Dying to watch football? Corruption, human rights abuses, and sport washing dominate the Qatar World Cup

(Photo: Middle East Eye)

Jacob Starr – Regular Contributor

On 24 March 2021, before their qualification match against Gibraltar for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the Norwegian National Football Team wore T-shirts with the words ‘Human rights: On and off the pitch.’ This was a response to a campaign within Norwegian football to protest Qatar’s human rights record in the build-up to Gulf state hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Although an outright boycott of the tournament remains unlikely for sporting and political reasons, exemplified by the Norwegian Football Association’s recent decision against a boycott, widespread opposition remains, such as the Norwegian team being supported by their Dutch and German counterparts. To understand why the World Cup has been overshadowed by such issues, it is necessary to examine how corruption, a deplorable human rights record and unbridled sportswashing have overshadowed the tournament before it has even started. 

Firstly, the 2010 joint bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar respectively, has been heavily criticised with accusations of corruption. This included repeated allegations that bribery facilitated the success of the Qatari bid, particularly during and in the aftermath of the 2015 FIFA corruption case. In 2018, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was President during the bidding process but was removed from office during the 2015 scandal, alleged that there was indeed corruption present in the bidding process. 

Despite these claims, the Qatar World Cup is expected to go ahead as planned next year. This is suggestive of both enduring widespread corruption in football’s governing body and extensive geopolitical influence of the Qatari government, mostly acquired through the country’s vast oil resources. However, while corruption and geopolitics have allowed Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, it is Qatar’s human rights abuses that present the greatest controversy for football’s most prestigious international tournament. 

Many of the human rights issues in Qatar relate to the appalling treatment of migrant workers, mainly from South Asia. Despite recent labour reforms, namely measures to chip away at the kafala sponsorship system whereby migrant workers need permission from their employers to leave the country or find new employment, there has been insufficient progress on migrant workers’ rights in the lead up to the World Cup. New legislation has suffered from a lack of implementation and enforcement, while employers still regularly confiscate passports and wages often go unpaid. Most troubling is the inhumane and unsafe working conditions, particularly for workers building stadiums and other infrastructure for the World Cup. 

A 2021 Guardian investigation reported that at least 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the hosting rights in 2010, despite the insistence of Qatari authorities and FIFA that working conditions meet the necessary safety standards. More general issues include the continued concern about political and religious freedom and the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar. Importantly, however, although these problems with staging the World Cup in Qatar persist, it is the Qatar World Cup itself that aspires to diminish the gravity of these issues within the global perception of the Qatari government, through their attempts to improve their image by means of sportswashing.

Sportswashing is the effort by states, organisations, and businesses to improve their reputation by involvement in sport, including, but by no means limited to, hosting major sporting events. In the case of Qatar, the government anticipates that by successfully hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it can improve upon its global perception as a human right abuser, despite the continuation of its aforementioned human rights abuses. Moreover, the sportswashing practices of the Qatari government are not limited to its hosting of the World Cup. The Qatari government, utilising Qatari state-owned or state-sponsored firms, has entrenched itself in global sports, particularly football. 

This is demonstrated by the ownership and transformation into European superpower of French club Paris Saint-Germain by the Qatari royal family through the state-owned shareholding organization Qatar Sports Investments, or the sponsorship of this summer’s UEFA European Championship by Qatar Airways. In addition to providing Qatar with financial advantages and the expansion of ‘soft power’, these efforts further aim to improve Qatar’s reputation on the world stage. Although there has thus far been significant opposition to the World Cup, it remains to be seen if a successful delivery World Cup next year will mitigate the influence of the government’s human rights abuses, or simply emphasise them further. 

Regardless, it is important to clarify that this form of sportswashing is nothing new, and has persisted throughout history. Benito Mussolini had ambitions to use the 1934 World Cup in Italy to promote Fascism, while the 1936 Berlin Olympics were used as a propaganda and geopolitical tool by Nazi Germany. Equally, the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, hosted by the Soviet Union and the United State respectively, were used for similar purposes during the Cold War. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson used the 2012 Olympics for personal political gain. The list goes on.

Nor is it new for countries awarded hosting rights for the World Cup to be guilty of mistreatment of its citizens, such as the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, hosted under a military junta responsible for well-documented atrocities, or the 2018 World Cup in Russia amidst widespread abuses of LGBT rights by the Russian government. While England hosted the World Cup in 1966, the British government discriminated against Catholics in Northern Ireland, with rampant denial of civil rights. As such, considering these examples, although the Qatari government should certainly be condemned for it own human right abuses, does the opposition to the Qatar World Cup not exhibit a certain degree of hypocrisy? Qatar may be an extreme example of a country controversially hosting a major international sports tournament while being simultaneously criticised for its actions, but it is categorically not the first. The Qatari government, and FIFA, should be condemned, yet they are far from the only culprits. 

Is it equally evident that football and politics have consistently been intrinsically and irreversibly connected. The debate as to whether football should concern itself with politics has been recently reignited by footballers ‘taking the knee’ before games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. While some may argue politics should not concern itself with football, the Qatar World Cup demonstrates, regardless of one’s view on Qatar’s suitability to host the tournament, that politics is very much interested football. That isn’t changing any time soon. Everything, after all, is political. 

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