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The World Cup of Protest

In a few weeks, the second largest global sporting event, the FIFA World Cup, will be kicking off in the Gulf state of Qatar. Instead of growing anticipation for the event, there is increasing criticism of the host nation for its history of appalling human rights records, the treatment of migrant workers, and the illegality of same-sex relations. How did the beautiful game land its pinnacle event in a country that is surrounded by so much controversy and has no history of competing in the event? The answer on most people’s minds: alleged corruption of the bidding process. 16 out of the 22 voting members of FIFA have been implicated in or investigated over some form of corruption or bad practice in the bidding process.

In a country where journalists have been imprisoned for investigating migrant worker conditions, and with the government continually denying human rights violations, it is difficult to get a clear picture of what is happening in the lead-up to the event. Qatar’s workforce is made up of 90% migrant workers, with there being an estimated 1.7 million in the small country. Migrant workers come to the country under the Kafala system, which is a labour sponsorship program. This system binds workers through a contract with their sponsor; the sponsor controls their immigration status. It is an essential tool for companies when extorting their workers. Migrant workers have been reported to live in sub-human conditions with no running water or working sewage. The Guardian has reported that since winning the bid in 2010 to host the World Cup, there have been 6,500 migrant worker deaths in Qatar. The Qatari government fiercely denied this accusation and stated that there have only been 37 deaths among migrant labourers at construction sites for the event.

As the World Cup draws nearer, there has been an ever-brightening spotlight on the country and its relatively young history. This has seen some improvements to working conditions; however, these “improvements” are rarely enforced and thus are only for a show at the moment. One strong improvement that Qatar has implemented is the introduction of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) into the country to reform the Kafala system. This saw the Qatari government pledge to tackle labour exploitation. However, once again, these are merely promises that are not being enforced, and labour exploitation is still rampant in the country.

Qatar is hoping that with the first whistle of the World Cup later this month, it can recreate what Beijing did in 2008, airbrush its image and shine on the global stage. The Gulf state is wanting to project a cosmopolitan image, signal that it is open to international business, welcoming to tourists and can also be a player in global politics. While sportswashing is not a new concept, it has been hanging around FIFA for nearly a century. It first occurred in 1934 when Benito Mussolini held the World Cup, and again in 1978 when the tournament was used as a tool to garner legitimacy for the military junta in Argentina. The most recent incident of sportswashing was the 2018 World Cup that Russia hosted, only a few years after they annexed Crimea. With only weeks to go until the quadrennial showpiece kicks off, Qatar would have hoped that there would be growing anticipation and excitement for the event. Instead, they face mounting criticism.

Multiple international football teams have come out and publicly criticised FIFA and Qatar for what happened in the lead-up to the World Cup. This was most notably with the Australian Football team releasing a video message condemning Qatar’s human rights records and the country’s stance on same-sex relations. Other nations have followed suit, with Denmark stating that they will be playing in a monochrome “protest jersey”. Germany and Norway have also worn pregame shirts displaying messages advocating for human rights. While these gestures have created noise around the issues that are plaguing this World Cup, they will not do a great deal in helping the migrant workers in the country. National governments need to work together and push Qatar to enforce worker reforms they promised to do. There needs to be intra-governmental work to hold FIFA and Qatar accountable and for them to implement a compensation fund for migrant workers who have died or been injured in the lead-up to the event. If the world does not hold Qatar accountable for its record on human rights and stance on same-sex relations, countries will continue to use and abuse international sporting competitions to sportswash their image in an attempt to make the world forget.