Qatar 2022: football can never be the only focus

Qatar 2022: football can never be the only focus
Players from Mexican club Tigres, in yellow, and Bayern Munich of Germany, during a 2021 match that was a test run for the Education City Stadium. (Photo: Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

The Qatar World Cup has been accused of migrant worker and human rights abuses. But the countries crying foul aren’t blameless either.

“Focus on the football” seems like sage advice for the 32 teams participating in the World Cup, which kicks off this weekend, but when Fifa president Gianni Infantino wrote those words, it’s the opposite he was emphasising.

Don’t focus on anything else is what he was really saying. Ignore what’s topical or socially relevant, because, in Rassie Erasmus’s words, “let the main thing stay the main thing”; and the main thing, as the sporting world knows, is football.

Fifa estimates that five billion people will watch the tournament, almost two out of every three people on earth. Even if that’s exaggerated, the competition will attract more eyeballs than any other televised event in history.

That has put Qatar, a country known for its airline, its oil and its international news network, in the middle of a perfect storm.

This World Cup is where the growing social consciousness of the West meets the ambition of the Middle East, and so a political football is being passed around, too.

A week ago, former Fifa president Sepp Blatter admitted that awarding Qatar hosting rights had been a “mistake”, but only because of the country’s size.

Qatar covers less than 12,000 square kilometres, a hundredth the size of South Africa, and its eight World Cup stadiums are all within 34km of each other.

That means spectators can watch more than one game at more than one venue on the same day, hardly a reason for the country not to be the host.

Blatter, who was banned by Fifa in 2015, blamed European countries for voting for Qatar. The same countries have since expressed the loudest concerns about the Gulf state and its human rights record. 

Harry Kane of England celebrates scoring on penalty the 1-0 lead during the Fifa World Cup 2018 round of 16 soccer match between Colombia and England in July 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALBERTO ESTEVEZ)

Protest symbols

Ten European captains, including England’s Harry Kane and Wales’s Gareth Bale, as well as the US, have stated their intention to wear the rainbow-coloured One Love armband in a statement against Qatar’s anti-LGBTQI+ laws, while England’s women’s international Beth Mead told BBC Radio 4 she would not support or promote the tournament in protest over Qatar’s stance on homosexuality.

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, and administrators and ambassadors have made it known that they take a dim view of using the tournament to campaign for gay rights.

Former national player Khalid Salman told the German broadcaster ZDF that he regarded homosexuality as “damage in the mind”, and visitors to Qatar should “accept our rules”. The same sentiment has been expressed by the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

In a 42-page Reporters’ Guide issued by Human Rights Watch this week, it was revealed that discrimination against ­LGBTQI+ people took place as recently as September this year. Although Qatar has promised to welcome everybody, the country’s “steady reference to culture to deny LGBT people’s rights deflects responsibility away from abusive state systems”.

Stadium 974, made from 974 shipping containers, in Doha, was built by migrant labourers who weren’t paid much at all. (Photo: Getty Images)

Modern indenture

The most galling of those is the migrant labour system. In theory, it’s a sponsorship system, in which employers are responsible for their workers’ residency and legal status.

In practice, it is a modern form of indenture, which has left millions open to exploitation. Almost 90% of Qatar’s workforce – a total of 1.7 million people – come from abroad, mostly from Bangladesh, India and Nepal, in search of a better life. The World Cup stadiums have been built, almost entirely, by them. In an eight-point exposé published by Amnesty International, it has been revealed how these workers pay up to $4,300 in recruitment fees but earn meagre salaries of around $190 a month, live in cramped conditions and cannot change jobs or leave the country.

Officially, the World Cup organising committee has reported 37 deaths, only three related to the building of stadiums, but an investigation by The Guardian last year put the total at more than 6,500 deaths.

The treatment of migrant labourers is also an issue about which some participating countries have been vocal. Australia released a video showing solidarity with workers’ unions while calling on Qatar to establish a migrant resource centre; Netherlands will auction their tournament shirts to support workers; and Denmark applied to wear training shirts with “Human Rights for All” emblazoned on them. Fifa denied their request on a technicality.

If some of this smacks of hypocritical moralising, it is. The critics of Qatar are mostly Western democracies, who inflicted colonialism, slavery and a resource drain on the developing world and continue to hold on to their privilege.


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Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, built by migrant labourers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Others are saying nothing at all.

The South American Football Confederation and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) have not indicated if their members will make any statements for social justice at the tournament.

Instead, both bodies issued statements supporting Infantino’s request to stick to sport and have backed him for another presidential term. When contacted directly by DM168 about whether Caf would support their teams making any gestures on human rights, a spokesperson didn’t reply, but it is unlikely the African teams will support the LGBTQI+ campaigns.

Homosexuality is illegal in two of the five participating countries – Morocco and Senegal – and an anti-gay bill is about to be passed in Ghana. None of the five countries have spoken out on other human rights abuses, and the inaction of these countries proves that sportswashing works.

Qatar, and Saudi Arabia across the border where the futuristic NEOM village is being built to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games and bid for the Olympics in future, can use high-profile events to divert eyes and minds away from what matters.

We must remember that they are not the only ones. The next Fifa World Cup will be played in the US, Mexico and Canada in 2026, by which time Donald Trump could be back in office, there may be a resumption of walls being built on borders, and women’s rights will be in the spotlight. The same debate should be had then. Football can never be the only focus. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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