Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup: The ‘beautiful game’ rears its ugly head

By Conall Miller

Shrouded in controversy from its inception, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup has sparked a recent round of on-field protests on football’s international stage. But what exactly has pushed the pros to speak up? And why only now?

The international break is something that fans of British teams have come to hold in contempt in recent years. The fixtures are boring, the outcomes are predictable, and the disruption to the domestic season generally leaves fans with a sour taste in their mouths.

March 2020’s international break presented a very refreshing image: some of the world’s elite footballers using their platform to shed light on the most controversial World Cup to date. Footballers have famously not engaged in such activism and generally do not articulate their opinions, perhaps in fear of saying the wrong thing and losing one of their precious sponsorship deals. Seeing national squads such as Norway, Germany and the Netherlands wearing T-shirts to protest the myriad of human rights violations rife throughout the competition is a true signifier that football is beginning to wake up.

Controversial bid victory

Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid and subsequent victory left people scratching their heads, especially considering Qatar saw off fierce competition to secure the tournament, facing rival bids from the likes of the USA, Australia, South Korea and Japan. Many questions were raised at first, considering that Qatar, a country lacking any significant footballing heritage, was far less equipped to host a national tournament at the time. As such, Qatar has had to implement plans to construct eight entirely new stadiums. The tournament itself has also been scheduled to take place in November in order to combat the extreme heat, constituting the first ever World Cup to take place in the winter, resulting in a pause to the domestic footballing season.

As a result of these various pitfalls, it is no surprise that the US were the odds on favourite to host the competition, with a promise of “record profits” leading their World Cup charge and surely swaying the vote in their favour. Nevertheless, it was Qatar who came out victorious with one of the most unexpected victories in modern footballing history. Qatar’s victory ensured that the 2022 installment would be the first to be staged in the Middle East, ultimately looking to “bridge the cultural gap” between the East and the West and deliver a truly unique experience.

Despite Qatar’s truly dazzling world cup bid, things simply did not add up. It wasn’t long before whispers of corruption and misconduct began to circulate. To add fuel to the fire, 2015’s FIFA corruption crisis uncovered “decades of bribery” totaling more than “$150 Million Dollars”. This resulted in the resignation of then FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and the federal indictment of 30 current and former FIFA officials and associates. For nearly a decade, Qatar has been suspected of buying votes to win the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. After years of investigations and indictments, the United States Department of Justice officially stated for the first time on 6 April 2020 that representatives of Qatar had bribed FIFA officials to secure the hosting rights of the 2022 tournament.

Why only now are teams protesting the tournament?

So, what exactly pulled the tournament back into the spotlight? What inspired these typically prudent footballers to put their fears of rocking the boat aside and use their platform to incite serious change?

Back in February, it was revealed that more than 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it’s World Cup bid victory back in 2010. Meaning that, at the time of the reveal, an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian countries had died on a weekly basis within this timeframe. A truly shocking statistic that, understandably so, simply cannot be ignored. What is perhaps more shocking is that the total death toll is estimated to be significantly higher. The figure that has been widely reported does not include the deaths from the plethora of other countries that have also sent a large number of workers. It is also worth considering that the closing months of 2020 were not factored into the overall death toll.

As stated by Fairsquare Projects Director Nick McGeehan, whilst the recorded deaths do not specify the occupation, it is very likely that many of them were working on the variety of infrastructure projects commissioned to prepare the country for the World Cup. These projects include eight new football stadiums, a new airport, new roads, public transport systems, hotels and an entirely new city.

Working conditions at the Qatar 2022 World Cup site

According to research commissioned by the UN’s International Labour Organisation, for at least four months of the year workers were subjected to significant heat stress whilst working outside as a result of Qatar’s intense summer heat. The number of deaths has not been disputed by Qatar’s government, however, they have argued that the death toll is proportionate to the size of the migrant workforce.

A large number of worker deaths have been attributed to natural causes such as sudden and unexplained heart or respiratory failure, but the lack of investigation into this phenomenon raises further questions, especially considering many of these deaths are young people who have unfortunately died in their sleep. Working within high temperatures for an extended amount of time can put the cardiovascular system under tremendous strain, and cardiologists have gone on to say that there is a direct link between heat stress and the high numbers of alleged natural deaths.

Other significant causes of death throughout the migrant workforce are due to road accidents, workplace accidents, and suicide. But the actual figures are disputed due to the sheer lack of transparency, rigour, and detail within Qatar’s recording process of the deaths. On top of all this, migrant workers have also been subjected to poor living conditions, often living within cramped and unsafe accommodation whilst also having to deal with the burden of delayed salary payments that have been known to go on for months at a time.

Things were looking up as Qatar made a pledge to reform back in 2014, and ultimately look to reassess labour laws in the best interests of migrant workers. This was seemingly a false promise as the safety and pay of migrant workers continues to be neglected.

Is it too late for change?

What action has been taken to amend these atrocities? Why was serious action not taken earlier?

Ultimately, the brunt of the blame is on FIFA’s doorstep and, with the World Cup only a year away, the emphasis should really be on FIFA to take a more hands-on approach for any future tournaments – and even for the remaining construction period for next year’s competition.

It is absolutely fantastic to see footballers – perhaps taking inspiration from Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child poverty – become activists for change. But unfortunately, once again, it is the case of a major governing body neglecting its duty. So rather than making meaningless statements that ultimately lead to nothing, it is essential that FIFA takes a direct approach and uses their leverage with Qatar to help end the abuse migrant workers are continuously subjected to.

If more top professionals continue to boycott the competition (perhaps some of the premier league’s elite stars) we can hope it will ultimately put FIFA under immense pressure to really step in.

Graphic courtesy of Sophie Williamson.

“Bidding Nation Qatar 2022” by D@LY3D is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/