Qatar, a tiny country located at the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is hosting the 2022 World Cup. The gas- and oil-rich emirate is around one third the size of Switzerland and has more or less the same population as the city of Manchester. How is it possible that a small-scale country was awarded the responsibility of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world? What are the dark sides of a World Cup in Qatar and what has been done to shed light on this darkness?
How to get away with vote buying
In 2010 the Executive Committee of the governing global football federation FIFA, today known as the FIFA Council, elected Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022. The votes were cast in secret; thus, it is not officially disclosed who voted for whom. Following the vote, the Sunday Times launched a thorough investigation inspecting allegations of vote buying in the 2022 as well as in the 2018 World Cup bidding process. The investigation was based on intelligence that had been confidentially gathered from seven people involved in the England 2018 bid. Additionally, over a span of four years the Sunday Times investigated and later published information and millions of documents gathered from a whistle-blower inside FIFA, known as the FIFA files. The investigations found evidence that Qatari officials, in particular then FIFA vice president Mohamed Bin Hamman, had bribed FIFA Council members in return for their votes for the 2022 Qatar bid. According to the Sunday Times, Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma for example, two former African FIFA Council members, were paid $1.5 million by the Qatar 2022 bid in exchange for their vote. Also, the information gathered by the Sunday Times included different vote trading deals between bidding countries, among them a deal between Qatar 2022 and Spain-Portugal 2018. This was only possible due to FIFA’s decision to conduct the vote for the 2018 and the 2022 World Cup host simultaneously, for whatever reason. Even though the practice of vote trading was strictly banned according to FIFA regulations, it was practically an invitation for FIFA Council members to exchange their votes.
One day after the first Sunday Times publication in June 2014, US attorney Michael Garcia, who was appointed by FIFA to investigate earlier allegations concerning vote buying, announced that the evidence-gathering phase of his inspection would shortly come to an end. A couple of weeks later, Garcia submitted his final report, without having investigated the evidence by the Sunday Times. FIFA then published a summary (!) of Garcia’s results, which exonerated the Qatar 2022 (and also the Russia 2018) bid of all wrongdoing. Case closed. Interestingly, in response to the Sunday Times reports the organizing committee claimed that Bin Hammam had not been involved in the Qatar 2022 bid team. FIFA, who had already banned the Qatari for another corruption scandal, supported the claim. That is how to get away with vote buying.
Human rights only secondary
After the successful World Cup bid, Qatar began with its megaproject, which included among other things the construction of seven new stadiums, a new airport, a new public transport system and a new city, where the World Cup final is set to take place. In the past few years, Qatar’s excessive construction has been under intense scrutiny. Several reports have claimed that the construction workers – mostly migrant workers from South Asian countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh – have been exposed to dreadful labor conditions. In February 2021, The Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the emirate won the hosting rights for the World Cup in 2010, the number likely to being an underestimate.
An earlier report from the Guardian in 2019 addressed the causes of migrant workers’ deaths. According to the official Qatari death toll, most migrant workers had died because of “natural deaths” such as heart or respiratory failure. The investigations, however, show that many of the deceased were in their twenties and thirties, and had arrived in Qatar in good and healthy shape. This leads to the suspicion that their deaths may not have been as “natural” as stated by the Qataris. For its research, the Guardian collaborated with an experienced clinical cardiologist. He found that hundreds of young men, who rarely suffer heart attacks, died in Qatar due to heart strokes, which in turn were caused by the immense heat stress that they were exposed to. This is not surprising, given the fact that these migrants were forced to work in temperatures as high as 45 degrees for up to ten hours a day.
The deaths of these migrant workers caused by the exposure to such heat is certainly tragic. However, these are not the only human rights violations that the organizers of the 2022 World Cup are responsible for. In 2016, Amnesty International published a report based on interviews with over 200 migrant workers. Some of them worked on a stadium construction site, others as landscapers for a sports complex, where teams such as Paris Saint-Germain have carried out training camps regularly. The findings were shocking. Many migrant workers claimed to not have been paid for months. Besides not being able to pay for basic needs such as food, this impeded them from paying recruitment-related debts or sending money back home to their families, the latter initially being the reason for the migrants leaving home. Another example was the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports by their employers that prohibited the workers from leaving the country. Some of the interviewed Nepali workers claimed that they were not allowed to visit their families in 2015 after a disastrous earthquake struck the country, killing almost 10,000 people. These are only some of the examples of human rights abuses migrant workers had to go through. Dirty and cramped accommodations, lies about the salary and threats for complaining about the terrible conditions are some of the others. Clearly, the organizers of Qatar 2022 do not view the adherence to human rights as a top priority.
