It’s almost impressive how an organization as brazenly and institutionally corrupt as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) continues to outdo itself. Since the 1990s, it has been an open secret that the governing body of the world’s most popular sport is beholden to powerful, monied interests.
This became undeniable in 2010, when, after the completion of a successful World Cup in South Africa that had been seen by some critics as a risky move, FIFA’s World Cup Host Selection Committee chose Russia for the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
The Russia choice was fairly controversial — not only did the country largely lack the economic capacity to host the event, but Russia also lacked the undeniable passion for the sport that had helped justify the selection of other middle-income countries like Brazil. There were some mild accusations of corruption in the bidding process, as well as expressed concerns about Russia’s history of human rights abuses and treatment of LGBTQ people, most notably from England’s Football Association,The bulk of the outrage, however, concerned the selection of Qatar.
At the time of the pick, Qatar’s national team was ranked 112th in FIFA’s own rankings, by far the worst-ever ranking for a host nation (that ranking has predictably and controversially sky-rocketed since then, with Qatar now in 58th). Additionally, Qatar has never previously played in a World Cup, marking the first time since 1934 — the second-ever World Cup — that a nation will make its World Cup debut as a host.
Beyond the weaknesses of Qatari football, critics quickly pointed to how poorly equipped Qatar is to host one of the biggest sporting competitions on earth. Not only does the country lack the necessary stadiums and training grounds needed to host 32 different teams, but summer temperatures in Qatar average over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the World Cup will be hosted in November and December of 2022, rather than the traditional June and July, which will interrupt the flow of many nation’s top club leagues.
The unjustifiable selection of Qatar drew immediate fire internationally, prompting FIFA to perform an internal investigation into allegations of corruption, which eventually cleared the Gulf nation of any wrongdoing. However, the chief investigator of the probe, American Michael J. Garcia, vehemently disagreed with the committee’s findings, claiming they were “materially incomplete and erroneous,” while former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was in charge of the group at the time of the selection, said that Qatar used “black ops” to win the vote. Prosecutors in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, have dismissed the report entirely and are still investigating the selection committee’s processes.
While the legal investigations play out, Qatar is working at breakneck speed to make the World Cup happen, including building the massive infrastructure needed to host dozens of teams and tens of thousands of fans. To do this, the country has brought in thousands of migrant laborers paid pennies on the dollar to do back-breaking work in the sweltering Qatari heat. In addition to low wages, workers face horrible working conditions that by some estimates have left 6,500 people dead. Whether by a work place accident, negligence or suicide, the Qatar World Cup has been killing over twelve people a week since it started preparing for the tournament 10 years ago.
With the World Cup less than two years away, many top players and national teams are using their positions to call out Qatar for its human rights abuses and are even advocating for the event to change venues. Before a World Cup qualifier against Iceland, the German national team wore t-shirts spelling out “Human Rights,” while the Norwegian team recently wore shirts calling for other teams to join the protests. In response, the Dutch wore shirts saying “Football Supports Change,” and England captain Harry Kane announced that his team would look into taking measures to raise awareness as well.
Some players, like Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich, say that players and teams are doing too little too late. Before a recent qualifying match against Romania, Kimmich said that “I think we’re 10 years too late to boycott the World Cup.”
Discussions of a total boycott, as opposed to just vocal criticism, have also divided many European teams. Only the Norwegians and Danish, two teams who notably do not have a clear path to qualification, have indicated any possible support for the idea, while Belgium manager Roberto Martinez has explicitly ruled out the possibility. Even flagrant human rights abuses and thousands of deaths are not enough to take away the allure of football’s (i.e. soccer’s) biggest prize.
Increased criticism of Qatar’s World Cup also begs the questions about other Qatari involvement in football. If Qatar’s government is at fault for these abuses, why should they be allowed to invest billions of dollars into teams like Paris Saint-Germain? Where do people draw the line at the intersection of powerful, corrupt governments and their role in sports?
There is some historical precedent for a human rights motivated boycott of a World Cup; in 1978, the Netherlands called for other nations to boycott the World Cup in Argentina over the country’s Dirty War and the desaparecidos. The Dutch failed however to accumulate a critical mass, and the World Cup went as planned.
With just over a year left until the planned start of Qatar 2022, it is increasingly unfeasible to move the World Cup to a less controversial host country, like some have proposed. Even if the World Cup manages to somehow avoid the worst of the desert heat and the disruption of the club seasons in Europe, Qatar 2022 still threatens to be what German group ProFans called “a lavish football festival on the graves of thousands.”