The level of criticism of Qatar in the run-up to and the early days of the World Cup has been unprecedented for a global sporting event.
Five billion viewers are expected to watch the Football World Cup next month. It is 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 feel strong, today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel like a migrant worker. feel like.” He then saw fit to clarify bluntly: “Of course, I’m not Qatari, I’m not Arab, I’m not African, I’m not gay, I’m not disabled. But I feel that way because I hate discrimination.” Learn. What does bullying mean?”
Treat this at your own risk, but at least have some context.
This is the first time that the World Cup has been held in the Middle East. It is the first time in memory that a tournament traditionally held in the summer has been played in the winter when professional leagues worldwide are in the middle of their annual seasons. This phenomenon has been around for those who do not follow sports. But the past few weeks have shown that the implications are deeper.
It was in 2010 that Qatar won the right to host the World Cup that year. It was announced along with handing over the 2018 World Cup to Russia. However, shortly after the announcement, the rumor mill started spinning. Serious allegations of corruption and bribery soon emerged.
Ultimately, FIFA was forced to conduct an independent investigation into the bidding process for both World Cups. The Garcia report was filed in 2014. Although this uncovered several suspicious transactions, as The New York Times reported, there was no conclusive evidence. That being said, there was plenty of ammunition for future use.
Russia hosted a successful World Cup in 2017, exactly one year after the final publication of the full report. Some even described the tournament as the best. The clouds of corruption and dishonesty had lifted from the world’s most popular sport. Or so it seemed.
The closer the tournament got to Qatar, the more headlines it made. The debate has now turned from the infamous tender process in 2010 to the rights of workers, women, and LGBTQs in Qatar.
The level of criticism on these issues in the days leading up to and in the early days of the World Cup has been unprecedented for a global sporting event. The Belgian and Danish kits have been designed to express solidarity with migrant workers and the LGBTQ community. The German team registered their protest against the restrictions on freedom of expression by openly covering their faces during a team photo. The hosts have also made considerable efforts to highlight human rights abuses in their broadcasts. One wonders why. Why is this time different?
In preparation for the World Cup, Qatar has had to undertake massive construction works ranging from stadiums and hotels to roads and highways. To achieve this, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from South Asian countries were offered work in the infamous kafala system, under which the employer controls the entry and exit of workers from the country. These migrant workers worked for years in extremely poor working conditions and faced problems of delays and pay cuts, long hours without leave, and serious occupational hazards.
In 2021, The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. Reports on the number of work-related deaths at the World Cup are controversial in their own right. Amnesty International is claiming over 15,000. FIFA and Qatar, on the other hand, only say three! The stark disparity in numbers is a manifestation of division.
However, some improvements have been made with international organizations and the media focusing on these issues. Qatari authorities have taken several initiatives in recent years, such as establishing a court for the rapid resolution of labor disputes and a fund to support the payment of wages. But critics still lament that it was too late. A major point of contention is the measure and the fact that Qatar does not compensate families of victims who die of natural causes.
LGBTQ rights are another cause for concern. A tournament like the World Cup, hosting teams and fans from 32 different countries, celebrates different cultures. A prerequisite for the host nation is tolerance, even if only for a month, to enable free expression by people of different religions and backgrounds.
But Qatari attitudes towards the LGBTQ community are not particularly endearing. A few weeks before kick-off, a Qatari World Cup official referred to homosexuality as “brain damage.” The criminal law in Qatar also makes homosexuality punishable by up to seven years in prison.
This has naturally raised 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 must be respected. Make of it what you will, but a public display of homosexuality is associated with risk.
Other, more general, human rights issues faced in Qatar continue to be raised as well. For example, critics have commented that women do not enjoy the same rights as men regarding property, inheritance, and marriage. Questions have also been raised about the limits of freedom of expression and the dangerous consequences associated with criticism of the state.
All these issues require serious and honest attention. But not only in Qatar and not only this winter.
Why was Qatar targeted?
Piers Morgan raised relevant questions on a radio show, perhaps unsurprisingly, who asked which country is clean enough to host the World Cup if we use these metrics. He claimed that homosexuality was banned in eight 32-playing nations and several African countries. The United States has a reprehensible gun and anti-abortion laws. Russia is guilty of the illegal occupation of Ukraine. The less said about China’s human rights record, the better. Then why single out Qatar?
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, some contend that politics has no place in sports. When you deep dive into ownership structures, sponsorship deals, broadcasting rights, and societal influence of sports around the world, the fallacy of that argument becomes clear. Sportspeople worldwide have been steadfast in protesting against racism and social injustice. ‘Sportswashing’ is slowly finding its feet.
Politics and sports have a budding love affair. Let it be that way and use sport for the greater good. That includes using platforms like 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.