The 2018 Mens’ World Cup is in the books, with the French men’s national team prevailing over their upset-minded Croatian counterparts by the score of 4-2, in a game that featured enough flashes of brilliance to serve as a fitting capper to a tournament that routinely offered soccer fans riveting moments to savor.
Of course, alongside the thrilling matches themselves, this World Cup was suffused with a heavy dose of geopolitical drama — a perhaps inescapable condition in international sports.
As my colleague Luke Barnes reported, this World Cup ended up being something of a soft power coup for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Throughout the tourney, the cameras captured what looked to all the world to be a welcoming, efficiently-run nation, free of discord. Traveling fans got a healthy dose of fun and spectacle, behind which Russia’s many problems were obscured, with nary a discouraging word to be heard on matters such as the Russian government’s stealth decision to raise the retirement age or the fatal cloak-and-dagger dance going on between Russia and the United Kingdom.
Next year, the world’s finest women soccer players will meet in France to contest their own title. But not long after that, attention will swing back to the men once more, who in 2022 will compete again, this time in the Arab Gulf nation of Qatar. Those hoping for a competition with fewer geopolitical implications are going to be disappointed — and that’s the optimistic take. For while Russia’s Cup took place against the backdrop of Great Power interplay, Qatar’s relative obscurity on the grand political stage will nevertheless present participants and fans with a very grave and unsettling moral disorder to ponder.
It has been reported that when President Bill Clinton, who served as the honorary chairman of the United States’ own bid to win the 2022 World Cup, found out that he had lost out to Qatar, he returned to his Zurich hotel room and “reached for an ornament on a table,” which he then “threw…at a wall mirror in a fit of rage, shattering the glass.”
Clinton has since denied having participated in this fit of minor vandalism, but you almost couldn’t fault him for his reaction. Qatar’s win was, to say the least, a shock. While Qatar has taken recent strides in developing a local league system, for which it is actively recruiting talent from Africa, the nation can’t be said to have a particularly noteworthy football culture: Its men’s team has never qualified for a World Cup, a FIFA Confederations Cup, or an Olympic Games. In fact, its most significant accomplishment is being a three-time winner of the minor Arab Gulf League tournament. The automatic qualification Qatar will receive as hosts will be the first time it has been within sniffing distance of a major trophy.
Qatar is also a rather inhospitable place for the world’s most celebrated soccer tournament. Stiflingly humid throughout the warmer months, its summertime temperatures reliably soar into the triple-digits, a factor which forced FIFA to move the tournament’s kick-off to late November. That move that will bring chaos to most of the world’s major soccer leagues, whose top players will have to take leave from their club teams in the middle of their seasons to compete for their national teams — in addition to taking time to recover from the World Cup’s unforgiving schedule.
The social climate of the Arab nation may be as jarring for both visiting, free-spirited soccer fans and the corporate brands that typically drape themselves over whatever empty space upon which a television camera might alight. Qatar operates under strict, Wahhabi-influenced Sharia law which attaches harsh criminal penalties to such things as alcohol consumption (forbidden in all but a few venues) and anything that might be termed an “illicit” sexual practice. The pressure of welcoming the world’s soccer fans have forced Qataris to relent somewhat on policing activities that might otherwise earn Muslims some very harsh penalties. For instance, there will be FIFA “fan zones” where alcohol consumption is permitted, but soccer fans who might otherwise be accustomed to big, open cities in which to gambol and explore are going to have to adjust to life inside a theocratic autocracy.
In 2011, Qatar played host to the Asian Cup final between Japan and Australia at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, and as trial runs for staging a major soccer tournament goes, this did not go well. As Al Jazeera’s Paul Rhys reported, thousands of fans were turned away despite having tickets after police imposed a lockout. According to the report, a complete lack of management at the stadium’s points of entry seemed to be the cause of the chaos. Per Rhys:
The official attendance of the final was 37,174, but other fans said their tickets had not been checked properly as they entered the 40,000 capacity arena.
“When we got to the ground not one person checked our tickets we were just ushered through,” said one Australia fan.
“No bar code scanners like at the other matches I attended (they were all broken). We didn’t even have our tickets looked at – we didn’t have to present them to gate staff, grand stand staff – no one. So how they got an ‘official attendance’ is beyond me.
Thousands more fans were stopped from leaving after Japan beat Australia 1-0 in extra time, being held within the perimeter of the stadium behind locked fences due to a fireworks display that was being launched outside the ground.
