Qatar 2022: The beautiful game meets a repressive reality
20 November 2022
World Cup opening ceremonies can be head-scratching affairs. Chicago, 1994, is perhaps as helpful an example as any. This was the setting for Diana Ross’s attempt to burst the net with a choreographed spot kick. She didn’t quite find the target – there ain’t no goal mouth wide enough – but it didn’t stop the mock woodwork from splitting theatrically into two halves as the goalkeeper dived redundantly to his right.
This year’s World Cup curtain-raiser carried a similar air of unreality, but for altogether less innocent reasons. The tournament is taking place in a country that has constructed its stadiums, its society and its legal system in a way that does little to advance football’s fabled mission to bring people together.
In December 2010, and apparently against the odds, Qatar won the right to stage the 22nd World Cup. Fifa imposed no conditions in terms of human rights protections. This was despite its acknowledgment at the time of the need to recruit a massive labour force to build an elite football infrastructure out of nothing. Some 95% of Qatar’s workers are migrants.
Twelve years on, and Gianni Infantino – recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship from 2018’s mascot-cum-despot Vladimir Putin – implores us to ‘focus on the football’. In an impassioned pre-tournament address, the Fifa president went further, eschewing the idea of checking one’s privilege in favour of declaring himself an honorary member of a whole host of minorities. “Today I have very strong feelings”, he explained. “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker… I feel like a woman too!”
These are strong feelings indeed for a white, Swiss-Italian, non-disabled, heterosexual, male millionaire.
But there was similar messaging just prior to Russia 2018 and – looking back – it was largely embraced. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay later lamented: “We have been expertly played by Vladimir Putin. Now he is raining death down on Ukraine, and sport has served its purpose in him being able to create this horrifying moment.”
The collective public gullibility threshold seems a little higher this time round. In some ways, Doha’s opening ceremony had been unfolding for weeks, played out in a drip-drip of media commentary on the state of human rights in Qatar. It began with French municipalities announcing that the fan zones of four years ago would not return. In Britain, some pubs are foregoing the easy beer money that flows from live screenings. David Beckham’s manicured public image is coming under such strain that he may reflect that he might as well have just skipped the queue.
And it is easy to see why many are feeling queasy about it all. Human Rights Watch this week launched “Qatar: FIFA World Cup 2022 – Human Rights Guide for Reporters”. It presents the statistics and stories that attest to the realities of Qatar 2022, and of just living in Qatar.
HRW’s focus is on migrant workers’ rights. The kafala system that ties workers’ continued entitlement to reside in the country to the whims of their employers. The non-payment of wages: one major World Cup construction contractor is said to have withheld its workers’ pay for up to five months. The death toll. How many have died in laying the ground work for Qatar’s big moment is unlikely to be established, the inevitable result of the authorities’ failure to investigate deaths when they occur. But it is feared to have run into the many thousands.
Migrant workers are forbidden from joining unions or – perhaps needless to say – protesting. With the tournament about to get underway, security guards at a World Cup fan park have reported being paid as little as 35p per day.
Media reporting has quite properly highlighted recent major reforms – a minimum wage and the formal ending of kafala in September 2020 following years of pressure from the International Labor Organization (ILO). But the repeated caveat is an emphasis on the need for enforcement, true reform requiring not just law, but the rule of law.
And it’s not just migrant workers. To be a woman in Qatar might involve having the date on your marriage certificate compared with your estimated date of conception. The outcome of that analysis could be up to seven years in prison for extra-marital sex. And the guardianship system remains, whereby major life decisions require the permission of a male relative.
LGBTQ+ people are criminalised, with same-sex conduct punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. “Damage in the mind” according to Khalid Salman, the former Qatar midfielder spotted by his government as being tailor-made for the role of World Cup Ambassador.
While England’s travelling support has traditionally struggled to recalibrate to the cultural norms of places like Spain and Portugal, the 2022 cohort best be mindful of the requirement not to criticise the emir, insult the Qatar flag, blaspheme or to do anything that might be construed as an attempt to overthrow the regime (in the complete absence of bar stools). Travel advice from the UK Foreign Office warns that “swearing and making rude gestures are considered obscene acts and offenders can be jailed and/or deported.”
In the era of fake news, anyone found to have been spreading it via unwelcome online posts faces three years in prison.
The tournament’s organisers will protest that national cultural norms deserve respect. Few would disagree. But the same authorities have been prepared to skew long-standing red lines in the name of projecting an “everyone is welcome” message. Qatar has publicly confirmed, for example, that there will be no restrictions on non-married couples staying in the same room, and this will include LGBT couples. Likewise, Fifa has told HRW that it “has been assured that women reporting rape or other forms of abuse will not face any questions or accusations regarding possible consensual extramarital sexual relationships and should not fear repercussions of any form on that basis.”
It is too late for those who have died on the road to this World Cup, but human rights groups are calling for urgent reparations. HRW has urged Fifa and the Qatari authorities to establish a comprehensive remediation programme, and to set aside an amount at least equivalent to the tournament’s prize money of $440m for the purpose.
The bill for the World Cup dwarfs that figure and is currently estimated to be in the region of $200 billion. That is almost 100 times the cost of France ’98 ($2.33 billion) and more than 10 times that of the previous record breaker, Brazil 2014 ($19.7 billion).
But Qatar’s World Cup has surely proved the most costly in human terms. Will the next four weeks catch the world’s imagination, relegate our scruples to the backs of our minds and provide a masterclass in high temperature sportswashing? Or will it continue to expose the host nation’s dirty laundry?