What happens when “The Beautiful Game” becomes the dirtiest, bloodiest game imaginable?
What happens when an event renowned for its displays of world-class individual skill on the biggest stage becomes the backdrop for the dehumanization and oppression of the individual human being?
These questions and many more will be asked in months and years to come as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar draws nearer and nearer. For the first time, a World Cup will be held in December (moved from the summer due to the blistering Gulf heat) and in the Middle East. For these reasons, it will be historic, though if it goes forward, it will surely live in infamy in due time.
There are two main allegations that are deservedly tarnishing the bid of the Gulf petrostate. The first is allegations of bribery. For years, since the Cup was awarded to Qatar, through the international investigation of corruption in Sepp Blatter’s FIFA, to the present day, rumors persisted that Russia (for the 2018 Cup) and Qatar paid off FIFA voters to adopt their line.
Just this month, the Department of Justice indicted three media executives and a sports marketing company with crimes ranging from wire fraud to money laundering and taking bribes, all with the purpose of securing television rights to international tournaments. According to the indictment, three members of FIFA’s voting board (Julio Grondona of Argentina, Nicolás Leoz of Paraguay, and former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation Ricardo Teixeira) received payments from those entities to vote for Qatar, while two other members of the board (Jack Warner, a former politician in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as VP of FIFA and President of CONCACAF governing North and Central American soccer, and Guatemala’s Rafael Salguero) received millions of dollars from shell companies to vote for Russia. It was under this shady pretense that Qatar’s bid was approved, even after two more voters were expelled when their own efforts to sell their votes to the highest bidder were caught on tape.
In total, an astonishing over half of those tasked with determining the location of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups have been targeted with accusations of corruption, even if not criminally charged. And the rot starts at the top. Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former president of FIFA and an alleged sexual predator, was among those accused of wrongdoing, even as he continues to serve a previous suspension for corruption. The man who sought to succeed him as FIFA president, former UEFA president Michel Platini (UEFA governs European soccer associations), was also implicated, alleged to have changed his vote to support Qatar after a lunch with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and the emir of Qatar. The BBC reported that rumors (as well as the testimony of Blatter) have emerged that bilateral trade deals between the Gulf state and France and the takeover of French superclub Paris Saint-Germain FC by the Qatari government shortly thereafter were used as leverage to get Sarkozy and Platini to support Qatar’s bid. Of course, it surely did not hurt that Platini’s son subsequently was named the chief executive of Qatari sportswear company Burrda, which is owned by Qatari Sports Investments, subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund (and owners of PSG). Platini himself has since been banned from FIFA, and if the federation’s record and Blatter’s word is to be believed, he was a key cog in a thoroughly corrupt ploy. And a look at the indictment and FIFA’s record would indicate a culture of corruption at the federation from top to bottom, especially on the issue of Qatar, revealing that the elections FIFA praised as legitimate, free and fair triumphs for the growth of the game were instead illegitimate, fraudulent, cynical influence-peddling campaigns.
Even before the U.S. indictment, it was known that Qatar itself had violated FIFA rules in its bidding process. In 2018, a Qatari whistleblower revealed that there existed a secret campaign run by the Qatari bid team that sought to spread fake news and propaganda about its chief rivals for the bid, the U.S. and Australia. The campaign, which deployed ex-CIA agents and a PR agency (whose notable previous clients included Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi), sought to recruit and pay prominent figures to criticize the bids in their home countries. American professors were paid thousands of dollars to write reports excoriating their bids as a waste of money (which, ironically and sensibly, is something that plenty of academics have done without soliciting the payment of a foreign government). The campaign also organized protests at Australian rugby matches against the country’s bid. However, FIFA’s rules expressly bar bidders from “making any written or oral statements of any kind, whether adverse or otherwise, about the bids or candidatures of any other member association which has expressed an interest in hosting and staging the competitions.” Qatar’s choice to proceed with this truly bizarre campaign flies in the face of these rules and seriously undermines the precedent of transparency and fair competition that FIFA tried to set with them.
But as the allegations regarding the 2018 Russian World Cup, the suspensions issued to Blatter, Platini, and others, and the U.S. indictment make clear, corruption was not a new phenomenon at FIFA. Like Major League Baseball at the apex of its steroid scandal, the Zurich-based federation saw no evil as long as TV deals were breaking records and the latest unbelievable exploits of its athletes were being immortalized. Like Major League Baseball, it kept up this jig long after it was known to be up, and in ignoring its cognitive dissonance until the public had associated it with nothing but the scandal, it too lost its way.
