FIFA Sells Out Human Rights

Qatar and the World Cup
A man in Doha, Qatar, sits beside a soccer mural on the walls of Katara Cultural Village Nov. 9, 2022, ahead of the FIFA World Cup (CNS photo/John Sibley, Reuters).

In 2010, when Qatar won the rights to host this year’s World Cup, Sepp Blatter, then president of football’s governing body (FIFA), proudly proclaimed: “We go to new lands.” In the twelve years since, FIFA’s first steps into the country have been largely defined by a frontier-like disregard for basic customs and conventions. 

In bringing the World Cup to Qatar, FIFA officials—amidst credible accusations of bribery and backroom malfeasance—willfully ignored a number of concerns that would ordinarily have disqualified a nation from consideration. At the time of the vote, for instance, Qatar did not yet have a viable public transportation system. Nor did it have suitable accommodations to house athletes, media, and visiting fans. More conspicuously, the country didn’t have a single football stadium. There was also the issue of climate. Usually played in the summer, the World Cup had to be rescheduled for late fall, when desert temperatures drop low enough for ninety-minute matches to be held safely.

All of these were unprecedented concessions—although not entirely unreasonable: just like the beautiful game, diplomacy requires a deft touch. If there was any opportunity to sound the alarm about Qatar’s fitness to host the world’s most prestigious sporting event, it passed more than a decade ago.

As the World Cup unfolds, a number of other issues remain in play—including the Qatari government’s decidedly intolerant treatment of its LGBTQ citizens.

However, as the World Cup unfolds, a number of other issues remain in play—including the Qatari government’s decidedly intolerant treatment of its LGBTQ citizens. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and same-sex and other queer relationships can be punishable by death. Human Rights Watch recently noted that LGBTQ people in Qatar are arbitrarily detained, and that as a requirement for their release they must attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored behavioral health-care center. Qatari authorities also criminalize consensual sexual relations outside of marriage, regardless of sexual preference or gender presentation.

Of no less importance is the country’s exploitation and well-documented abuse of migrant workers, thousands of whom were shipped in to build the stadiums and infrastructure necessary for hosting the World Cup. According to a report last year in the Guardian, more than 6,500 workers have died in Qatar since the country won its bid. (The Qatari government maintains that only thirty-seven laborers died at stadium construction sites between 2014 and 2020, and that only three of these deaths were work-related.)

Amid such criticism, Qatar has publicly stated it welcomes LGBTQ visitors and will allow fans to display pride flags at matches. But, as Human Rights Watch pointed out, these exceptions for international visitors only underscore how Qatari officials do not believe that LGBTQ citizens deserve basic rights. At the same time, FIFA says it has worked behind the scenes with its partners in Qatar to compensate workers harmed during preparations for the tournament, including the families of migrant workers killed during tournament preparations. However, as the World Cup kicked off, neither FIFA nor Qatar had established such a fund.

FIFA acted decisively in banning Russia—which hosted the 2018 World Cup—from competing in this year’s tournament following its invasion of Ukraine. It should be just as forceful in keeping the pressure on Qatar, no matter that the games are already underway, making clear that future participation and partnerships are contingent on certain standards of behavior. Of course, it would help if FIFA held itself to higher standards, too. In selling out fair play and basic rights for lucrative opportunities in new lands, it has already robbed fans of the typical World Cup experience, causing us to question just what there is to root for. 

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

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