The Football World Cup tournament is a time for sporting celebration but it is difficult to argue that the 2022 event hasn’t been somewhat overshadowed by controversy surrounding Qatar’s record on human rights.
Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 tournament was one of 11 placed back in 2009-10. Following allegations that FIFA committee members were open to bribery, leading to their voting rights being suspended, Qatar became the 18th country to be awarded the world-famous competition. However, the controversies didn’t stop there.
The highest profile issue surrounding this year’s tournament is undoubtedly Human Rights. Unlike most Western countries, Qatar doesn’t have a codified Human Rights piece of legislation such as the Human Rights Act 1998. Many sectors of Qatar’s society have been affected by this, such as migrant workers and the LGBTQIA+ community, leaving many people conflicted about showing their support for their team’s participation in the event.
It is unknown how many migrant workers died due to extreme heat and poor working conditions during construction for the tournament, but it is believed to be many. When Qatar was awarded the hosting of the tournament, it had what is known as the Kafala system in place, which was used to monitor migrant workers in primarily construction jobs. This system was due to be abolished in 2014 but was delayed until 2016, 6 years after Qatar had successfully won the bid. During this time, workers could not change their job or leave the country without their sponsors permission, a clear violation of human rights due to their lack of freedom. This inevitably led to protests and in August 2022, just months before the start of the tournament, the Qatari authorities were reported to have arrested and deported over 60 migrant workers for protesting about non-payment of wages. The European Parliament adopted a resolution requesting FIFA to compensate the families of migrant workers that had died and requested that Qatar conduct a full investigation into the human rights issues surrounding these deaths.
A lack of what are now considered to be fundamental human rights in many of the participating countries is inevitably going to be a contentious issue. Many countries decided that they would not stay quiet, with the Netherlands deciding to ‘tone down’ their sports kit in protest at the human rights issues in Qatar. They introduced a black alternative kit to represent the colour of mourning in respect for the lives lost during the construction process.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with offenders facing fines and up to 7 years in prison. It is difficult to reconcile this with the statement that ‘everyone is welcome’ at the World Cup. Controversy further developed with FIFA President Sepp Blatter initially stating ‘I would say they [homosexuals] should refrain from any sexual activities’ but later saying ‘We don’t want any discrimination. What we want to do is open this game to everybody, and to open it to all cultures, and this is what we are doing in 2022’. This was met with the allowing of rainbow flags in stadiums to comply with FIFA guidelines; but arguably, this is not enough to make members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel safe.
Players have found themselves in a difficult position, with FIFA criticised for forcing them to choose between representing their country and standing up for what they believe is right. But they have not been silent. Plans for ‘One Love’ captains’ armbands to be worn by England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were met with threats of yellow cards and further disciplinary action. And a powerful statement was made by the team from Germany after they covered their mouths in a group photo to demonstrate the silencing they have faced from FIFA on issues relating to human rights.
Undoubtedly, many fans across the globe are unsure of their feelings about the tournament due to these huge controversies, with some boycotting and others saying we should focus on the football. Ultimately, the fewer people watch the tournament, the less money FIFA and Qatar make. Some sports personalities, such as Gary Neville, view the tournament as an opportunity to highlight the issues and challenges surrounding human rights in Qatar, with FIFA themselves arguing that having the tournament hosted in Qatar will promote human rights by challenging them. FIFA is estimated to make around £5 billion from the Qatar World Cup with the value of revenues being so large because of the enormous fan base global football has. However, discontent from companies in home nations has not been insignificant, with Brewdog calling the tournament the ‘World F*Cup’, labelling themselves an anti-sponsor of the games donating every penny from their beer towards fighting for human rights. This came not too long before Budweiser also pulled all sponsorship for the tournament.
The issues surrounding this World Cup have highlighted just how much attitudes have changed in countries such as the UK, through the introduction of the Human Rights Act and similar provisions under the EU, things we now consider intrinsic to our lives. However, while advocating human rights globally is a good thing, it is also important to acknowledge that other countries have different cultures and beliefs. It is reported that some Qataris are enraged by the media coverage of the world cup and that this huge global event for the country is being overshadowed. One thing is for sure, this is certainly not a debate that will end with the final whistle of the tournament.