Yet surely now those who led the Qatari bid would prefer the corruption scandal dominate the news than the intense scrutiny the nation has faced for its horrendous human rights record. Hoo boy, where to begin? In its acclaimed annual report Freedom in the World, Freedom House last year granted Qatar a 25 out of 100, earning it the moniker of “Not Free.” It scores only marginally better than the most repressive states in the world, including North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. It scores just slightly better than Vladimir Putin’s Russia, worse than Daniel Ortega’s coronavirus-denying Nicaragua, and worse than Myanmar as it actively perpetrates a UN-recognized genocide, to name just a few. There are no democratic elections in the country and the few journalists who are allowed to practice are regularly thrown in jail for the slightest tinge of criticism. Coverage, much less criticism, of the royal family, Islam, and the government is off-limits entirely and can result in jail time for violators. Some 90 percent of the population lacks the right to freedom of assembly. Only in the most cynical, yet PR concerned of despotic regimes could the irony of running a campaign to destroy World Cup bidding rivals by promoting the very free assembly and freedom of the press it criminalizes not resonate. Furthermore, though less prevalent than in the past, the use of torture is not terribly uncommon in Qatar, as it has been reprimanded by the UN Committee on Torture for repeatedly violating its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture. Just days ago, Qatari opposition activist and journalist Fahd Bohendi was allegedly tortured to death in prison for stating his concerns that the coronavirus could spread in the prison.
As with Russia in 2018, one of the largest areas of concern for Qatar is its complete lack of protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The country has been ranked the second least friendly country in the world for LGBTQ+ travelers due to current laws on the books that punish homosexuality with either jail time or the death penalty (although it has not yet been used to punish those engaging in homosexual acts). The Qatari government has strongly resisted international calls to abolish or even suspend these laws before or during the tournament. In recent years, Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposed testing travelers for homosexuality in order to deny them entry, whatever that would entail. The country’s record is no better on trans rights, with reports emerging from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that some transgender people were detained by the government “until they changed their behavior.” Yet true to form, when asked about these concerns, Sepp Blatter responded, “I would say [travelers] should refrain from any sexual activities [in Qatar].” For years, the soccer community has notoriously struggled with homophobia and transphobia but was thought to be turning a corner (40 out LGBTQ athletes participated in last year’s Women’s World Cup, a 100-plus percent increase in just four years). Hosting the sport’s seminal event in one of the 11 countries in the world that punishes homosexuality with death would roll back that hard-earned progress and goodwill, and would send a message to millions of fans around the world that they are not welcome.
Clearly, horribly, inexplicably, state-sanctioned violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community and rampant, cartoonishly absurd levels of corruption were not enough to move FIFA or its member states to stand against the World Cup in Russia (where Chechnyan police round up men suspected of being gay and torture and starve them while Putin sells off government contracts to his favorite oligarchs and buys off FIFA). Yet much worse still resides in Qatar. Thanks to the blind eye FIFA turned to Qatari corruption, the World Cup is set to be played in stadiums that were built with forms of slave labor straight out of the book of Exodus while the well-connected in Zurich and at Fox rake in massive profits.
That is not an exaggeration in the slightest.
At the risk of understatement, listen to the words of one migrant metalworker named Deepak working on one of the stadiums to be used in the 2022 Cup and make your own judgment: “My life here is like a prison. The work is difficult, we worked for many hours in the hot sun. When I first complained about my situation, soon after arriving in Qatar, the manager said, ‘If you want to complain you can, but there will be consequences. If you want to stay in Qatar, be quiet and keep working.’ Now I am forced to stay in Qatar and continue working.”
Or the testimony of a migrant construction manager to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC): “I went on site this morning at 5:00 a.m. and there was blood everywhere. I don't know what happened, but it was covered up with no report. When I reported this, I was told that if I didn't stop complaining, I would be dismissed.”
Or that of yet another construction worker, again to the ITUC: “Our contract expired, yet the employer has not paid our salaries between one to three months, nor has he provided end of contract benefits or tickets home. Each time we come to the office, it is always, ‘Come back in a couple of days and you will have your pay and tickets.’ We have worked hard and just want what is due to us and to go home. We are stuck now in cramped accommodations, with poor food and no clean drinking water. We are treated like animals.”
Deepak’s experience of exploitation, and the experiences of thousands of migrant workers (which comprise 90 percent of the workforce) in Qatar are a product of what is known as the kafala system, meaning “sponsorship system,” though quite euphemistically. In reality, the “sponsorship system” is an exploitative system that the GCC countries, some of their neighbors, and ISIS use to monitor migrant workers (usually in the construction sector). Under the system, every unskilled laborer is required to have a sponsor in the host country, usually their employer, who is to be responsible for their visa and legal status.
