They say the FIFA World Cup should be a world showcase. The quadrennial championship of what some call football — and some call soccer — brings together representatives of nations throughout the world, providing a shared cultural experience in every corner of the globe. Even in the United States, media outlets like ESPN and cranky sports columnists show the World Cup more respect than they once did.
However, like most mega sports productions these days, the biggest of all of them is really about big money, corruption, and steady abuse of workers, athletes, host-country residents and sports fans. A World Cup still six years away has already created a storm of controversy.
Awarding the 2022 games to Qatar, a small oil-rich country located in the Middle East, sparked many objections about Qatar’s fitness as a host country and suspicions about the impartiality of the bidding process in FIFA (Federation International de Football Association).
“Qatar’s lack of infrastructure and soccer tradition, combined with questions about the country’s human rights record and bribery allegations, make it one of the most controversial World Cup host nations ever,’’ writes soccer writer Tony Manfred. Qatar spent the most money campaigning to get the games and, according to the London Times, some of the 24-member voting group that awards the World Cup prefer authoritarian countries where they don’t have to worry about pesky unions and political activists. Russia will host the World Cup in 2018 and China’s a favorite to get the Cup in 2026.
Modern day slavery. Much of the protest about Qatar getting the World Cup contract stems from the country’s woeful human rights record. Most of the workers hired to build the infrastructure for the upcoming games are migrant workers from nearby Nepal. In fact, 1.6 million of Qatar’s workforce, 90 percent, is comprised of migrant workers who have for decades suffered under near-slave conditions laboring under Qatar’s medieval-type contracting arrangement known as kafala.
In the spotlight now because of the upcoming World Cup, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation both say that migrant workers are vulnerable to appalling systemic abuse. They’re forced to pay recruiters to get a job. Their passports are taken away and they can’t leave the country without the bosses’ permission. In November 2013, Amnesty International reported that workers had to sign false statements that they received wages in order to regain passports.
The Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, said that Qatar had become “an open jail” to workers from her homeland. Migrant workers live in camps with unsanitary conditions and The Guardian reported that workers were dying at a rate of one a day, overworked in summer temperatures that routinely hit 120 degrees.
In March 2016, Amnesty International issued a statement: “Together we call on football’s governing body, FIFA, and the Qatari government to protect migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup.”
The Qatari government claims that it is addressing these issues, supposedly building facilities to house 258,000 workers by the end of the year. Built, of course, by the workers themselves under conditions of modern slavery. Denials of abuse and deaths abound, of course. But what stands is the stark contrast between the bright lights of international soccer and the squalid, inhuman conditions of the migrant workers who build it.
Outright corruption. Dissent erupted as soon as Qatar was awarded the event by the FIFA selection committee in 2010, even though a FIFA study had recommended against Qatar. Almost immediately, allegations spread that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup through bribery. Mohammed bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, was reported to offer $5 million to other voters. A witness against bin Hammam later recanted, but in 2012, FIFA’s Richard Texeira of Brazil stepped down after allegations he was bribed. Former FIFA president Shep Blatter also resigned from FIFA after being involved in bribery scandals.
FIFA completed an internal investigation into allegations (yes, they were investigating themselves!). And while a report cleared Qatar of any wrongdoing, chief investigator Michael Garcia described FIFA’s report on the inquiry as “materially incomplete and erroneous.”
Hardly suitable. Can Qatar adequately handle an event of this magnitude? This is the other big case against Qatar hosting the World Cup. Not only have people questioned whether Qatar will have enough stadiums for the games, but whether there are enough roads to get to the games or big enough cities to host the games.
Some estimate that the World Cup will cost Qatar $220 billion, 60 times more than what South Africa spent on the 2010 World Cup. According to Dr. Nicola Ritter, a German financial analyst, $107 billion will be spent on building stadiums and $31 billion on transportation. Another $28 billion will go to creating an entire city called Lusail that will surround a major FIFA stadium. What do the working people of Qatar get out of all this?
Some political activists would disqualify Qatar as a World Cup site because homosexuality is illegal. When Qatar was awarded the World Cup, then FIFA president Blatter flippantly replied that, “People just shouldn’t have homosexual sex when they go to the World Cup.” Others point out that alcohol is also illegal in Qatar. Qatar now says there will be “alcohol zones” at the event. Even temporary legality for gay sex seems unlikely.
Cogent, political observations from Jules Boykoff, author of the book Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games and a former professional soccer player put a sane light on it all. As he told sports journalist Dave Zirin, “Sports mega-events like the World Cup are upbeat shakedowns with appalling human costs. This is trickle-up economics that magnifies the widening chasm between the happy-faced promises of mega-event boosters and on-the-ground reality for the rest of us.”
The growing World Cup protests against Qatar’s lack of human rights may well help put an end to the brutish kafala system.
Guest author Ray Murphy has written for Seattle’s Real Change, a low-income and homeless newspaper. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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