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A political football

The Qatar World Cup is an uneasy reminder of how the world works. But shouldn’t sport be better?

People walk past a mural in Doha on November 8, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

When the whistle blows on the final game of the World Cup in Qatar, will the scoreline read: Sportswashing 1 Human Rights 0? It’s hard to imagine that the most expensive, most controversial World Cup ever staged could have any different outcome. In a sense, this is one result that was fixed, from the moment FIFA awarded the tournament to the tiny Gulf emirate back in 2010.

Much has been written about the corruption allegations surrounding that decision. FIFA’s explanation was that it wanted to develop football in Qatar, an explanation that Louis Van Gaal, the outspoken Dutch coach, said was “bullshit”. And then there are Qatar’s many well-documented human rights failings. 

Qatar treats its foreign workers terribly. Until recently, migrant workers were locked into the kafala system, which is a form of indentured labour. Their working conditions were abominable and their pay miserly. The human rights abuses don’t stop there. Women have to seek permission from their male guardians to marry or work in many government jobs. Same-sex activity is illegal and journalists asking awkward questions are jailed. 

This is not the first time that a major international sporting event has been held under authoritarian rule. But the Qatar World Cup has led directly to much worse conditions for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who built the stadiums and tournament infrastructure. Around 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010. There is  currently no investigation under way, or any plans to compensate for this tragic loss of life. That represents a failure by both Qatar and FIFA itself. 

Felix Jakens, head of priority campaigns at Amnesty UK, says FIFA has a responsibility to ensure people’s rights are not violated as a consequence of its business activities. That need for oversight is no different to the way a “T-shirt manufacturer has a responsibility to ensure the people producing the cotton are not subject to forced labour”.

Jakens says Qatar has introduced some labour reforms over the last few years. The kafala system has been partially dismantled, a minimum wage has been introduced, and a fund to make up for unpaid wages has been created. But many reforms are yet to be implemented.  

“The fact that it’s taken this long and been this hard to get the small amount of changes that we have seen leaves us not particularly optimistic, especially given that Qatar has dismissed out-of-hand the idea of a compensation fund,” Jakens told The New European. That is a reference to the #PayUpFIFA campaign, that wants Qatar and FIFA to pay out at least $440 million – the equivalent of what FIFA hands out in World Cup prize money – to the families of migrant workers who have been harmed or killed in preparation for the tournament.

“There’s roughly six weeks until the World Cup roadshow rolls out of town and with it almost certainly the majority of the international scrutiny. So unless Qatar starts to deliver on these reforms now, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll go far enough,” Jakens said. 

But really, that ship sailed as soon as Qatar was awarded the right to host the tournament. With the prize secured, leverage disappeared with no concessions gained at all. 

FIFA’s defenders, and those who want greater engagement with authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, say isolating them makes them more draconian. Much better to pull them in, and the chance to host international sporting events might even encourage repressive rulers to change their ways. 

But there is little evidence to support this Pollyanna-ish assessment. Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 and the Winter Olympics this year but abuses against the Uyghurs have intensified since then. Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018 and now Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine. In the end, the host country tends to reap the benefits, at no cost to its leadership. 

“Sport is seen as almost a soft underbelly for entry into the global community because these are international events governed by non-governmental entities that have very different sets of standards about who can and can’t participate,” says Jakens. “Russia is a good example of this. They used sports, culture and all those things really effectively to integrate themselves into the international community. Now Saudi Arabia is right out there with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar in using sports as a way to build a brand and create opportunities for more people to visit… but the human rights situation is not changing for the better. It’s getting worse.”

Principles often crumble in the face of money. Post-Brexit Britain knows that concern for human rights is sometimes too high a price to pay when national interests are at stake. In the summer, a leaked letter from then trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan stated that human rights issues should be kept out of trade talks, as trade agreements “are not generally the most effective or targeted tool to advance human rights issues.”

At the time, Britain was starting negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council. This includes Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where a woman, who is a student at Leeds University, was recently sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting activists on Twitter. 

