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  • Sophia Wagner

Red Card: FIFA and Qatar’s Human Rights Abuses Overshadow World Cup

Since November 20, 2022, all eyes have focused on Qatar. The tiny country, with a population of just under 3 million people, has taken on the gigantic task of hosting the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, which culminates on December 18, 2022.

At first glance, it seems as though Qatar–the first Middle Eastern country to host – has succeeded: the country built eight stadiums in and around the capital of Doha, the largest of which, The Lusail Iconic Stadium, holds 80,000 people. Not only did the country build stadiums, but for the past decade, it also manufactured subway lines, an airport, and roads which connect the stadiums to the greater city area in an attempt to accommodate the estimated 1.5 million athletes and tourists who will visit the country throughout the month of the World Cup.

Since the competition began, the World Cup and Qatar have dominated popular sports culture and political news outlets alike. Seasoned star captains Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Lionel Messi (Argentina) have garnered particular attention, as many believe they are in contention for the best player in the world. The national Brazilian team has turned heads for its incredibly talented lineup of players, especially Richarlison de Andrade and the ever-captivating and polarizing forward Neymar Jr., while the underdog USA men’s team has been awarded huge support from their home country for their professionalism. Standouts include prolific scorer Christian Pulisic, affectionately termed “Captain America” by supporters, and Captain Tyler Adams, who recently expertly fielded questions regarding Iranian-American international relations.

These kinds of questions and subsequent political discussions have rightfully dominated conversations about the World Cup. International soccer competitions, especially men’s FIFA, inherently carry political weight and are often culturally perceived as avenues through which formerly colonized countries can push back against Eurocentric elitism. This belief was reified once and for all in the June 22, 1986, FIFA match between Argentina and the United Kingdom: 2 countries that fought each other in the Falklands War just four years earlier. While the UK emerged victorious from the Falklands War, in the quarterfinals soccer game, Argentine Captain Diego Maradona scored two back to back goals to lead his team to a retributive victory over the UK, one of which was termed “the goal of the century.” These two goals quickly turned Maradona into an embodiment of Latin American proletariats, as well as anti-colonialist and imperialist values.

Maradona’s goals prove that, although international soccer emphasizes an equal physical and political playing field for world-class athletes, the sport cannot exist outside its political context. The rhetoric of apolitical physical competition thinly veils virulent racism and disregard for brown and Black lives, which characterizes the behavior of upper management within FIFA’s governing body. In the 2022 World Cup, this racism was exemplified by Swiss-Italian FIFA President Gianni Infantino in a discriminatory and nearly incoherent monologue before the first night of competition, wherein he responded to a question on Qatar’s policy on migrant workers and their deaths.

A conservative estimate by Qatari officials claims that 400-500 migrant workers have died since the country was awarded the hosting position. In stark contrast, the UK’s Guardian estimates that 6,500 total individuals from countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar as of early 2021 – excluding data on migrant workers from the Philippines and Kenya and all deaths since. While only 37 deaths occurred on a stadium construction site, the largest cause of death comes from workers’ heat exhaustion and heart failure: both symptoms of being overworked in inhumane conditions.

In response to this blatant human rights crisis, Infantino, whose fluctuating yearly salary totals around 3 million dollars, stated: "Today I have strong feelings. Today I feel Qatari, I feel Arab, I feel African, I feel gay, I feel disabled, I feel a migrant worker.” Infantino’s statements were followed by his assertion that he understands discrimination because he grew up being bullied for his physical appearance; a selfish and ignorant perspective which makes light of the thousands who died for wealthy countries to play the “beautiful game” in Qatar.

Throughout the ten years that Qatar built its World Cup infrastructure, amnesty and international human rights organizations called upon FIFA to regulate the country’s treatment and compensation of migrant workers. However, the institution – which until this year could not even rationalize paying its female and male soccer players equal wages – only kept vague promises to continue “due diligence” and monitoring of the situation.

Specifically, Amnesty International called for FIFA to set aside $440 million dollars to compensate migrant workers in Qatar. These calls arose following the discovery that the majority of workers were only paid the equivalent of 1 pound an hour, even after the UN’s International Labour organization stepped in. Yet, this is still a generous estimate of the amount Qatar paid its migrant workers and disregards rampant wage theft by the country. In some instances, officials would refuse to pay migrants for up to 5 months at a time. Instead of fulfilling Amnesty’s request, Infantino instead announced in the same speech that FIFA’s 2022 Legacy Fund – created to give back to the host country – would benefit migrant workers, but omitted any information on specific monetary compensation.

In 2014, in response to that year’s World Cup hosted by Brazil, artist Declan McKenna released a song – titled after the host country – in which he castigated the Brazilian government for putting a love of soccer over the wellbeing of their citizens, and the Amazon rainforests, stating: “ sold the Amazon / To show the country that you’re from / Is where the world should want to be.” It seems that in 2022, Qatar has repeated this same history: they have proven their country’s worth and technological prowess by achieving impressive architectural feats at the expense of thousands of lives of migrant workers.

As the World Cup draws to a close at the end of this year, 2023 must bring with it thorough human rights investigations into both FIFA’s negligence and the Qatari government’s complete disregard of migrant human rights. More than anything, introspection is required from FIFA managers and bureaucrats, players, and fans to truly decide what the international sport of soccer signifies: equal opportunity, or a proxy for elitist, corporate greed which exploits whole nations of people for the opportunity to witness the hypocrisy, racism and misgovernance which puts on “the beautiful game” every four years.


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