By Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff / The Nation
Were there not so much suffering involved, the Qatar 2022 World Cup would be an absurdist parody of sportswashing. The extraordinarily popular event is meant to put a happy gloss on both the brutal kingdom of Qatar and soccer’s governing body—that infamous organization of finely tuned corruption: FIFA.
Normally, the men’s World Cup would be kicking off this month, but FIFA honchos changed the World Cup schedule to accommodate the fact that Qatar is scorching in the summer, with temperatures in Doha regularly reaching 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius). When they bid for the Cup, Qatar boasted of hosting it over the summer with a state-of-the-art indoor air-conditioned stadium, but that proved to be a lie. Instead, FIFA moved the tournament to November and December, and in the process wreaked havoc on the calendars of domestic soccer leagues around the globe. The fact that the most powerful leagues in the world were willing to reshuffle their plans to accommodate FIFA and their Qatari collaborators is a monument to the brass-knuckle financial power of the men’s World Cup. The 2018 World Cup in Russia raked in $5.36 billion in revenues on the road to more than $3.5 billion in profit. FIFA expects similar profits from the spectacle in Qatar.
For nearly a decade, journalists have been trumpeting allegations that FIFA never would have selected Qatar were it not for brazen bribery. The US Department of Justice has indicted numerous FIFA officials on a range of crimes including racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, some of these charges related to the Qatari bid. Investigators assert that Qatar forked over at least $1 million—and perhaps as much as $15 million—to three soccer officials from South America for their votes. Many more voting members of FIFA have been implicated in various bribery schemes.
These alleged bribes flung open the gate for human rights abuses. The government in Qatar is a constitutional monarchy in which Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani reigns supreme. It clamps down on free expression and assembly and exerts significant prohibitions against labor organizing. Last year, a Guardian investigation learned that more than 6,500 migrant workers—from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere—have died in Qatar since 2010. Approximately three dozen people have passed away while working directly on World Cup construction.
Jaw-dropping as that is, the exploitation goes further. Human Rights Watch asserts that thousands upon thousands of migrant workers experienced grave labor abuses while helping Qatar prepare for the World Cup, and they have not yet received financial compensation. When FIFA President Gianni Infantino was asked whether he was doing anything to help the families of exploited migrant workers, he chose to minimize their misery, stating, “When you give work to somebody, even in hard conditions, you give him dignity and pride. It’s not charity.”
Then there is LGBTQ safety and security. This month FIFA festooned its Twitter avatar in the colors of the rainbow to mark Pride, congratulating itself for its “celebration for the LGBTQIA+ community.” But platitudes can’t erase the fact that the two most recent hosts of the men’s World Cup—Russia and Qatar—have horrific human-rights records when it comes to LGBTQ issues.
Qatar’s stance on LGBTQ rights is appalling. It’s a country where same-sex relations are punishable by a three-year prison term. No one’s fears were assuaged when a senior Qatari security official for the World Cup suggested recently that LGBTQ fans would be welcome to attend the event, but that any unfurled rainbow flags in Qatar could be confiscated in order to protect those waving them from being physically attacked. Sometimes warnings sound a lot more like threats.
The Independent Supporters Council of North America, a group of ardent soccer fans, issued a statement that read in part, “We cannot, in good faith, tell our members, LGBT+ people or allies that this is a World Cup for all.” After Wales qualified for the World Cup, members of the Welsh team’s staff announced they will forgo attending the event because of Qatar’s position on LGBTQ rights. We should expect additional global pressure on Qatar as the World Cup nears.
Lastly, on top of the labor abuses, corruption, death, and anti-gay bigotry, there is the greenwashing. When FIFA claimed that Qatar would host the first-ever carbon-neutral World Cup, the global guffaw nearly registered on the Richter scale. The environmental group Carbon Market Watch responded that only “creative accounting” that ignored massive sources of carbon—like the energy required to cool the stadiums—could lead to that misleading conclusion. Soccer scholar Brenda Elsey joked on the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down that soccer barons must have been using their “magical FIFA abacus” to arrive at their carbon-neutrality claim.
Yet, despite all of this, the World Cup will be watched by billions and provide oodles of positive coverage for the Qatari state. That is the nefarious part of sportswashing. It’s a force whose mission is to gaslight the consumer and use something as beautiful and universal as sports to do it.
There are forces not content to let this happen. In England, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the country’s two largest unions, Unite and Unison, are calling for both the funding and creation of a migrant workers center in Qatar and compensation for families of those workers who died in order to bring the World Cup to life.
Efforts such as these can take the rhetoric of sportswashing and use it against FIFA and the Qatari royal family. These undertakings should be supported not only because they are just but also because they chip away at sportswashing’s edifice so we can see the brutal truth beneath.