Lucrative football industry
Of course, hosting the 2022 World Cup – the biggest sporting event in the world – will greatly benefit Qatar in economic terms. Foreign investments will significantly increase, since such huge events are very lucrative for foreign businesses. Also, the tourism industry is likely to gain a notable economic boost. In particular, the luxury packages offered by MATCH Hospitality AG – FIFA’s official hospitality programme for the Qatar World Cup – will bring in an incredible amount of money. To illustrate, a private lounge ticket for the semi-final match in the newly built Lusail stadium can be purchased for a bargain of $1,760,800. Just to be clear: This doesn’t include neither travelling nor accommodation costs, it is just the price tag for watching one single game of football from a VIP lounge. Fortunately, caviar and a glass of champagne are likely to be included.
However, it is not only the World Cup that will be beneficious to Qatar economically. In fact, the emirate’s World Cup bid should be seen as part of a broader strategy to maintain Qatar’s wealth once it runs out of its oil and gas reserves. Football has in this regard been viewed by powerful Qataris as a lucrative investment opportunity. Besides the bid, Qatar has tried to invest in the football industry for example by sponsoring Bayern Munich through the state-owned airline Qatar Airways or, more importantly, by taking over the French side Paris St. Germain (PSG) in 2011. Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, which is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, has pumped hundreds of millions into the club, transforming it from a struggling side to one of the best football teams in the world instantly. In 2017, for example, PSG (de facto the state Qatar) shocked the world when they paid the €222 million release clause to bring in star-player Neymar from FC Barcelona – the highest amount ever paid for a football transfer. As leaked documents from whistleblower Rui Pinto demonstrate, PSG have repeatedly violated Financial Fairplay regulations, but the Qatari bosses have managed to arrange settlement agreements and get away with ridiculous fines.
As described, in a long-term attempt to make money, Qatar is investing in the profitable football industry with all necessary measures. Moral convictions such as a fair election or human rights do not seem to be of interest.
On November 21st, 2021 the final countdown started: 365 days until the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar. While FIFA president Gianni Infantino travelled to Qatar to celebrate the beginning of the one-year countdown by unveiling the fancy Hublot countdown clock, Amnesty International published “Reality Check 2021: A year to the 2022 World Cup”. The report describes how Qatar had made an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) back in 2017 in an effort to ”end labour abuse and exploitation of its more than two million migrant workers” by introducing several potentially effective legal reforms. More importantly, however, the report demonstrates how the Qatari government has failed to actually implement these reforms that are supposed to tackle abusive practices such as wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Also, the kafala system, which binds migrant workers to their employers, often preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country, is still intact. Amnesty International highlights that employers who are abusing their migrant employees are not effectively sanctioned by the government, and are therefore still incentivized to violate human rights. Based on its investigation, the NGO concludes that – in practice – concerning human rights not much has changed since the reforms.
In its report, Amnesty International do not call for a boycott. Instead, in a highly optimistic statement they urge Qatar, FIFA and corporate actors involved in the 2022 World Cup to immediately take further actions. In addition, they encourage football associations to “actively and publicly take action to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are respected in the run up and during the 2022 World Cup”. However, for that it is too late. Too many workers and their families have suffered. Too many workers have died, no, killed! And realistically, what will some pre-match jerseys with the inscriptions “HUMAN RIGHTS” or “FOOTBALL SUPPORTS CHANGE” worn by national teams – such as Norway, Germany and the Netherlands during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers – achieve? It is more likely that such actions will benefit these associations from a PR perspective – regardless of whether intended or not – than actually lead to change.
Change is certainly needed, and football must support it. But as for right now, it does not. If football really does want to support change, as the Netherlands jerseys claimed, then particularly associations and players need to show courage and take real actions. The most effective way to bring about change would be to boycott the World Cup. Imagine the uproar it would cause if a leading football nation such as France or England, or a player like Lionel Messi – the idol of so many people around the world – would refuse to travel to Qatar. Football fans would stand up in support, other players and associations would follow, causing an unstoppable domino effect. In the end, it would be clear to everyone that it is unacceptable for bidding countries to buy votes and to violate human rights in an effort to exploit the lucrative football industry. Only a boycott will guarantee that the Qatar disaster would never be allowed to be repeated.
So far, none of the 211 FIFA member associations and no prominent football player has spoken out in favor of a boycott. One brave player, or one brave nation – that is all that is required to bring about significant change. And no, it is not “10 years too late” for a boycott, as German international Joshua Kimmich stated in an interview. There still is time, but the clock is ticking.