The many debates around the 2022 World Cup and why they matter

Since FIFA’s 2010 decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the tournament has been mired in controversy.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup began in Qatar on November 20, inciting expectation and excitement among soccer fans worldwide. Even if you’re not a soccer fanatic, you’ve undoubtedly heard something about the numerous controversies surrounding this year’s edition of the world’s most popular sporting event.

Since FIFA, the world soccer governing body, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup in 2010, the tournament has been entangled in a complex web of scandals. This web covers claims of corruption and bribery during the bidding process to host the tournament, as well as charges that Qatar is using the tournament to “sportswash” its record of human rights violations. 

An investigation by the Guardian found that since Qatar was granted the tournament in 2010, at least 6,500 migrant workers have lost their lives there. FIFA’s contentious decision to transfer the competition to the northern hemisphere’s winter to avoid Qatar’s infernal summer heat has fanned global concerns. Critics have latched on this as evidence that FIFA is bending over itself to please an already troublesome host.

This is not the first time geopolitical problems have surrounded the World Cup.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia raised questions about FIFA’s cozy relationship with authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil sparked international outrage over the forced eviction of tens of thousands of poor and working-class Brazilians to make way for new tournament-related infrastructure. Since at least 1934, when the second World Cup was held in Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy, soccer supporters have had to balance their passion for the sport with an understanding of the inevitable political concessions that follow the multibillion-dollar spectacle.

Given that over 3.5 billion people watched the 2018 World Cup, the tournament’s sustained worldwide appeal cannot be denied. The vast stakes that accompany 32 nations participating in a month-long tournament, the strength of historical rivalries, and the prospect that a single goal may alter a nation’s fate are the very factors that make these controversies so intractable.

As worldwide knowledge of the economic, ecological, and human costs of the event grows, FIFA and future host nations will be forced to confront challenging issues regarding the game’s value. And with Saudi Arabia allegedly considering a bid to host the event in 2030, these doubts are unlikely to go away any time soon.

Here are some of the debates surrounding The Fifa World Cup 2022 and the reasons why they matter.

Numerous allegations of bribery and corruption marring Qatar’s bid to host

The world was taken aback by FIFA’s December 2010 decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, with many fans expressing surprise and skepticism that a desert monarchy whose soccer team had never qualified for a World Cup had legitimately beaten out global sporting powerhouses like the United States, Japan, and Australia.

But even before the result was made public, soccer fans had strong reason to question the legitimacy of FIFA’s bidding process. Two months prior to FIFA’s announcement of the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, the organization suspended two members of its 24-person executive committee who were accused of offering to sell their votes. (Both men ultimately earned interim FIFA suspensions.)

These initial claims of corruption turned out to be simply the tip of the iceberg for FIFA. In 2014, the UK-based Sunday Times reported on a cache of hacked emails and other documents indicating that prominent Qatari soccer official and former FIFA executive committee member Mohammed bin Hammam had reportedly paid FIFA executives millions of dollars in bribes. (Bin Hammam was previously banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for additional corruption offenses.) Michael J. Garcia, FIFA’s chief ethics investigator, and a former United States attorney, discovered evidence of major anomalies in the bidding process but no clear evidence that Qatari officials had used bribes to influence the decision.

However, FIFA’s problems continued to worsen thereafter. In May 2015, the US Department of Justice unsealed accusations against nine FIFA officials, charging them with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering in connection with an extensive plot to sell tournament broadcasting rights. Soon after, Swiss authorities began a parallel probe into claims of corruption in the World Cup bidding processes for 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar.

Bensinger stated, “I don’t believe people had much faith in FIFA prior to all of this, and even as far back as 2010, people were already beginning to distrust FIFA.” By the time the US criminal probe was made public in 2015, confidence had plummeted to an all-time low.

In the middle of the turbulence, FIFA’s veteran president Sepp Blatter abruptly resigned, just days after being reelected for a fifth term as the governing body’s chief. (In July 2022, Blatter was acquitted of criminal fraud charges in Switzerland.) Then, in April 2020, the Department of Justice published new information showing that three FIFA officials accepted bribes from unknown middlemen in order to vote for Qatar.

These investigations have shown contradictory findings. Although investigators have revealed substantial criminal misconduct within FIFA, they have yet to find evidence that Qatari officials bribed FIFA officials, and Qatari authorities have continued to deny wrongdoing.

Whether corrupt or not, FIFA’s selection of Qatar is rather self-serving: Hosting the tournament in the Middle East allows FIFA to increase its market share in the region, and Qatar’s wealthy oligarchs are desirable commercial partners for FIFA’s future endeavors.

Notwithstanding, the avalanche of arrests, indictments, and investigations has irreparably eroded the public’s faith in FIFA and its Qatari hosts.

Infrastructure for the tournament was built by low-paid migrant workers

Hosting the World Cup is a massive logistical job, even for countries with abundant resources like Qatar, which will need to spend billions on new stadiums, transportation infrastructure, and lodging to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of fans who will be in attendance. While preparing for the World Cup, Qatar spent about $220 billion on new infrastructure but kept labor costs low by employing a vast network of low-wage migrant laborers.

The atrocities of Qatar’s migrant worker system are not a secret, nor are the perilous conditions caused by this system exclusive to the World Cup preparations. Until the late 2010s, the great majority of Qatar’s approximately 2 million migrant laborers were employed through a notoriously oppressive labor system known as the kafala (or sponsorship) system, which legally bound workers to a sponsor through a series of contracts. Although Qatar has made significant reforms to the kafala system in recent years, such as eliminating the requirement that workers obtain their sponsor’s approval before leaving the country or changing jobs, the remnants of this system continue to grant employers disproportionate control over the lives of their employees.