A leading arms exporter, the UK sends most of its defence exports to the Middle East. In 2019, a UK court ruled that Britain broke the law by allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Those weapons might have been used in Yemen, where tens of thousands of people have been killed in fighting between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. The UK’s Ministry of Defence also funded counter-terrorism training for Qatar’s military ahead of the World Cup. The RAF and Royal Navy will provide air and sea support during the competition.

Britain is not alone in prioritising trade and the economy over principles. Joe Biden, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state over its murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was forced to swallow that threat when he travelled to the kingdom this summer, hoping to persuade Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production. As it happened, his awkward fistbump with bin Salman in Jeddah, failed to seal the deal. 

And Germany has faced intense criticism for its reliance on Russian gas. Officials were forced to question their belief in Wandel durch Handel, the concept that trade and dialogue can bring about social and political change, at least as regards Russia.

It’s tempting to sink into apathy and to accept that wrongdoing is subjective and context-specific. The result is a willingness to compromise, or to quote the Foreign Minister James Cleverly, who advised LGBTQ+ fans planning to travel to Qatar, it’s all about showing a little “flex and compromise”. 

Cleverly was criticised for his remarks, but the truth is that this kind of “flex” is at the centre of global politics. But why is sport held to different, some might say more stringent, standards? Europe has bought oil and gas from the Middle East for generations, with little complaint. But when it comes to playing football there, the reaction is much sharper. Why the difference?

Because sport is supposed to showcase the best of humankind. It is about belief, and blind faith, and passion. It is not meant to be pragmatic, mercantile or cynical. The willing suspension of disbelief is as vital to our enjoyment of sport as it is to our enjoyment of literature. Just listen to the World Cup anthems. They exhort us to be our best, to face our challenges, to unite and rise to the occasion. They evoke a better world, a better us. Awarding the World Cup to Qatar reminds us that we are failing, and that we are imperfect. That, more than anything perhaps, explains the anger, the sense of betrayal. Some might say it is hypocritical, given what else is going on in the world, but many would argue that sport should be better because it is the embodiment of a universal dream.  

And yet Qatar’s shameful record of cruelty will not go unchallenged. Denmark’s players will wear monochrome “protest jerseys” with the name and logo of their sponsor Hummel covered over, because the sportswear brand said: “We don’t want to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives”.

Eric Cantona, the former Manchester United star, has said he will not be watching, and some French cities, including Paris, have banned match screenings in public spaces. The Dutch broadcaster NOS will show the matches, but it will also make clear that the human rights situation in Qatar is appalling. Australia’s “Socceroos” have produced a video raising their concerns about the suffering of migrant workers and the inability of LGBTQ+ people “to love the person that they choose”. And players from nine teams, including England’s captain Harry Kane, will wear multicoloured “One Love” armbands. 

The Qatari organisers – the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – seemed to lean into some of the criticism, responding to the Socceroos video by praising the players for raising awareness of important issues but it seems their tolerance has limits. As the World Cup kickoff neared, it emerged that FIFA had written to all 32 teams urging them not to drag the sport “into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

“Please, let’s now focus on the football!” said the letter from FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino and its secretary general Fatma Samoura. “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.”

Russia has been banned from the competition – but Iran, where security forces have been killing people during a wave of protests, has not (Ukraine has called for Iran to be excluded for supplying weapons to Russia). Saudi Arabia, which is waging a proxy war in Yemen, is also welcome at the games. Cameroon is also playing, even though its security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. 

In the letter, the FIFA executives go on to say: “One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.”

Whatever your views, you have to admire FIFA’s chutzpah. Making diversity and inclusion – two concepts alien to Qatar’s ruling elites – the basis of their argument that we should respect Qatar’s “culture” is bold. Implying that criticism of the emirate’s discriminatory laws and norms shows a kind of distasteful superiority, also takes some gall. 

The harsh truth is that armbands and monochrome jerseys are little more than gestures. FIFA’s decision to award the World Cup to Qatar yielded some reforms, but what incentive will there be for the Emirate to go further once the final whistle has blown?

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