Qatar World Cup one year on: have lessons been learnt?

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It has been one whole year since the kick-off whistle blew for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Whether you’re an ultra or totally uninterested in football, it was practically impossible not to pick up on the excitement leading up to the tournament. Undoubtedly, sport in the media is a powerful tool in many aspects, from health to diplomacy. Michael Novak has even gone as far as to dub sports a “religion”. However, one thing that shouldn’t suffer at the hands of this ‘religion’ is human rights.

As is often with sporting events, once the trophy is claimed, normality quickly resumes. Despite campaigns like #PayUpFIFA, formed by a coalition of human rights organisations, criticism surrounding the event fell silent. But what does that mean for the families of the 6500 migrant workers that lost their lives so that you could enjoy Messi and Mbappe fight it out for the Golden Boot?

However, one thing that shouldn’t suffer at the hands of this “religion” is human rights

Although rated as ‘high risk’ due to a lack of infrastructure and high temperatures, Qatar was the first Middle Eastern country to be named a World Cup host in 2010 with a highly controversial bid. In an ambitious $200 billion project, Qatar had just twelve years to build nine new stadiums, renovate an existing three and construct an entire public transport system – all made possible by 1.2 million migrant workers. One year later, Human Rights Watch reported that workers were facing eleven-hour days in 45 degree heat, whilst being accommodated in twelve-bunk dormitories; a situation exacerbated by Qatar’s prevailing ‘kafala system’ that allowed employers full control of their workers’ visas and many having their passports confiscated upon arrival. Not only did this mean that migrants had no way of leaving, but extortionate recruitment fees made them financially vulnerable from the offset. Yet when questioned on the topic, Ronaldo claimed he would rather talk about “women, shoes and haircuts”.

Although FIFA was aware of migrant working conditions in Qatar, little tangible action has been taken to remedy these human rights abuses and adhere to their self-proclaimed responsibility to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In May 2022, #PayUpFIFA published an open letter addressed to FIFA President Gianni Infantino calling for labour protections in host countries and $440 million to be set aside in compensation for bereaved families. Not one of the 31 qualified federations publicly endorsed the campaign. Like the International Olympic Committee, FIFA assert their role to promote global solidarity through sport. But when push comes to shove, it seems these claims are as unserious as Ronaldo.

Using sports as a venue for human rights progression is no new phenomenon. As early as the 1936 Olympics, boycotts were threatened in response to the German discrimination against Jewish and traveller communities. Or in 1972 when the infamous Black Power Salute performed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium brought attention to the ongoing racial segregation practises in the United States and South Africa. The advantages of using sports to advance humanitarian issues has been strengthened further with the rise of technology that exposes us to distant tragedies. The 2022 World Cup, with a reach of 1.5 billion global viewers, demonstrates that the power of a relationship between sports and human rights cannot be underestimated. So how long will this ‘sportswashing’ mentality encouraging fans to “focus on the football” continue to be exploited?

So how long will this ‘sportswashing’ mentality …continue to be exploited?

Following a protest for democracy at Tiananmen Square when the world watched in horror as Chinese tanks killed hundreds of students, controversy surrounded Beijing’s bid for the 2000 Olympics. Activists argued that awarding them this honour would be indirectly rewarding their human rights violations, whilst supporters contested that a Beijing Olympics would lead to an improvement of their human rights under the international pressure. Ultimately however, the activists were successful and Beijing lost out to Sydney.

In 2020, the Economics Intelligence Unit ranked Qatar as 126th of 167 nations for the strength of civil liberties, suggesting that human rights developments were limited prior to the World Cup. However, media attention must be extended to the aftermath in order to measure any consequent impact and thus, the significance of host city selection for progression. International pressure certainly had little influence on FIFA Council members who are yet to take accountability for the abuses they indirectly sanctioned or offer reparations. Nor has any intervention taken place to prevent history from repeating itself and the ‘beautiful game’ turning ugly once again.

The silence following the Qatar World Cup regarding human rights represents the failure to take advantage of sports as an important platform. To achieve justice for the workers and establish a precedent for the future, media scrutiny should not be dissolved after the final whistle because although you may have forgotten, their families have not.

Image: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime via Wikimedia Commons

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