The World Cup is officially launched in Qatar. Here’s why it’s so controversial.
The 2022 World Cup officially kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, marking the start of weeks of competition in the world’s most popular sport. But even as football stars take to the world stage, the first World Cup to take place in a Middle Eastern and Muslim country remains plagued by more than a decade of questions and controversy.
Among them: a global corruption scandal, the astronomical cost of building the necessary facilities, serious human rights concerns about the country’s treatment of migrant workers, and outrage over Qatar’s treatment of women and LGBTQI+ people.
So how did Qatar, a nation smaller than the state of Connecticut, earn the right to host the World Cup?
“To understand this question, you need to know that football is governed by FIFA,” says Roger Bennett, the founder of Men in Blazers Media, which produces several football-focused podcasts. FIFA, the International Football Federation, is the governing body of football, and is intended to “develop and safeguard the game”, according to Bennett. The World Cup, which takes place every four years, is awarded through a bidding process in which potential host countries are invited to submit a proposal to the FIFA Council.
In 2010, in an unusual move, FIFA awarded the rights to two tournaments at the same time – the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The winning host countries were Russia and Qatar respectively. “The USA were expected to win this tournament,” said Sam Stejskal, who covers football for The Athletic. “And as we learned in subsequent surveys, it wasn’t quite up.”
A Justice Department investigation into how football officials awarded TV and marketing deals has led to at least 25 FIFA leaders indicted in 2015 for “their participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international football”. And the The United States alleged in 2020 that officials Russia and Qatar had bribed voting members of FIFA to support their ultimately successful bids.
On top of that, awarding two World Cups at once made it “the perfect way to maximize the amount of money bribed,” Bennett said.
Qatari officials deny corruption allegations, but FIFA’s own analysis of Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup “flagged almost every asset of the Qatari bid as dangerous”, Bennett said. This included extreme summer temperatures, which would require the World Cup to be moved from its typical summer start to November, and the challenges of building new facilities, all located essentially in a single city in the country.
Bennett stressed that it was right that Middle Eastern countries had the opportunity to host the World Cup, but that Qatar, whose team had never qualified for a World Cup before being included by default as this year’s host, was the wrong choice. “There are nations in the Middle East with incredible and rich footballing legacies and traditions: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, all deserve the right more,” Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was head of FIFA when Qatar won the World Cup, and who has been accused of corruption throughout his tenure as head of FIFA, said the decision was a “bad choice,” though he primarily noted her short stature as the reason.
To be able to host the World Cup, Qatar had to build — “Everything, basically. It is remarkable here in Doha; you can’t escape construction,” Steskal, who spoke to the NewsHour from Qatar.
Qatar, a country of less than 3 million people – the vast majority of whom are immigrants – estimated it would host more than a million fans.
With no large stadiums available in countries with major national football leagues and programs, Qatar had to build seven new stadiums and fully rehabilitate an eighth.
To accommodate a million fans, Qatar accelerated the construction of a brand new city, Lusail, and a metro system to support it. It has expanded its airport and built new residential buildings, hotels and more. And while the full price hasn’t been made public, estimates put it at over $200 billion – easily most expensive world cup ever.
To achieve all this, Qatar relied on an army of migrant workers from countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ghana and many others. While Qatar says it brought in 30,000 migrant workers, that tally only relates to those building stadiums. And the conditions the migrants reported raised serious human rights concerns.
Anish Adhikari, a migrant worker from Nepal to Qatar, lured by a higher salary than Adhikari could earn at home, describes conditions to PBS NewsHour and independent filmmakers Fat Rat Films in a recent interview. “Sometimes the company gave us spoiled food. The fish would smell disgusting. He was giving us diarrhea,” Adhikari said. “It hit 125 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t have the water we needed. The water we got was almost 90% ice. We asked them why they were doing this and told them it was impossible to drink water like this. They said they froze it because if they provided normal water the workers would drink more.
The conditions under which the workers were kept in the country have also led to allegations of forced labour. “A lot of these people, their passports will be taken from them when they arrive in the country. They won’t be returned to them until they submit their contracts,” Stejskal told the NewsHour. , have been very, very bad in some cases. Tons of people crammed into tiny, squalid accommodations, and there have been a lot of deaths.
The Qatari government says that since 2015, 37 migrant workers have died, only three of them for work-related reasons. But, as with its estimates of the total number of workers, this tally does not include those building non-competitive facilities, such as hotels and public transport.
According to a analysis by the Guardianwho contacted the embassies of countries that sent workers – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – at least 6,750 workers have died building in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded in 2010.
And the association Human Rights Watch indicates that the Guardian analysis could still be an undercount, since not all nations that sent workers have been contacted.
The death toll, Bennett said, is something “teams are now dealing with. They’re going to be forced to play the game of their dreams in stadiums literally drenched in blood.
The outcry surrounding the tournaments led to public protests. Australia’s national team have released a video with members of the Socceroos – their national team – addressing some of the issues surrounding this World Cup. Denmark will make a statement with its jersey, an all-black mourning shirt, in memory of the workers who lost their lives.
And the captains of the England, Germany and France teams planned to wear an armband with the phrase “One Love”, in colors similar to the LGBT pride flag, to protest against Qatar’s laws against homosexuality. This plan was discarded after FIFA warned teams that players wearing an armband not approved by FIFA would receive a yellow card.
But the issues around this World Cup are not unique. For example, China hosted the last Winter Olympics amid criticism over forced labor practices and the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims.
And Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup four years after the annexation of Crimea, while backing separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, and amid allegations of anti-gay “purges” in the Russian Republic of Chechnya.
“It’s a model,” Bennett said, noting that the 1930 World Cup was hosted by Italy, then under fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “The first World Cup I remember watching when I was little was 1978 in Argentina. The military junta used the World Cup to try to present a modern and attractive face.
Many fans will watch this World Cup through a sort of “split screen,” Bennett said – their love for watching football co-exists with the corruption, exploitation and human suffering that has led to this point.