In the sponsor’s hands is almost plantation-esque control over workers, who, debt-ridden, worked to death, and discriminated against, often have no legal recourse. Sexual exploitation and harassment is common in this environment, as is forced labor and the confiscation of passports. Furthermore, the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 600,000 workers in the Middle East and North Africa could be classified as human trafficking victims, often as a result of the system. In Qatar specifically, the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report states that the government failed to meet minimum anti-human trafficking standards, namely by not investigating any Qatari employers for forced labor, not investigating claims of abuse, and arresting, deporting, or detaining potential victims without referring them for care.
Like I said, akin to the book of Exodus.
Amnesty International’s report on the plight of workers working on stadium construction details the cycle of abuses that migrant workers are subject to under the kafala system. Before they even arrive in Qatar, many aspiring workers must first pay exorbitant fees to shady recruiting agents (who often lie about the salary of the jobs or which ones are offer to drive up their prices) in their home countries, ranging from USD$500 to $4,300, all for a job that, for an average month, pays just USD$220. This debt trap has the impact of keeping them from leaving their jobs or complaining about the squalid conditions in which they work and live. This is exacerbated by the fact that even when they are supposed to be paid, their salaries are often delayed. So to recap thus far: workers pay agents exorbitant fees only to work for starvation wages in unsafe conditions where their employers can do everything from withholding their wages and refusing to let them change jobs to threatening them with deportation without their pay.
Of course, this comes with a massive, devastating caveat. It only applies to those who will not die from working 16-hour days six days a week for $7 a week in the heat of Qatar, as the ITUC estimated over 4,000 will. Or they will die of starvation.
Or the coronavirus. Even in the midst of this global pandemic, Qatar has left the migrant workers behind, shutting down all public spaces yet mandating that the migrant construction workers continue to work and live in cramped conditions with little access to running water and toilets. We are already seeing the disastrous consequences of this, as Foreign Policy Magazine reports that hundreds of cases have spread within the labor camps, while NPR is reporting that other Gulf states are seeing migrant laborer communities be the hardest hit by the virus (Doha itself does not release the number of cases and deaths of migrants).
The government has said that it will undertake measures to reduce the number of people sleeping together in one room (though not nearly by as much as to actually conform with social distancing) and improve sanitation, but it is not yet definitive that those plans were actually put into action. Quite frankly, Doha does not deserve the benefit of the doubt anyway. Not after the few half-measures it has implemented to look good enough for FIFA were largely exposed as fraudulent, ineffective, unenforceable, or all of the above. Or, in the case of the two new UN workers’ rights treaties it signed recently, reservations were made that greatly diluted the impact of the treaties (in this case, making clear there was no right to unionize for migrants). If Qatar cannot be trusted to uphold basic standards of decency during a pandemic and it cannot be trusted to do so in the years before the World Cup, why should anyone believe that LGBTQ+ fans will be welcome and migrant workers will not continue to be exploited in the future?
It is time to take a stand against all that this dirty, bloody, disrespectful Cup represents. It is time for the international community to boycott the World Cup.
It would not be without precedent. The U.S. famously boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Also, in 1973, the Soviet Union was set to play Chile in the return leg of a World Cup qualifier at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago with the teams tied after the Russian leg. The American-backed coup of left-wing democratically-elected Chilean president Salvador Allende in favor of the alt-right, soon-to-be dictator Augusto Pinochet had just happened a month before the Russian leg. In the weeks to come, the USSR severed relations with Chile while Pinochet began a ruthless campaign of the torture of thousands at the Estadio Nacional. When international outcry against the torture campaign surfaced and the Soviets protested (saying they would not play in a stadium that was “stained with blood”), FIFA sent inspectors to see if the stadium was fit to host the game but the Chilean military had hidden the detainees underneath the stadium. The game was cleared to take place, the detainees were moved to another location, and the Chileans won because they took the opening kick straight to goal because the Soviets stuck to their guns and refused to show up.
In another one of the infamous “Southern Cone” dictatorships in South America in the 1970s, the Argentinian (again U.S.-backed) military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla played host to the World Cup even as his cronies were continuing his own campaign of mass torture and forced disappearances just a few blocks from the stadium at the infamous Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) torture facility, the largest of its kind. The sounds of dissidents being beaten senseless and loaded into planes to be drugged and then thrown into the Atlantic Ocean or the Río de la Plata to their death were within mere earshot of the stadium drums. Detainees were even forced to listen to the games and cheer.
