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Can we really afford to focus only on football during the Qatar World Cup?

12 mins read
Can we really afford to focus only on football during the Qatar World Cup?

One would have to be under a rock to not be aware that the upcoming men’s football World Cup is going to be held in Qatar. The issues regarding the country’s human rights abuse, its anti-LGBTQ stance and its treatment of migrant workers have been well documented over the last decade. 

This article doesn’t add anything new on top of what has been said over the last ten years, but it does offer an opportunity to you, the reader, to understand the heat Qatar has been facing and the media’s role in all of this, while also bringing forward how the average Qatari feels about the entire situation. 

Let’s start with a recent development: not too long ago, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Secretary General Fatma Samoura wrote to the 32 nations that will be present at the World Cup. The contents of the letter were around the protests and statements the nations’ teams were making about a host of issues—from LGBTQ+ rights to mistreatment of migrant workers—in the country.

The letter from FIFA read:

We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world. But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists. At FIFA, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. One of the great strengths of the world is indeed its very diversity, and if inclusion means anything, it means having respect for that diversity. No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other.

This principle is the very foundation stone of mutual respect and non-discrimination. And this is also one of the core values of football. So, please let’s all remember that and let football take centre stage.

Let’s take a closer look at these issues that have shifted the focus from football.

Also Read – Qatar World Cup, Orientalism and the West’s worst fears

The issues

The letter comes at a time when Qatar and FIFA both have been taking a lot of criticism over the human rights issues in the country and FIFA’s decision to award Qatar the hosting rights despite these issues being prevalent. 

Last year, in February 2021, The Guardian released an article in which they stated that, since 2011, the year when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, a total of 6,500 migrant workers had died. These workers were mainly from the Subcontinent region of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

According to an article from The New York Times dated September 2022, Qatar has around 1.2 million foreign workers, coming mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines, who make up 94% of the labour force. 

The government of Qatar had responded, saying that the figure published was inclusive of deaths which were not related to the World Cup project. The Qatari government said that there were 37 deaths between 2014 and 2020 with relation to the World Cup project and the constructions of the stadiums for the tournament. 

In Qatar, the kafala system has been in place for decades, and a lot of the issues stem from this system itself. In layman’s terms, the kafala system is prevalent mainly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Basically, the system puts a strict leash on the migrant workers who come to the GCC countries, and all the labourers under the system are required to have an in-country sponsor: someone who looks after their visa and legal status. 

The system has been criticised over the years for the exploitation of the workers, with numerous cases of sponsors abusing their power and holding the workers’ passports hostage emerging. These workers are unable to change jobs and are forced to live in inhumane accommodations which are generally overcrowded, with three to four workers sharing a single bed. Workers have also alleged that they have been forced to pay illegal fees to “agents” to secure these jobs. 

The Qatari government has reportedly spent more than US$200 billion on construction of a host of technologies, from outdoor air-conditioning to retractable roofs. But how much has it spent on the people working on these construction projects? Most workers earn a basic US$275 per month, which is almost the same as what a labourer could earn in their native country. When we take into account the matter of making sure the labourer looks after their family back home as well, for whom they might be the sole bread-earner, the wages these workers get simply do not seem enough. 

In 2020, Qatar had introduced a new law which stated that the kafala system would be removed and workers would be able to change jobs, but most workers still state that their sponsors refuse to release them. 

Now, we’ve stated a lot of issues prevalent in the country, and most of these issues have been brought to light over the last few months extensively by the media. But we wanted voices from the other side as well, and to that end, we spoke to Sherry Philips, a sports journalist from Australia who grew up in Doha. Philips has served as a Senior Analyst to Sportskeeda in the past and currently is with Snowball Esports in Melbourne, Australia. 

Speaking to Philips about the entire matter, we asked him about a couple of things with regards to the Qatar World Cup, including the human rights issues in the country, the Western media’s take and how Qataris really feel about the whole situation. Philips spoke about his initial feelings when Qatar had won the World Cup bid in 2010. 

When Qatar won the bid back in 2010, I was 13 and vividly remember being quite excited. The atmosphere in the country itself had also suddenly become real positive, even if there was almost a decade to go. As the South African World Cup had just wrapped up earlier in the year, it was great for the country to kind of carry that excitement through till the end of the year. Football was easily the most recognisable sport in the country, but now it was elevated to the biggest of stages.

The next year, Al Saad went on to win the AFC Champions League. I believe this was significant in further bringing Qatar and its national team further into the limelight. As an individual living in the country, you were getting a sneak peek into what you could expect in the next few years of the run-up to the World Cup.