What then, did Qatar bring to the table? The short answer: a mountain of petro-chemical wealth. The nation consistently is ranked as having the world’s highest per-capita income, as measured by the International Monetary Fund. And in FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, Qatar found a partner more than willing to court a little corruption. Over the years, FIFA has been consistently exposed as a gang of blackguards masquerading as an international sporting concern. In his 2014 book, Omertà, Scottish investigative reporter Andrew Jennings — a longtime and fastidious chronicler of FIFA’s delinquency — wrote that “the leadership of FIFA…tick all the boxes defining an Organised Crime Syndicate.”
So it was hardly surprising when, in 2014, the Sunday Times reported that Qatar’s successful bid hinged on $5 million in bribes paid to various officials. As the BBC summarized for those without access to the Times’ pay-walled report:
The Sunday Times has obtained millions of secret documents – emails, letters and bank transfers – which it alleges are proof that the disgraced Qatari football official Mohamed Bin Hammam made payments totalling US$5m (£3m) to football officials in return for their support for the Qatar bid.
The documents also show how Bin Hammam was making payments directly to football officials in Africa to allegedly buy their support for Qatar in the contest.
FIFA VP Michael Piatini made all the appropriate noises in the wake of the report, assuring everyone that “if corruption is proven, [FIFA] will take a new vote.” But as you may have noted, Qatar is still sitting pretty as the tourney’s next host. Meanwhile, it’s probably worth noting that only 22 members of FIFA’s 24-person executive committee were available to offer rulings on the host bids because, as Grantland’s Brian Phillips noted, two members had been “caught trying to sell their votes to undercover journalists.”
Criminal geniuses, these are not. But the limited accountability under which FIFA has traditionally operated has meant that officials have mastered the delicate art of promising reforms that never really quite arrive, and looking the other way in the meantime.
But there’s something else about Qatar’s World Cup that may not be so easily dismissed. At some point during the bidding process, the Qatari officials would have had to account for the means by which they’d create the world-class soccer infrastructure that the tournament demands. They would have had to lay out their core competency in areas like stadium construction. And while we can’t precisely account for what FIFA may have been told then, we absolutely can explain how Qatar has gone about building the World Cup of their dreams: A forced-labor arrangement that resembles a modern form of slavery.
Qatar’s labor practices include something called the Kafala system, an arrangement that exists in different forms throughout the Arab peninsula. The system is meant to monitor and manage migrant workers, who come to places like Qatar from poorer nations (The Guardian has reported that work in advance of the World Cup has brought an influx of migrant laborers from Nepal and India). If you’ve ever thrilled at the sight of Dubai’s futuristic cityscape, it’s all built on very similar labor practices in the neighboring United Arab Emirates.
To find work in Qatar, migrants must first find an employer to sponsor them, to whom they are subsequently bound. Migrant workers are thus shut out of any means to negotiate for better pay or conditions or seek better wages with a different sponsor. What’s more, Qatar’s exit visa system means that migrants cannot leave Qatar without their passports and paperwork, all of which their sponsors control. Which means that those who find themselves working in harsh conditions could find themselves trapped within Qatar’s borders, with no choice but to maintain their indentured servitude.
Naturally, the Qataris themselves do not have to suffer under these sorts of labor practices. This has bred, within Qatari society, a pernicious class divide, with one privileged group of people inventing and enforcing draconian rules over an underclass of non-citizens of different ethnicities and national origins. As such, Qataris have little understanding and empathy for the people who literally get crushed under the marble stones that pave their 5-star hotel lobbies.
Nevertheless, as you might imagine, these labor practices frequently run afoul of international human rights organizations. As Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan told CNN in May of 2013:
“It is the same old story. The Kafala system, the confiscation of passports, the illegal charging of exorbitant agent fees, the inability for workers to access the courts for redress.
“Qatar has an exit visa system so you cannot leave the country without the sponsor’s say. You have a system where workers are trapped in the country and the same old abuses rear their head. Unpaid wages, wages held in arrears. It keeps workers credibly vulnerable,” he added.
It’s important to note that none of this is specific to the men’s World Cup — these labor practices have long been a Qatari tradition, the means by which they’ve built their international airport, the fancy Doha digs enjoyed by all manner of international conferences, and the international campuses of many prominent American universities. In short, there’s a long list of institutions that are implicated in Qatar’s horrific labor practices. But the men’s World Cup has brought new light and attention to the matter, and in recent years, Qatar has faced increasing scrutiny.
