A staggering 5 billion viewers are expected to watch the football World Cup over the course of the next month. It is, by far, the biggest sporting event in the world. On the eve of the tournament, the President of FIFA, the world football governing body, decided to open his press conference with this gem:
“Today I have very strong feelings, today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel a migrant worker.” He then thought it fit to swiftly clarify, “Of course, I am not Qatari, I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled. But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated, to be bullied.”
Decipher that at your own peril, but at least there’s some context.
This is the first time the World Cup is being held in the Middle East. It’s also the first time in living memory that the tournament, traditionally held in the summer, is being played in winter, when professional leagues around the world are only half way through the annual season. For those who don’t follow the sport, these are hardly newsworthy developments. But the last few weeks have shown that the implications have been profound.
It was way back in 2010 when Qatar won the right to host this year’s World Cup. This was announced simultaneously with the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia. Soon after the announcement, however, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Serious allegations of corruption and bribery quickly took the gleam off.
Ultimately, FIFA was compelled to conduct an independent inquiry into the bidding process for both world cups. The Garcia Report was submitted in 2014. Although it highlighted a number of questionable transactions, as the New York Times reported, there was no smoking gun. That said, there was plenty of ammunition for future use.
After the eventual publication of the full report in 2017, Russia hosted a hugely successful World Cup only one year later. Some even tipped the tournament as the best ever. The cloud of corruption and foul play had been lifted from the world’s most popular sport. Or so it seemed.
The closer the tournament came to Qatar, the brighter the spotlight became. The debate now shifted from the much maligned bidding process from back in 2010 to workers, women and LGBTQ rights in Qatar.
The level of criticism on these issues in the lead up and in the first few days of the World Cup has probably been unprecedented for a global sporting event. Belgian and Danish kits have been designed to express solidarity with migrant workers and the LGBTQ community. The German team openly recorded their protest on curbs on the freedom of expression by covering their mouths during a team photo. Presenters have also gone to great lengths to make it a point to highlight human rights abuses in their broadcasts. One wonders why. Why is this time different?
Qatar has had to build extensively at break neck speed to ready for the World Cup — from stadiums and hotels to roads and highways. In order to achieve this, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from South Asian countries were offered labour on the infamous kafala system, whereby the employer controls the worker’s entry and exit from the country. These migrant workers toiled away for years in abysmal working conditions, facing issues of delayed and deducted wages, extensive working hours without leave and serious occupational hazards.
In 2021, the Guardian reported that over 6,500 migrant workers had died since the award of the World Cup to Qatar. The reports on the number of World Cup job related deaths are controversial in themselves. Amnesty International claims over 15,000. FIFA and the Qatar, on the other hand, say only three! The sharp disparity in numbers is a manifestation of the divisiveness.
The focus on these issues by international organisations and media outlets did, however, lead to some reform. A number of initiatives have been taken by Qatari authorities in recent years, such as the establishment of a tribunal for quick resolution of labour disputes and a fund to support the payment of wages. But critics still lament that this was too little, too late. A big sticking point remains that of remedies, and Qatar’s failure to compensate families of victims who died of natural causes.
Another cause for concern is LGBTQ rights. A tournament like the World Cup, hosting squads and fans from 32 different countries, is a celebration of different cultures. A prerequisite for the host nation is tolerance, even if only for a month, to enable free expression by people from different faiths and backgrounds.
But the Qatari approach towards the LGBTQ community isn’t particularly endearing. A few weeks before kick-off, a Qatari World Cup official referred to homosexuality as “damage in the mind.” Criminal law in Qatar also penalises homosexuality with imprisonment for up to seven years.
This has naturally led to concerns about the treatment of LGBTQ visitors to the country. The Qatari position has consistently been that everyone is encouraged to visit, but local culture should be respected. Make of that what you will, but public displays of homosexuality are clearly laced with peril.
Other, more general, human rights issues faced in Qatar are being continuously raised as well. For instance, critics have commented that women don’t enjoy the same rights as men when it comes to property, inheritance and marriage. Questions have also been posed over the limits on the freedom of expression and the dangerous consequences associated with criticising the state.
All these issues require serious and honest attention. But not only in Qatar and not only this winter.
Why target Qatar?
Pertinent questions were raised, perhaps surprisingly, by Piers Morgan in one radio show, who asked which country is clean enough to host a World Cup if we start using these metrics? He claimed that homosexuality was banned in eight of the 32 playing countries and in several countries in Africa. The United States has reprehensible gun and anti-abortion laws. Russia is guilty of the illegal annexation of Ukraine. The less said about China’s human rights record, the better. Why single out Qatar then?
The one aspect that arguably distinguishes Qatar is the subject of migrant workers.
These workers, suffering as they were, are the ones who’ve put this World Cup together. That makes it rather distasteful to celebrate the occasion without a thought for them. Something like celebrating victory when there are no real winners in the larger scheme of things. To that extent, Qatar stands out.
On a related note, there are also those who contend that politics has no place in sport. When you deep dive into ownership structures, sponsorship deals, broadcasting rights and societal influence of sport around the world, the fallacy of that argument becomes clear. Sportsmen around the world have been steadfast in protesting against racism and social injustice. ‘Sportswashing’ is slowly finding its feet.
Politics and sport clearly have a budding love affair. Let it be that way and use sport for the greater good. That includes using platforms, such as the World Cup to highlight issues that require the world’s attention. But there is no time and place for recording protests and raising human rights abuses. It should be done in Qatar today. And it should be done in equal measure in North America four years from now.
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