I don’t profess to know everything about Qatar. Or migrant working laws. Or the environmental impact of hosting a major sporting event in a desert. So I set out to find out a few things ahead of the World Cup. Could I make my peace with the World Cup?
Did 6,500 migrant workers die after Qatar was awarded the World Cup?
This is the figure that was quoted in the Guardian in a report at the start of last year. This number is based largely on figures provided to journalists by government officials from countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. It has been the subject of much debate thereafter. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to get a clear picture when the numbers are coming from the Qatari state, who have been quick to downplay the link between any deaths and the working conditions faced. They also claim that reforms to workers rights in 2017 have changed things considerably for the better. A minimum wage was introduced and laws were implemented to improve standards of live-in domestic workers. But Amnesty International has pointed out that many of these regulations only cover 2% of Qatar’s workforce.
Even if things have improved, the fact that reforms were introduced seven years after the bid tells you a lot about how much (or little) FIFA cared for the conditions of those who would be building the infrastructure.
Should the media be going to Qatar?
Watching Gary Neville get roasted on Have I Got News for You last week from Ian Hislop was an eye opener. The former England defender (Neville not Hislop) was subject to claims of hypocrisy for commentating on the event, rather than staying here to highlight the issue. Neville’s counter argument was that the right approach is to go and see for yourself, use your platform to raise awareness of human rights issues. All of which would be palatable if Neville wasn’t working for the Qatari state owned BeIN sports as co-commentator. He would be likely to risk the wrath of his employers if he points out the lack of human rights afforded to migrant workers. All of which gives Hislop's argument much more strength.
I think it’s important that the press are there on the ground, if they’re able to report freely. Again, it’s not their fault that FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar and they have a massive role to shine a light on the situation. However, the country has faced claims of media censorship, propaganda and suppressing freedom of expression. BBC journalist Mark Lobel was arrested in 2015 whilst investigating the alleged abuse of migrant workers. Similar fate struck two Norwegian journalists as they were due to interview former World Cup communications head Abdullah Ibhais. Ibhais was arrested hours before his interview. According to Nation Cymru “International media heading to the tournament have been banned from filming in people’s homes and accommodation sites, government buildings, universities, places of worship, hospitals and private businesses.”
Just this week a Danish news broadcast was interrupted by Qatari authorities who stopped them filming and allegedly threatened to break their camera.
Should we just focus ‘on the football’?
FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrote a letter to all 32 participating nations asking to “focus on football” and “do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
Sport and politics have always been linked. Anti-arpartheid boycotts. The black power salute at Mexico 68. More recently, taking the knee. Or even more recently, the ban on Russian participation at major sporting events. The ‘stick to the sports’ line has been used to criticise athletes, usually by those who don’t agree with their politics. We’re living in a golden age of athlete media. Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Naomi Osaka, Marcus Rashford. Just a few athletes who have used their platforms to take a stand against social injustice. The biggest football stars have an opportunity to do the same. Although it is unlikely that we’ll see much from the players. The truth is that many are linked through their employers to Gulf states with questionable human rights records, think PSG, Man City, Newcastle to name a handful.
Will the teams protest?
Some of the teams have a degree of protest lined up. Germany, Holland and Norway took part in a demonstration in March 2021, wearing t-shirts protesting the conditions of workers.
Denmark will be wearing a stripped-back kit including a black change shirt to signify a sense of mourning and criticise the human rights record of the hosts. Created by longtime collaborators Hummel, one could argue that this is a PR stunt designed to sell a few shirts. Even so, working with their kit partner has sent out a strong message and continued to shine a light on human rights issues. Earlier this week, FIFA denied Denmark permission to wear training shirts with the message ‘human rights for all’ on them. Denmark has been a long time critic of the decision to award Qatar the tournament.
This week, the Dutch side announced that they would be auctioning their shirts after the tournament in aid of migrant workers. Another powerful statement and one that will presumably raise some decent funds as well as awareness.
Are LGBTQ+ fans safe in Qatar?
