Photo: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (the former Emir of Qatar) and former FIFA President Sepp Blatter
Next month, the World Cup will kick off in Qatar, the first country in the Middle East to host the event. FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) promises they will “produce a World Cup like no other.” This is exactly correct. Never before has the lead-up to a World Cup been surrounded by so much controversy.
For the last twelve years, soccer fans have been treated to a steady stream of controversies surrounding Qatar’s tournament. The Cup is an ongoing source of worldwide protests. So how did a country that harbors terrorists, has summer temperatures that regularly exceed 120º Fahrenheit, and bans alcohol—a staple for World Cup fans—ever win the bid to host the 2022 World Cup?
The World Cup bidding process has a history of corruption, and this time was no different. In 2010, two members of the committee offered to sell their votes to undercover reporters from the Sunday Times and were suspended as a result. Despite the suspensions, Mohammed Bin Hammam—a FIFA Executive Committee member and Qatar's top soccer official at the time—is rumored to have bought the votes of three other committee members for an estimated 5 million dollars.
Beyond that, some suspect that the Qataris advised then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy that if he wanted to sell French airplanes there, he should make sure the Gulf nation won the bid. Sarkozy then is said to have leaned on French FIFA executive Michel Platini (who has since received an eight-year ban due to money laundering and bribery) to vote for Qatar. Sure enough, Qatar Airways bought fifty Airbus planes (made in France), after it was announced that Qatar had won the World Cup bid, suggesting corruption at the highest levels.
In 2012, FIFA finally responded to the corruption allegations by inviting American lawyer Michael Garcia to lead a FIFA investigation into the 2022 bidding process. Garcia’s 400-page report was so damning that FIFA refused to publish it in full, leading to Garcia’s resignation. Additionally, an American investigation prompted prosecutors to file an indictment alleging bribery in the selection process, further tarnishing FIFA’s already questionable integrity.
Once Qatar won its bid to host the World Cup, the rush to build the necessary infrastructure led to human rights abuses that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent workers. To host a World Cup, FIFA requires a minimum of eight venues, one of which must be an 80,000-seat stadium. Qatar, a desert the size of Connecticut with no established soccer history, had none of the required infrastructure when they won the bid to host. The unprepared Gulf nation pledged to build 10 stadiums in 12 years and spent $30 billion alone to build a new metro system. In all, it is estimated Qatar spent $300 billion on infrastructure projects such as highways, seaports, and airport expansions in preparation for the World Cup. However, despite the massive sums that Qatar was willing to spend on infrastructure, the Qatari government skimped on paying its employees, leading to an abusive environment.
To execute its building promises, Qatar made use of migrant workers. The United Nations puts Qatar’s population at 2.8 million, but only 300,000 people are considered citizens. The majority are migrant workers, primarily from South Asia. Amnesty International has reported on the various human rights cases—including both physical and sexual abuse—that migrant workers have suffered in Qatar. Though slavery is ostensibly illegal in Qatar, Qatari employers implement the “kafala” employee sponsorship system, which gives bosses absolute power over their employees.
The kafala sponsorship system resulted in workers living in slum-like, overcrowded living conditions, the confiscation of passports (making it next to impossible to leave), and salaries withheld for months on end. In Qatar's frantic attempt to build for the World Cup, it’s estimated more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in the process. According to Nick McGeehan, a director at FairSquare Projects, “a very significant proportion of the migrant workers who have died since 2011 were only in the country because Qatar won the right to host the World Cup.”
Further exacerbating the problem is the hiding of these conditions from the public by Qatar’s state intelligence agency. European journalists have been arrested and thrown in prison for filming construction sites. During the World Cup, news crews will be prohibited from filming accommodation sites housing migrant workers and from interviewing people in their homes.
Because of these factors, there has been pushback to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. In protest, a number of French cities, including Paris and Strasbourg, will not broadcast the tournament on big screens in fan zones as they have in the past. Denmark has a third black kit (an alternative jersey) in honor of the migrant workers who died while building the stadiums. The German, Norwegian, Dutch, and Belgian teams have already donned similar attire. World leaders have spoken out on the issue, too. After the announcement, Bill Clinton, the honorary chairman for the United States’ bid—who had traveled to Zurich for the World Cup conference—apparently went back to his hotel room and smashed a mirror with an ashtray in frustration. Another former President, Barack Obama, stated that letting Qatar host was “the wrong decision” on the part of FIFA.
Despite all this, next month, the best players in the world will wear their nation's colors and compete for the most coveted trophy in the soccer world. I suspect even those who claim to be boycotting the tournament will sneak away from their friends and family to watch the semi-finals and finals. How could you blame them? This is the biggest sports tournament in the world. On November 20th, millions of fans will forget about the thousands of lives needlessly lost and a bidding process stained with corruption. They will tune into a World Cup in Qatar that should have never been.