In terms of infrastructure, however, the tiny nation had very little to showcase in its ability to pull off an event of that magnitude. If you were to really probe into the initial feelings of the general population, then it would be a mix of uncertainty and unbridled enthusiasm to make the impossible possible.”

Most recently, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published its annual report on the labour reforms that have taken place in Qatar. The key changes highlighted in the report include:

  • Freedom to change jobs (challenges exist)
  • Removing the requirement for workers to obtain exit permits to leave country
  • Minimum wage (still paltry in comparison to other countries of similar purchasing power)
  • Wage payment (issues of nation-wide implementation)
  • Occupational safety and health and labour inspection
  • Access to justice (large time gaps between case lodgement to court date)
  • Joint worker-management committees (more community leaders required to really give workers a voice)

Speaking about the same, Philips said:

While they [ILO] credited Qatar for the steps they have taken, they also acknowledged that there is a long way to go, which I believe is the more important part of this conversation. 

Also, as exploitative as the kafala system is, it isn’t as simple as turning the switch off. There are cogs in the mechanism that must be individually looked at and reformed. I personally think the bigger fear is that Qatar ends up like Bahrain, who even likened the kafala system to ‘modern slavery’ in 2009 but saw very weak enforcement of reforms. Over a decade later, they are still talking about it. 

The biggest detriment to any proposed reform is the mindset of those who are implementing them. When there is a serious disconnect between organisations such as the ILO, the government and industrial players, it is a recipe for disaster. While no one wins, it is very clear who loses. The changes happening right now in Qatar must carry on after the World Cup ends. As they are now slated to host the Asian Cup in 2023-24, they will continue to be in the limelight for a few years. My biggest fear would be that reforms stop once global attention is moved away from them.

Philips’ final sentence in the answer is a key one. This, unfortunately, is the sad reality of the world. The media also has played an important role in the entire issue. 

The most apt way to put it would be how Liverpool Football Club’s men’s first-team manager Jürgen Klopp spoke about it a few days ago during a pre-match press conference. When asked about the Qatar World Cup, Klopp called out journalists worldwide, stating that “they should have done more” over the years and not just raise the issue right now when we are days away from the event. 

Klopp isn’t wrong here. While there have been journalists who spoke about these issues back in 2010 as well, the majority of noise has only increased in the last year or so, with the main event getting closer and closer. The human rights issues that are spoken about aren’t only exclusive to football and the World Cup; they have been there before and could well be there after the World Cup.

SportsKhabri also spoke to prominent football journalist Arunava Chaudhuri, who shared his thoughts on the situation. Speaking about the role the media plays, he said: 

The media plays a key role as it can highlight issues and matters which aren’t going right, while also showing things that have changed and improved. The journalists who are going to Qatar now have the chance to have a look at things on the ground and report about it. But also, once the tournament is over, the focus needs to remain on Qatar and not just allow the caravan to move on to the next destination.

The criticism from the media has been heavy over the last year or so, and while most of it comes from the Western media, we wanted to hear how someone living in Qatar felt about the media portrayal of the country and we asked Philips about his feelings on the issue.

Speaking as someone from the country, giving us the other side of the spectrum, Phlips stated:

It was and is to some degree, still quite frustrating. Rumours and baseless theories were being passed on as facts, and this can become easily problematic.

Historically, the coverage of sports as big as football has been covered with a Western lens. Orientalism and hypocrisy are often the only way they get their point across, which further creates a very divisive atmosphere. I think it’s best explained by Marc Owen Jones, an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU. 

Coverage of the World Cup has constructed Qatar as a caricature – that is, an un-nuanced place in which certain characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”

When less civilised nations are placed under the limelight, the media tends to report ‘negatively’ on them, as they control the narrative on most traditional and digital media platforms. This allows them more leeway in the lengths they can go; inviting sensationalism into the discussion and profiting from it.

At the end of the day, though, you have to remember that it’s football, and the sport has always been murky. FIFA loves a bit of corruption, and there have been evidence-backed allegations stretching all the way from the 2002 World Cup in Japan. So you have issues that have surfaced in Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Russia. I’m sure the internet has played a huge role in this, but given what’s happened, the vitriol being spewed online about Qatar is inherently biased and reeks of hypocrisy.

While a lot can be said about the human rights issues, many would be surprised about the darker instances of abuse that take place in modern supply chains. I would count myself as lucky in this regard, as I get to experience the media strategies implemented in the Western and the Arab world. Both have their extremities, with very little coverage in the middle that is balanced. As much as we want to discuss the coverage of international media, sometimes you have to look internally. The local media themselves provide zero local coverage to issues that exist in the country.

