Editor’s Note: Roger Bennett is the founder of the Men In Blazers Media Network and co-author of Gods of Soccer. Tommy Vietor is a former spokesperson for President Barack Obama, cofounder of Crooked Media and host of the foreign policy podcast Pod Save the World. Together they collaborated on a podcast series called World Corrupt, examining the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
This November, billions of people around the world will tune in to the World Cup – one of the greatest sporting spectacles in human history. It’s an event that has brought wars to a standstill, canonized sporting saints and sinners, and united the planet in savoring every exclamation point goal, last-ditch tackle and intricately choreographed celebratory knee-slide.
There’s just one problem: This year, it’s happening in Qatar.
In Qatar, journalists are thrown in jail for investigating migrant worker conditions. LGBTQ+ people are treated as criminals. Women need to ask men permission to marry, travel and study abroad in many cases.
And Qatari labor practices have been compared to modern slavery – a reported 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. Experts say it is likely a lot of these deaths are related to construction of buildings for the tournament.
6,500 deaths – at least. The total death toll is almost certainly higher, as this figure does not include many countries sending workers to Qatar, including the Philippines and African nations.
(Qatar argues that the mortality rate for its migrant worker community is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population.)
In recent years, Qatari authorities have introduced “several promising labor reform initiatives,” according to Human Rights Watch. But “significant gaps remain,” it said, including “widespread wage abuses” and failure to “investigate the causes of deaths of thousands of migrant workers.”
A controversial bid
Let’s not pretend that the Qataris won their Cup bid through merit alone. After all, Qatar – a peninsula smaller than Connecticut and with heat so extreme that it’s a potential health risk to play soccer there during the summer months – is the last place it would make sense to host a giant international sporting tournament.
How, then, did Qatar get chosen? Well, as an endless stream of investigative journalism alleges, it won the bid through a process that was rigged from top to bottom. (Qatar strongly denies the allegations).
Shortly after France’s supporting vote, for instance, Qatar Sports Investments purchased the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club; around the same time, another Qatari firm bought a piece of Veolia, a French energy and waste company.
Not to mention: A firm connected to the Qatari sovereign fund hired the son of Michel Platini, the former head of the European football association. Népotisme? Zut alors!
But don’t take our word for it. Matt Miller, a former Department of Justice official who traveled with former Attorney General Eric Holder to Zurich to witness the bidding process, told us: “It was the most corrupt thing I’ve ever seen in my career, and I spent a couple years working in New Jersey politics.”
Jokes aside, all this raises the question: Why would Qatar even want to host the World Cup?
The answer is that the country is hoping for a Beijing 2008 Olympics moment – a chance to airbrush its human rights abuses and shine on a global stage. By hosting the World Cup, Qatar wants to project a cosmopolitan image like that of its neighbors in the UAE, signaling it is open for business, welcoming to tourists and a player in global politics.
A tightly controlled image
To ensure that image happens, Qatar even announced that international television crews will be banned from filming in locations without pre-approval from Qatari authorities. As James Lynch, from London-based human rights group FairSquare, told the Guardian, these “extraordinarily sweeping range of restrictions” would make it very difficult for media to cover any stories not strictly related to games.
(Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy said in a statement on Twitter that filming permits were in line with global practices).
When you think of Qatar, its leaders don’t want you to picture migrant workers dying in the blistering heat, or to dismiss Doha as less significant when compared to neighboring Dubai. They want you to remember the transcendent thrill of a slaloming Lionel Messi run on goal, or the epic exhilaration of a physics-defying fingertip save by Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
And that’s what Qatar is going to get after this World Cup – unless we all work to tell a different story, one that brings the world’s attention to Qatari atrocities and serves as a warning to other authoritarian regimes that are watching. We’ve got to send a clear signal that autocrats cannot amass soft power through the refracted glow of sports immortality.
That means making sure that, by the end of this tournament, every single person who’s expected to tune in – all 5 billion of them – knows what is happening off screen in Qatar.
National teams have a responsibility, too
Already, there have been some positive steps in this direction. Denmark’s monochrome “protest jerseys” are a powerful statement – and one which has riled up the Qatari government. During the opening round of World Cup qualifiers, Germany and Norway’s teams wore shirts displaying the message: “HUMAN RIGHTS.”
The Netherlands’ ever-cantankerous coach Louis Van Gaal, meanwhile, called FIFA’s rationale for hosting the tournament in Qatar “bullshit.” Legend.
These steps must be just a starting point.
National teams – and, critically, their governments – can and must push Qatar for accountability. The most critical step is getting behind Human Rights Watch’s no-nonsense #PayUpFIFA campaign. It’s an effort to require Qatar and FIFA to pay out at least $440 million – an amount equal to the prize money being awarded at the World Cup – to the families of migrant workers who have been harmed or killed in preparation for the tournament. Every club with a conscience ought to forcefully support it.
To this point, US Soccer has quietly signed onto the #PayUpFIFA campaign but has publicly said little on the issue. As the world’s richest country, with a major military base in Qatar, America has a particular mandate to champion these values – especially with the current administration’s stated commitment to holding Gulf autocrats accountable.
England’s Football Association has been similarly weak in its response. After European football federations promised to call out Qatar with more than “just wearing a t-shirt,” they ended up settling on wearing rainbow armbands, which, quite literally, amount to less than a t-shirt.
All national teams need to step up – and players have a crucial role to play in this effort as well. We can only imagine the level of pressure already on these athletes to perform. They have likely dreamed about this moment since they were children – and fought so bloody hard and given up so much to make it a reality.
They did not start kicking a football thinking they were going to have to speak out about human rights. But there is also a long tradition of athlete activism, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in Mexico City to Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford combating child hunger in the United Kingdom.
This doesn’t mean every player must speak out. But those who do should be supported and amplified – like the Socceroos, Australia’s national soccer team, who called for remediation for workers who have been harmed and the decriminalization of all same-sex relationships in Qatar.
The future of sport
After all, this is about more than the World Cup. It’s about whether people who believe in democracy and human rights are going to let authoritarian regimes get away with hijacking the sports we love.
Saudi Arabia is already attempting to sportswash its image through LIV Golf and the WWE. Russia and Bahrain have tried to do it through Formula One. But if we make a stand against Qatar on the world stage, maybe we can make the next generation of autocrats more worried about a Qatar 2022-style humiliation than thirsty for a Beijing 2008 moment.
Fans can help by using their social media platforms to call attention to Qatar’s human rights abuses, and by pressuring football associations to publicly support the #PayUpFIFA campaign.
Our activism could also change the calculus for FIFA – which might be less inclined to award the World Cup to countries like Qatar if they know that doing so will result in years of boycotts, protests and damaging press.
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This matters. Because as every football fan knows, the World Cup is more than a tournament. It’s been compared to a global eclipse which strikes the entire planet for a month at a time.
It’s a unique arena where nations can compete fiercely and then shake hands. It’s supposed to represent the best of us – our incredible diversity and our common humanity.
It’s no wonder authoritarian powers want to take over these events for themselves. And that’s exactly why we can’t let them.