For those who cared about human rights, it was devastating. However, it was nearly a glorious triumph for the movement and the awareness that protesters and activists were able to generate may have contributed to many governments turning on the dictatorship, such as when Jimmy Carter withdrew support for the regime and imposed an arms embargo that lasted the rest of his time in office almost immediately after the World Cup. The campaign against the Argentina World Cup was well-organized. Amnesty International, the hero of the Qatar case, launched a campaign called “Yes to Football, No to Torture!” which culminated in grand protests. West German and Bayern Munich star Paul Breitner famously refused to play. Heck, the entire West German government threatened to withdraw, but eventually flip-flopped. Finally, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, founded the year before by women who had lost children to the junta, marched every Thursday to the presidential palace with photos of their missing loved ones in hand. Despite the intimidation and threats by the government, they continued to bravely march and tell their stories to international journalists, before, during, and for some 28 years after the Cup until they felt the government had done enough to take responsibility. They remain a force for social justice and human rights and an inspiration to many. All of these forces may not have been able to prevent the 1978 Cup, but they were able to put pressure on the most powerful forces in sports through a message of dignity and solidarity.
Indeed it is their road map that can be followed today to send a message to FIFA, one which dictates that we must reject the notion that sports and politics must not mix. It calls on us to dispel the notion that FIFA and others have pushed that politics ends and gives way to a faux sense of national pride at the penalty box’s edge because it is demonstrably false due to the fact that being apolitical is a political choice in favor of the status quo.
It was at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, not a Hubert Humphrey rally or a college campus, where American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to protest for civil rights. In doing so, they violated the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) ban on political protests and the wishes of racist IOC president Avery Brundage, who ordered them expelled from the Games. However, Brundage had made no such qualms in 1936 during the Berlin Olympics while he was in charge of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) when Adolf Hitler led the crowds in the Nazi salute. In fact, Brundage villainized those who called for an American boycott of the games over Hitler’s persecution of Jews and millions of other Germans on the basis of their identities, remained an overt supporter of the Nazi ideology even after the Second World War, and was rumored to have forced two Jews off of the U.S.’s vaunted 4X100 team because he did not want to embarass Hitler. Brundage, by the way, was also succeeded as IOC president by Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unapologetic and integral component of the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain.
In the final analysis, the truth is not that sports are some kind of higher body immune from the consequences of politics, some sort of oil to the water of international relations. It is that the powers in charge of sports are perfectly fine with some forms of political expression and vehemently opposed to those that dare dissent from a status quo that serves to enrich them at the expense of dignity for all. Indeed, there is a term for this: “sportswashing,” more or less defined as human rights abusing countries hosting major sporting events or buying teams to secure positive PR and soft power in order to deflect from criticism of their human rights records. One need not look further than the Premier League table to find some of the more obvious examples: the Saudi royal family is set to purchase Newcastle United while its comrade in the war in Yemen, fellow repressive petrostate the United Arab Emirates owns Manchester City. Others include Beijing’s partnership with the NBA and hosting of the 2008 and 2022 Olympics (this time with even less scrutiny of its treatment of non-Han Chinese) and Azerbaijan’s successful bid to host the 2019 UEFA Europa League final. The only thing different about Qatar is that Doha is doing surprisingly little to even attempt to cover up its exploitation of migrant workers, as their lives will be sacrificed for the Cup out in the open. They should not be rewarded for their audacity.
Jesse Owens endured Nazi salutes and slurs from people who said that sports were apolitical, even as he rained on Hitler’s white supremacist parade.
Jackie Robinson endured fastballs to the side of his face from people who insisted that sport was not an engine for social change, while his own teammates expressed the same sentiment through a petition stating they would never take the field with a black man.
Muhammad Ali received death threats because he dared to speak up against the Vietnam War and refused to stick to the creed of “Shut up and compete.”
Billie Jean King broke tennis’s taboo when she refused to play the U.S. Open unless the prize was equal for men and women.
Soccer fans in South Africa received the same explanation when they allowed the presence of illegal anti-apartheid flags in their stadiums, yet disobeyed.
And Colin Kaepernick endured the consternation of the same peanut gallery when he took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of the American epidemic of police brutality, costing him his career.
The least that can be done in solidarity with the cause of human dignity for which they fought is to refuse to line the pockets of an oil-rich monarchy and the greedy politicians at FIFA with blood money. If a red line cannot be drawn at literal human enslavement in the 21st century, there is no line. At that point then, there is no rainforest FIFA would not clear, no indigenous people it would not displace, and no political dissident that it would not allow its host nation to behead if it meant revenue. The only way to win this World Cup is to refuse to contest it.
A.J. Manuzzi is a third-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is an Editor for Domestic Affairs for the Agora.
Image courtesy Reuters