The stage is set for the world's first Winter World Cup. Shiny new stadiums, metro links, and infrastructure have been built, but as the world's eyes settle on Qatar, the Arab state continues to be dogged by negative stories. The most controversial World Cup in history, the 2022 tournament has been making headlines ever since FIFA (football's international governing body) named Qatar as hosts in 2010. Corruption scandals, human rights abuses, and sweltering playing conditions have become synonymous with the looming championship.
But football holds the power to unite, heal and brainwash in equal measure. When the tournament kicks off, there's every chance that the practical and ethical issues surrounding the competition will be brushed under the carpet by many. So, in case that happens, here’s a tidy recap on the primary issues clouding the tournament.
In May 2015, Swiss authorities raided a Zurich hotel and arrested seven high-ranking FIFA officials. This followed a lengthy FBI campaign to expose a decades-long criminal conspiracy at the top of the game. The crux of the matter? FIFA officials had been awarding votes to prospective World Cup hosts (chiefly Russia and Qatar) in exchange for bribes.
Of the 22 FIFA Executive Committee members who voted in Qatar's successful 2010 bid for the World Cup, 15 have since faced criminal charges. In exchange for votes, disgraced Qatari construction magnate Mohammed Bin Hamman made £880m worth of illicit payments to various national football association officials. To many it's staggering that despite this well-documented corruption, the World Cup is still going ahead. So, why is it? Well, authorities maintain that because much infrastructural work was already completed by the time the FIFA corruption scandal emerged, stripping Qatar of hosting rights would've been impossible. A rationale akin to a police inspector unearthing a serial killer's meticulous plans but deciding that given their detailed forethought, it would be a shame to arrest them.
Migrant worker deaths
When Qatari capital Doha's glittering new stadia are unveiled this November, spare a thought for those who have paid for this tournament with their lives. In February 2021, a Guardian investigation revealed that 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded, mostly men from South Asia. Under the Kafala sponsorship system, which turns employees into indentured labourers unable to leave the country without an exit visa insured by their employer, these workers experienced conditions likened to modern slavery.
While recent labour reforms ended the Kafala system, the World Cup construction project was nonetheless built on low pay, poor conditions, and a "culture of fear" in which outspoken workers were imprisoned for "publishing false news". This power imbalance partially led to what Human Rights Watch called "crowded and unsanitary living conditions", while workers typically racked up 14-18 hour working days. The result? Tragic, preventable deaths. Bangladeshi Mohammad Shahid Miah was electrocuted due to exposed cables in his accommodation. Cleaner, Ghal Singh Rai, killed himself a week after arriving from Nepal. Many other sudden, unexplained deaths have occurred. The suffering of these men and their families is this World Cup's most shameful legacy.
Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people
Another ethical concern is the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar, a state where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Adelaide United's Australian left-back Josh Cavallo, the world's only openly gay top-flight men's footballer, has expressed concern about visiting Qatar, while many LGBTQ+ fans fear a hostile reception. Depressingly, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly suggested that LGBT fans should “be respectful” and show “flex and compromise” if they plan to attend the World Cup. The FA have assured gay English fans that they won't be arrested for public displays of affection (yep, what a grim sentence). But ultimately, travelling fans aren't the main victims — LGBTQ+ Qatari citizens face hostility all year round. Tournament organisers will put on a good show, using flashy architecture and football's unrivalled PR power to politely hoodwink visitors. But once everyone's gone, LGBT Qatari people will continue to suffer.
It's in a desert…
Hosting an ordinary summer World Cup in desert conditions of over 40°C is impossible. The resulting decision to move the tournament to winter has enraged both tournament traditionalists and casual viewers used to scorching hot World Cups defined by beer-drenched summertime festivity. Most football lovers will probably still tune in; however, isn't the beauty of international tournaments that people with no interest in football can enjoy a nationwide cocktail of blind optimism, community togetherness, and heavy drinking? Arguably, the UK need this happy distraction more than ever.
The match-going experience? Hell on earth
England football fans are generally known as a rowdy, topless, lager-guzzling bunch. But they'll struggle to match this reputation in Qatar. Booze will only be served in Doha's four and five-star hotel bars and restaurants, which will inevitably be packed. And even if you reach the bar, you're coughing up £12-15 for an average pint. In fact, Qatar topped the charts in 2021 as the most expensive place in the world to buy a beer. Meanwhile, recent images of the out-of-town cabins being used for fan accommodation showed that a worrying amount of construction hasn't yet been completed. Another issue is that the tournament's broadcasting rights are so expensive that many cafes, restaurants, and hotels can't afford the fees required to broadcast matches – some team hotels won't even be showing live games! Discussing the likelihood of a carnival atmosphere in Doha, The Athletic's Tom Williams recently described the city as "the most boring place I've ever been to in my life." Great.
What happens when it's over?
World Cups have a reputation for short-term jubilation and long-term waste. Following the 2014 Brazil World Cup, many of the stadiums built with taxpayer's money fell into disrepair. Don't be surprised if this happens in Qatar, too. In fairness to organisers, rather than risk grounds crumbling, they'll be dismantling many new stadiums and distributing parts of stands to nearby nations. Which begs the question: why didn't FIFA award hosting rights to a country in Western Asia or North Africa with existing footballing infrastructure and a sustainable domestic league system? The answer to that probably lies in the host nation's bank account.
Given all this, it's incredible that Qatar are hosting the 2022 World Cup. People are right to argue that football fans in Qatar deserve to experience a World Cup in their home country, but for many that's just not enough of a reason. There's a balance to strike between spreading football across the world and handing it over to the highest bidder, with no regard for human rights abuses or match-going experiences. Whatever happens this winter, and however much superstars like David Beckham try to whitewash reality with shameless PR stunts, the Qatar World Cup will leave a damning legacy that football fans won't forget.