To conclude: yes, bias exists, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t warrant criticism. We need to find balance between the both, but that might be too utopian an idea. With the way it’s progressed over the past few years, it’s always going to be two sides going at it with each other.

The real fear, however, is that both of them make some very solid points.

While it is important that these matters are brought forward, pinning these on players and managers isn’t right. Yes, they have a platform where they can use their voices to highlight important issues, but it was never their job to do this in the first place. 

All of this could have been easily avoided had FIFA taken proper steps whilst awarding the hosting rights to Qatar. These issues haven’t just popped up in the last two-three years; most of them have been around for a while. Those in power should have immediately raised the issues around hosting a World Cup in a country like Qatar. It isn’t only FIFA who is at fault here. The participating nations as well, who have taken stances as the World Cup nears, didn’t do much either in 2010. 

Should teams and officials have done more and put their foot down when Qatar was initially handed the World Cup? Arunava Chaudhuri spoke on the matter, stating:

There were efforts many years back to take the FIFA World Cup away from Qatar, but that didn’t materialise then, and once we reached the final stretch, the boycott calls just did not make sense.

“It is then better to highlight human rights and/or other issues like a general call for the fight against climate change. Use the platform to do good!

On-pitch action

Multiple teams who will be participating in the Qatar World Cup have made a stand against the various issues in the country. While Denmark have announced that they will be sporting a “toned down” kit, given their kit manufacturer Hummel “doesn’t want to be visible at a tournament that has cost thousands of lives”, Australia have recently announced they will use their platform to raise awareness about various matters, including that of same-sex relationships, something that is prohibited in Qatar. Nine teams have also announced that they will sport rainbow armbands during the tournament to support the LGBTQ+ community. 

Germany’s Minister of Sport has also spoken about the human rights issues and mistreatment of the migrant labourers and the LGTBQ+ community in Qatar and raised questions whether the country should be hosting the tournament at all.   

What now? 

Qatar isn’t the first country with a questionable human rights record which will be hosting a global sporting event. China has hosted the Olympics twice (2008 Summer and 2022 Winter), Russia hosted the last men’s World Cup in 2018 and the Winter Olympics in 2014, while Formula One has been racing in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for years. These are just a few examples, and there is no doubt that more events will be hosted in the years to come. Sportswashing has been prevalent for decades, with probably the 1936 Summer Olympics being the first case, when the event took place in Nazi Germany. 

Hosting sporting events in these nations could certainly lead to improvements in a host of matters, as sports can be a platform for change, but it can only happen if the organising bodies take a proper approach. There must be regulations in place so that, if events are being held in countries with a poor human rights record, initiatives and dialogues must be undertaken to improve the conditions.

I could sit here and debate till kingdom come about how Qatar should do better, but right now I don’t want to. The facts, the numbers and figures are all out there, out there for everyone to see and decide for themselves. Making noise now, with days left for the World Cup, doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Like Klopp stated, to have really made a difference, those in power and those with a platform to reach out and bring these matters to light should have been this aggressive back in 2010. 

While these issues continue to make noise as we head into the World Cup, it will be interesting to see how the movements and stances fare once the tournament gets underway. 

The FIFA World Cup is the biggest sporting tournament in the world, and football has a chance to play a catalyst. So if we go back to FIFA’s letter about “letting football take the centre stage” — football should always be taking the centre stage. These issues should never happen, but since they do, FIFA had a chance to address them and take initiatives to work about to bring changes which they didn’t back when they handed out the bid to Qatar. And it wasn’t only FIFA; all these countries and different brands who are now “taking a stance” fall under the same category. 

Let’s take Hummel, for instance, and their stance with Denmark for the upcoming World Cup. While the message is important, we mustn’t forget that it was the same Hummel who were the shirt sponsors of Qatar Stars League team Qatar Sports Club from 2014 to 2018, which was well after the World Cup bid being won by Qatar. Hummel have been a shirt sponsor of the Iran men’s handball team as well in 2018, another country with a questionable human rights record.

Also Read – FIFA Men’s World Cup Qatar 2022 Sponsors

SportsKhabri discussed with Arunava Chaudhuri the prospect of football taking a backseat so close to the tournament. He said:

A FIFA World Cup only comes around every four years, so football needs to take centre stage.

But, as said earlier, football and sports cannot stay apolitical these days, which at some stage could overshadow the games and tournament. But then, if we want to be so correct, then the question needs to be asked whether mixing sports with political works at all, with all these international conflicts happening currently around the world.

The fact that football might not take centre stage is clearly on FIFA. It’s time they got the ball rolling on these matters. 

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