Elsewhere, many European nations including England and Wales will be sporting rainbow armbands with the slogan #OneLove written upon them. Compared to Denmark’s (who will also be wearing them) stance it feels a little corporate to be honest. Not too dissimilar to the rainbow washing that brands do with their logos. But I’m a heterosexual white male, it’s not my opinion that matters. If this effort of solidarity is welcomed by the LGBTQ+ community then that’s what really matters.
I do sympathise with the associations on this one, both The FA and FAW have worked with their pride supporters organisations to seek assurances that the tournament will be safe to attend, in a country where homosexual activity is deemed illegal.
However, the truth is that there will be many passionate fans who simply won’t feel safe enough to go because of their sexuality.
Are fans being paid to act as cheerleaders for the tournament?
According to a recent report in The Times, fans from England and Wales are being offered free accommodation, flights and spending money in exchange for promoting the country and their experience of it. This is arguably no different to a standard social media campaign. But it’s unlikely that the migrant workers who built the stadium were afforded this kind of hospitality. Which makes it much more difficult to swallow than a Love Island contestant promoting teeth whitening strips.
Elsewhere, UNICEF goodwill ambassador, ex-England captain and gay icon David Beckham will be pocketing a large cheque to be the face of Qatar. This has attracted much criticism, not least from comedian Joe Lycett who took to social media to set Beckham an ultimatum.
The criticism of Beckham seems to be two fold. Firstly, he has benefited from his gay following and was seen as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, so to take the money from a state that criminalises homosexual activity feels like a huge betrayal.
As Attitude magazine wrote this year “David Beckham continues to keep his money just about as far as possible from where his mouth is when it comes to the LGBTQ community,”
Secondly, the money is not to endorse Qatar Airways or BeIN Sports but the nation itself. And with that comes all of the baggage that goes with it.
What is the environmental impact of the tournament?
FIFA has claimed numerous times that the tournament will be carbon neutral. Which instantly feels questionable given that seven new stadia and accompanying infrastructure have been built from scratch. A report in Wired documents how reliant the claims of neutrality are on offsetting their emissions. Which in itself is a much criticised method.
That said, there is some impressive engineering on display including an ingenuitive air cooling system and a stadium built of shipping containers. It’s also worth stating that environmental impact is an issue faced by so many sports, from cycling to golf. But there are also events such as Sail GP that have placed green energy and sustainability at the heart of their offering.
Will this happen again?
The problem with major sporting events is that they cost a tonne of money. So countries with lots of money will be frontrunners to host them. Particularly whilst the world finds itself sailing through tricky financial waters and the West is facing an energy crisis.
If the gulf states don’t get the big events, who will foot the bill? Saudi Arabia has already been chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in Neom. A country which has already hosted a number of big boxing world title fights and is heavily involved funding the controversial LIV Golf breakaway tour.
Should we boycott the World Cup?
So having examined the facts, is it ok to watch the tournament? I don’t blame the teams for going. It’s not their fault, nor is it the fault of the players. It’s especially not the fault of the fans who have had this tournament thrust upon them.
The blame lies squarely at the feet of FIFA. Whilst they quote platitudes about inclusivity and creating a tournament for everyone, they decided to host the tournament in a country where homosexuality is illegal, women are restricted by male guardianship law and basic human rights aren’t observed.
Teams were never going to boycott the tournament, but hopefully they will find a way of making FIFA take note. Fans are going to be boosting the local economy but they should never have been put in this position. But that is modern era football. Fans are an afterthought, whether it’s antisocial kick off times, ticket prices or hosting a tournament in the middle of a season in a place like Qatar. Sport has become such big business that, at times, morals and ethics seem to have vanished from trace.
The onus is on governing bodies like FIFA to re-engage with a degree of ethical responsibility. As Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch puts it “We should never again have a World Cup that fails to respect basic human rights and has none of the expected assurances and protections.”
So I've come to the conclusion that I will be watching from the sofa. I think I knew that is what I would be doing all along. But I feel like now I can do armed with a few more facts. This World Cup didn't feel right in 2010 when the winning bid was announced. It feels even less right now.