As Qatar has increased its preparations for the World Cup, this system’s repercussions have become increasingly fatal. The Guardian reported in 2021 that since 2010, more than 6,500 laborers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka had perished in Qatar. (According to a representative for the tournament’s organizers, there have been just three deaths linked to work and 37 deaths unrelated to work.) Meanwhile, workers questioned by non-profit organizations like Amnesty International have reported experiencing a variety of violations, such as wage theft, excessive working hours, hazardous working and living conditions, and physical and sexual abuse.

The increased international attention that has surrounded the World Cup has compelled Qatar to implement some improvements to its migrant labor system. In addition to reforming the kafala system, the Qatari government has also established a new labor dispute commission, established a state-backed insurance and assistance fund for workers, and established the country’s first minimum wage.

However, human rights groups assert that additional improvements are required. In a statement, Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, stated, “Although Qatar has made significant progress on labour rights over the past five years, it is plainly evident that there is still a long way to go.” 

Qatar has been criticized for using the tournament to “sportswash” its human rights record.

Human rights advocates in the middle of this decade created the term “sportswashing” to describe the practice of authoritarian governments using high-profile athletic events to improve their image abroad. Some critics believe that the term has gotten so overused that it no longer has any real meaning after being used to describe everything from China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics to Saudi Arabia’s decision to support an upstart professional golfing league in the past year.

The World Cup this year, however, has been criticized for being a classic case of sportswashing.

Laws restricting the rights of LBGTQ individuals and women in Qatar have been challenged by international human rights organisations for decades. One particular article in the country’s penal code criminalizes sexual intercourse between people of the same sex. Despite the rarity of charges under these laws, transgender and questioning people in Qatar continue to claim pervasive police harassment and intimidation. Despite assurances from World Cup officials that the event will be secure for LGBTQ spectators, several Qatari activists have maintained that they are worried about the safety of queer travelers.

Freedom of expression is another area where Qatar has a dismal track record. Criticizing the emir, blaspheming against Islam, or publishing “fake news” are all crimes under the country’s penal code, and the government has used these laws as a weapon to silence dissenters and punish anyone who expresses an opposing viewpoint. Seven Qatari people who had spoken out against their government’s new voting restrictions faced charges of “using social media to promote false news” in August 2021. The regime has also gone after independent journalists who went there to report on the plight of migrant workers, and the government has imposed sweeping restrictions on journalists traveling to cover the World Cup, which human rights groups say will have a “severe chilling effect” on media coverage of the event.

However, while the Qatari government’s interest in hosting the World Cup could be partially explained by sportswashing, it is crucial to realize the boundaries of the idea.

Reiche argued that such a simplistic explanation for Qatar’s actions at the World Cup was unfair. “Qatar invests in sports for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, raising the country’s profile as a relatively new and small nation, expanding its diplomatic clout abroad, and bolstering its own sense of national security.”

Budweiser World Cup campaign curbed

In response to pressure from officials, alcoholic beer will not be served within the eight Qatari stadiums hosting the 2022 World Cup.

The U-turn, made by event organizer FIFA two days prior to the tournament’s start, might generate legal complications for soccer’s governing body if sponsor Budweiser, with whom it has a $75 million sponsorship deal, views the decision as a breach of contract.

“Well this is awkward,” Budweiser said in a now-deleted tweet upon hearing the news.

Read also: Qatar bans the sale of beer at all World Cup stadiums

In a statement provided to Adweek, owner AB InBev said, “As partners of FIFA for over three decades, we look forward to our activations of FIFA World Cup campaigns around the world to celebrate football with our consumers. Some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”

In a statement explaining its decision, FIFA said supporters would still be able to consume alcohol in designated fan zones.

A statement read: “Following discussions between host country authorities and FIFA, a decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations, and licensed venues, removing sales points of beer from Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters.”

A spokesperson confirmed alcohol-free BudZero would remain available within stadium grounds.

Qatar is a typically teetotal nation where tourists can only buy or consume alcohol inside licensed hotels or restaurants. Exemptions for the World Cup would have meant fans could buy beers in special ‘fan zones’ or on stadium concourses.

But Qatar seems to have reneged on part of that deal, meaning beer can now only be sold only inside the ‘fan zones’. Pints will cost £12, only be available at certain times, and each person will be limited to four maximum to stop them from getting drunk.

Anyone who does get drunk risks being taken away until they sober up. 

Will all of these scandals cause changes to the World Cup?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.

It is too soon to tell if the measures undertaken by FIFA since 2015 will have the desired effect of reducing corruption and increasing transparency and accountability inside the organization. 

There seems to be a heightened readiness on the part of players and spectators to speak out about the scandals surrounding the tournament. As a form of protest against Qatar’s persecution of its LGBTQ residents, a coalition of European soccer federations, including those of England, Germany, and France, announced in September that some of their players will wear rainbow armbands during games. And in other news, the Danish national team has presented a “toned-down” design for its uniforms in protest of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers. Multiple major French cities have also stated in recent weeks that they will not be hosting public viewing areas, or “fan zones,” for the next events.

However, the World Cup’s unprecedented popularity will likely always be the biggest roadblock to FIFA reform.

“FIFA knows that no matter how badly it behaves and no matter how disgusted people are with the organization, every four years, everything’s forgotten,” said Bensinger. “It’s like the Catholic church: You can do whatever you want all week as long as you go to confession on Sunday. The World Cup functions that way for FIFA.”

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