World Cups come around only once every four years, and the international tournament stirs up patriotic pride for every involved nation. For players, just qualifying for the tournament can be the pinnacle of a career. All the world’s attention lasers in on the competition. It dominates the sports news here in the UK now, and no doubt it’s the same in every other footballing country on the planet. Add to that a fantasy World Cup platform that will be played by millions of fans, and I’m sure our readers here can barely contain their excitement.
But the moral and political problems swirling around this Cup leave me distinctly unenthused. We want to believe that sport is immune from the more crude human weaknesses; indeed we look to it as an escape from the trials and tribulations of our day-to-day lives. But in true Pollyanna fashion, FIFA has largely attempted to white-wash World Cup Qatar of the troubling controversies that plague it. Like many others, I’m having trouble getting past that.
What’s The Problem?
It’s been twelve years since the tournament was awarded to Qatar, something that seemed shocking at the time. Concerns were raised over Qatar’s limited football history, the high expected cost, the (hot) local climate, and Qatar’s human rights record.
But bribery bought the bid, and in the aftermath FIFA’s chair resigned in disgrace. Several governors have since admitted that awarding the tournament to Qatar was a mistake. Originally the intention was to play the tournament in the summer, despite ridiculously high temperatures (~42C / 108F average high). But after years of pushback and wrangling, the tournament was switched to winter, despite the huge disruption this caused to domestic and international club competitions.
So that move (somewhat) mitigated the climate concern. But there are also tensions around LGBTQ+ rights. FIFA has adopted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require it to “avoid infringing on the human rights of others and address adverse human rights impacts”. But under Qatar’s Sharia-based constitution, homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment (or, for Muslims, even death). According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the country’s security services detain and beat members of Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community and subject them to compulsory “conversion therapy” treatments.
Qatar has promised a ‘World Cup for all,” but recent comments by a Qatari World Cup ambassador that homosexuality is “damage in the mind” seem at odds with this inclusive-sounding slogan. Consequently, there have been widespread calls for boycotts, many celebrities have rejected paid offers from Qatar to appear at and/or promote the World Cup, and even Prince William — the President of England’s Football Association — is staying away (unless the Three Lions advance far enough into the tournament).
For me though, the most reprehensible of all this Cup’s sins is the treatment of foreign workers who migrated to Qatar to build the World Cup’s infrastructure. Last year, The Guardian reported that between 2010 and 2020, an average of 12 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died PER WEEK while working on projects related to World Cup Qatar. This is only a fraction of the total deaths, since many other countries also sent labor. Qatar insists that most of these deaths were from natural causes and not related to World Cup projects. But bear in mind that these were all relatively healthy young men, and work-related death includes falling off scaffolding but not heat stroke.
Fact-checkers from dw.com came to this conclusion about the disputed numbers:
Figures referring to fatalities in connection with the 2022 World Cup vary depending on definition, including of where migrant workers came from, where and when they died, and whether their deaths can be described as work-related or not. However, given the inconsistencies and shortcomings in Qatar’s own official data, a concrete conclusion is impossible to ascertain, which in turn raises the question as to why exactly the Qatari authorities are unable to provide reliable information.
Even the images we will see from the tournament have been called into doubt, with reports that fans from each participating country are being paid to project positivity by singing certain songs upon request and to share upbeat messages on television and social media. So when the camera rests on a group of happy fans all having a great time, will those shots be authentic or will they be manufactured scenes staged by paid actors?
Can We Concentrate On Football Please?
Earlier this month FIFA sent a letter to each World Cup nation imploring them to “focus on the football.”
We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.
FIFA’s wishes aren’t likely to be followed. At least two teams are using their kit and logos to criticize aspects of Qatar’s record, with the USA team using a rainbow logo in support of the LGBTQ+ community, and Denmark including a black shirt to honor migrant workers who died during construction of the stadia. (I may be a bit cynical, but could these teams now find refereeing decisions inexplicably going against them?)
The trouble now is that the ‘criticize Qatar’ bandwagon has grown so large that every last issue is going to be heavily scrutinized. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that there are going to be a lot of niggling side-issues and conspiracy theories relating to match results, and if any gain enough traction on social media, then the popular mood will become very uncomfortable for the organizers. The emergence within the last couple days of allegations that Qatar plotted to bribe eight Ecuadorian players into throwing the Cup’s opening day match against the hosts will not help.
I hope my pessimism isn’t TOO negative — I think it is good that the World Cup is being held in a different part of the world, and when you visit any country you must respect its culture and traditions. For instance, just hours ago World Cup sponsor Budweiser was chagrined to learn of Qatar’s abrupt decision to ban alcohol in stadiums. (Budweiser’s tweeted response: “Well this is awkward...”)
Looking back at the last World Cup, I’m amazed there wasn’t more outcry about it being in Russia. But the fact is that there IS an outcry this time, and it’s become a major part of the Qatari World Cup’s narrative.
What About Fantasy Football?
I recognize that readers are here primarily because they play fantasy football, and in the (perhaps unlikely) case that you’re still reading this far down, what does it mean in terms of fantasy?
For me, the big decision is whether or not to even play. By doing so, I worry that I am implicitly supporting an unscrupulous FIFA and a repressive Qatar. On balance I think I will play, although with some concern and trepidation, and with my eyes wide open.
Does that make me weak? Probably, but like other football fans round the world, I want to enjoy what will hopefully be an exciting celebration of world football that only comes round every four years.
And who knows? Perhaps shining a spotlight on Qatar’s warts can be a catalyst for change. Indeed, it has already spurred some major migrant labor reforms. At the very least, perhaps the legacy of World Cup Qatar will be that the allocation of future World Cup tournaments will be done transparently and fairly, instead of auctioned off to the highest bidder.
I’ve tried to keep this as brief as possible, but if you want to read more, here are some interesting articles to get you started:
How do you feel about the tournament? Do you have any concerns? Should we just concentrate on the football? Please log in and let us know in the comments.