In 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a scathing report that characterized Qatar as “a country without a conscience.” As Deadspin’s Tom Ley reported, the ITUC bore witness to a parade of horrors, many of which were provided by first-person accounts from the migrant workers themselves. (One read: “I went on site this morning at 5:00 a.m. and there was blood everywhere. I don’t know what happened, but it was covered up with no report. When I reported this, I was told that if I didn’t stop complaining, I would be dismissed.”)
As Ley noted at the time: “The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die before the 2022 World Cup, an estimate based on mortality trends previously reported by embassies within the country.”
The ITUC’s findings did not go over well in Qatar, but the government nevertheless commissioned international law firm DLA Piper to take on a fact-finding mission. As the Guardian reported in May of 2014:
The report by the international law firm DLA Piper calls for changes to the much-criticised kafala system that ties workers to their employers. It also contains the Qatari government’s own figure on the numbers of migrants who have died on its soil: 964 from Nepal, India and Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013. In all, 246 died from “sudden cardiac death” in 2012, the report said, 35 died in falls and 28 committed suicide. The number of deaths resulting from work-related injuries was low.
DLA Piper’s report made 62 recommendations for reform. But none of these appear to have been taken up with much zeal. In November of 2014, The Guardian’s Pete Pattison reported that “thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea” had been found working on construction sites in Qatar, their presence facilitated by an arrangement between those two nations that amounted to “state-sponsored slavery.” Per Pattison:
According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.
They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”
The following May, German television journalists, in a broad report on FIFA’s corruption, further documented the harsh working conditions in which Qatar’s migrant workforce labored. As Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz reported, “Journalists working on the project said they were detained, had all their material erased, and their equipment demolished while shooting in Qatar.”
It’s no wonder that in October of 2015, the ITUC again condemned the nation for allowing “modern slavery” to thrive, with ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow declaring, “Promises of reform have been used as a smokescreen to draw in companies and governments to do business in Qatar as the Gulf state rolls out massive infrastructure developments to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”
In March of 2016, Amnesty International joined the fray in earnest with an 80-page report titled, “The ugly side of the beautiful game: Labor exploitation on a Qatar World Cup venue.” Drawing on first person accounts from more than 200 migrant workers in Qatar, Amnesty International found the host nation playing the same old game. As CNN reported:
The abuses found include: workers living in “squalid and cramped accommodation”; employers confiscating workers passports; workers being threatened for complaining about working conditions; workers having to pay as much as $4,300 to recruiters in their home country to get a job in Qatar, along with some not being paid for months.
Qatari officials stridently disputed Amnesty’s report, complaining that their study was not representative of the entire migrant workforce and insisting that many of the accounts pre-dated reforms. In a statement to CNN, the nation’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy wrote: “We have always maintained this World Cup will act as a catalyst for change — it will not be built on the back of exploited workers.”
It’s not clear that the Committee understood that offering up such a declaration was insufficient in ameliorating abuses which had already taken place. For Amnesty International General Secretary Salil Shetty’s part, it was too little, too late. “The abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football,” said Shetty.
It’s not clear that significant change has occurred in Qatar in recent months. In March of 2017, the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) gave Qatar a November 2017 deadline “to implement new labor reforms designed to end abuse of migrant workers or potentially face an investigation by an international labor watchdog in the lead up to hosting the 2022 World Cup.” In June of this year, Human Rights Watch offered Qatar some praise for some mild domestic labor reforms, but persisted in their calls for the plight of migrant workers to be addressed as well as recommending that the Kafala system be “ended…in full.”
Throughout years of scrutiny, various officials have threatened to review — and potentially revoke — Qatar’s bid. None of these threats have seemed particularly toothsome, and indeed, the run-up to Qatar’s first turn as host to a major sports event continues apace. Those who might have the power to bring about change in Qatar or speed a process of finding a more appropriate host for the Cup — such as the major international soccer federations or the corporate brands that typically lend their imprimatur to such events — so far have muted their voices. It’s very possible that when all is said and done, the players themselves will be called upon to answer for the abuses that built the Qatari World Cup.
Meanwhile, what’s being built in Qatar to facilitate the grandest contest in men’s soccer looks breathtakingly beautiful — architectural feats that hold the promise of an incredible, science-fiction world awaiting us in the near future. But seen under the brightest lights, shot in high-definition, one might do well to remember that they were all paid for by the blood of the poor.
[Dorothy Parvaz contributed to this report.]