter break. Though these problems are certainly difficult, the most controversial facet in the 2022 World Cup has been Qatar’s human rights abuses.
Freedom of expression is a major concern in the Gulf country. In October 2013, poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami was sentenced to 15 years in jail for publicly reciting a poem that was critical of the royal family. The punishment was originally life in prison, but was reduced after an appeal. The country also has laws limiting freedom of speech on the web, allowing courts to punish anyone who published information that, “exceeds any principles of social value,” with a sentence of up to 3 years in prison. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index of 2014, which measures, “the negative impacts of conflict on freedom of information,” Qatar is ranked 113th, dropping three positions from the 2013 index.
Gender equality is another concern in Qatar. According to the 2014 Global Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum, which measures gender equality with a high score of 1 (equal) and a low score of 0 (unequal), Qatar has a score of 0.640, ranking the country at 116 out of 142 countries. Qatar does much better than other Middle Eastern countries in educational opportunities for women, yet it is facing an ever-widening gender pay gap, and political empowerment of females is very limited, with only one woman being a minister.
Though these concerns have received attention from groups such as Amnesty International, the most shocking human rights affront in preparation for the 2022 World Cup is Qatar’s migrant worker rights.
Qatar, like many other Gulf States, manages its migrant workers through a system known as “Kafala.” In this system, migrant workers are required to be sponsored by their employer while working in the country. That sponsor, upon the worker’s arrival, takes possession of their passport. While the worker is in Qatar, their employer controls their wages, determines if they can switch jobs, and decides whether or not they are allowed to leave the country. This amounts to forced labor. Qatar usually recruits from poorer countries by promising comparatively large payment for manual labor. Workers have reported having to wait a year to be paid for the construction of the 38th and 39th floors of the soccer headquarters in Qatar, known as the “Tower of Football”. The workers are usually poverty-stricken; they need to take out loans in order to travel to Qatar. Because they are not paid, their debt increases back home, and their families suffer financially. They are also not allowed to join unions. Qatari law prohibits migrant workers from living near Qatari citizens, so they live segregated in low quality housing. These workers live in infested and overcrowded conditions where water is often unsanitary and the heat is unbearable. This has resulted in a shockingly high death toll amongst migrant workers in the country. According to The Guardian, in 2014, one Nepalese migrant worker building infrastructure for the World Cup dies every two days. In a report recently published by DLA Piper, the largest law firm in the world in terms of revenue, “964 workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh had died while living and working in [Qatar] in 2012 and 2013”. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that, conservatively, 4,000 workers from India and Nepal will die before the opening kickoff of the 2022 World Cup.
There is still hope for the 2022 World Cup. Qatar has been taking steps to decrease the severity of Kafala by freeing workers from their sponsors when their contract has expired, yet it is unrealistic to believe that this will effectively change Kafala. Because almost 90% of Qatar’s population is foreign workers, the likelihood that a country so reliant on migrant labor will overhaul Kafala on their own is low. FIFA still has the power to change the venue of the World Cup to another country, though that window of opportunity is almost shut. If FIFA were to threaten to take away the World Cup from Qatar unless they abolished Kafala, the country would most likely accept. Sepp Blatter has seemingly accepted that FIFA is past a point-of-no-return in its decision, so the best chance of a dramatic change in FIFA’s stance would be through a new president. Already, three respected individuals have cast their names into the ballot: the Portuguese soccer player Luis Figo, a former Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan player, as well as the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, the Vice President of FIFA in Asia, and Michael van Praag, the head of Dutch soccer and the most experienced of the bunch. The largest obstacle in any of these candidates’ chances of winning is that they all have support from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and risk splitting the vote. Because every member country in FIFA has an equal vote in elections, this would guarantee Blatter a victory. Their best hope is to consolidate and concede to one candidate, preferably van Praag, to not only gain the European countries’ votes, but also potentially steal outside votes from Blatter. A van Praag victory would ideally drive the levels of corruption in FIFA down, but more importantly, pave the way for the abolishment of Kafala in Qatar. If these goals can be achieved, then the venues for the 2022 World Cup can be built not with the blood of oppressed migrant workers, but rather on the dreams of a country that promised a spectacular first World Cup for the Middle East.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.