This year’s World Cup in Qatar is already a crime scene, and the first ball hasn’t even been kicked. As we have written about extensively, labor and human rights abuses have long defined life in the petro-dictatorship, and ever since FIFA named Qatar the World Cup host in 2010, these depredations have been oozing into global consciousness.
While it is true that, as Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch said at a recent Sport and Rights Alliance event, “All governments commit human-rights abuses. All governments need [human-rights] scrutiny,” the World Cup, which starts this Sunday, has brought international scrutiny upon Qatar and its panoply of labor abuses and oppressions. All this raises crucial questions around how to show solidarity to the affected.
As the world’s most accomplished footballers descend on Qatar for their pre-tournament training camps, a question looms: Will these athletes use their platform to speak out on behalf of migrant laborers, LGBTQ people, and women in the country hosting them in luxury?
Some prominent members of the soccer world are already speaking out. Last weekend, Portugal international and Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes made clear that he understood the wider political context: “We know the surroundings of the World Cup, what has been in the past few weeks, past few months, about the people that have died on the construction of the stadiums. We are not happy about that at all.” Danish international Christian Eriksen seconded his Manchester United teammate, but with a reservation:
“A lot has been written, there’s a lot of focus on how it’s happened and why it’s in Qatar. I don’t agree with how it’s happened but we’re footballers and we play football. Change has to come from somewhere else.”
Meanwhile, the US men’s national team has installed a rainbow-clad logo at its training facility to demonstrate support for the LGBTQ community. US goalkeeper Sean Johnson said, “We are a group who believes in inclusivity, and we will continue to project that message going forward.” England captain Harry Kane has said he will wear a captain’s armband in Qatar in support of human rights.
Former international footballer Phillip Lahm—a World Cup champion with Germany in 2014—spoke for many when he bluntly noted, “The choice of Qatar was a mistake.”
The response from FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer, has been predictably execrable. FIFA’s statutes assert, “Discrimination of any kind…is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion,” specifically mentioning “sexual orientation or any other reason.” Yet FIFA has failed to take a moral stand against practices in Qatar that clash with the group’s stated principles. President Gianni Infantino even had the gall to cosign a letter to all participating World Cup teams advising them to leave politics behind and focus on football. FIFA also put the kibosh on Denmark’s plan to wear shirts to training that read, “Human Rights for All” (“Menskeregetteigs for alle,” in Danish) because FIFA honchos deemed the garments political. In short, FIFA continues to be FIFA: shamefully enacting selective morality. It is also culpable in Qatar’s abuses, along with Western sponsors, something that must never be forgotten.
Qatar has spent $220 billion preparing for the World Cup, an all-time record and around 20 times more than the $11.6 billion Russia forked over to host the 2018 World Cup. No expense was spared, except, of course, when it came to labor costs. As human rights organizations have amply documented, migrant workers have endured an array of exploitative circumstances, from abominable housing conditions to delayed or unpaid wages to forced labor.
Qatar has come under criticism for its kafala system for migrant workers. This worker-sponsorship program had long forced migrant laborers to surrender their passports to their employers and rendered them unable to change jobs, let alone organize a strike. Under immense pressure, Qatar agreed in 2017 to start working with the International Labor Organization to reform the kafala system. In 2020, the country passed a new labor law that increased the minimum wage and allowed workers to move to a new employer without permission. Vigorous implementation is the hard part, though, and numerous human rights groups have slammed Qatar for its lack of commitment to enforcing the new law. In addition, Amnesty International says Qatar has dragged its feet in investigating worker deaths, failing to provide proper compensation for workers’ families.
Meanwhile, same-sex relationships are a crime in Qatar, punishable by seven years in prison. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that Qatari security forces have arbitrarily arrested numerous LGBTQ individuals and subjected them to mistreatment—including beatings—while in police custody.
To be sure, as Umer Hussain, a sports scholar at Ripon College, told The Nation, “Numerous barbaric laws in the Arab world, like homosexuality laws, are the direct products of British colonialism.” In the 1880s, European colonizers imposed penal codes outlawing homosexuality in numerous Middle Eastern colonies, setting in legal stone anti-LGBTQ laws that were seized on by religious fundamentalists in the 20th century to draw political distinctions between them and the supposedly decadent West. The tentacles of empire stretch to today’s Qatar, where LGBTQ people must live in fear, unable to love in public without fear of state repression.
In addition, women are second-class citizens in Qatar. They must secure permission from their male guardians to exercise basic rights such as studying abroad, accepting government jobs, and marrying. As Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch put it, “Male guardianship reinforces the power and control that men have over women’s lives and choices and may foster or fuel violence, leaving women few viable options to escape abuse from their families and husbands.”
This is a moment that cries out for what we can call “smart solidarity.” We must agitate for all oppressed workers and citizens in Qatar. We also must not fall into ethnocentric traps of thinking that the fault lies solely with Qatar, as if Western complicity is not critical to understanding how we got here. For people who want to see change, Human Rights Watch’s #PayUpFIFA campaign is a great place to start. It is providing $440 million—the same amount that FIFA gives to teams that successfully advance in the tournament—to migrant workers and their families. Creating a permanent workers’ center in Qatar—an idea supported by the international players’ union (FIFPRO) and the Building and Wood Workers’ International—is another worthy project to get behind. Billions of people will tune in to watch the World Cup. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a host of issues—but this should be done with intentionality and purpose. And, yes, more players’ speaking out would aid in this effort.