by Ruben Timmerman
Tomorrow begins the European qualifying campaign for football’s most prestigious tournament: the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. As European countries kick-off against one another for a shot to compete, a deepening sense of gloom and pessimism casts its shadow over the tournament. In recent weeks, British newspaper The Guardian published a widely-discussed report confirming that thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar over the course of preparations for the tournament. The report is just the latest in a litany of controversies and scandals that have emerged since it was first announced in 2010 that Qatar would host the World Cup.
The FIFA World Cup is on average the most-watched sporting event in the world, drawing an audience of 3.57 billion viewers in 2018. However, the recent report from The Guardian has reignited longstanding criticisms of both the tournament and of FIFA—the international governing body of world football. This blog post discusses the Guardian report in light of the wider context of corruption within the sport, and what it suggests in terms of the nature and trajectory of professional world football going forward.
In December 2010, it was announced—to the confusion and dismay of most football fans around the world—that Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.[i] Several other countries competed for the bid, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. However, Qatar finally emerged from the bidding process as the winner, obtaining an absolute majority of the votes from the 22 member Executive Committee.
Why Qatar—the tiny Gulf nation located in the desert, which has almost no football history, and which has never qualified for a World Cup—was even considered for nomination, let alone selected as the host, was a mystery to most pundits and fans of the sport.[ii] Of course, it wasn’t a mystery at all. To its credit, the country possessed one important quality that seems to have had considerable impact on its bid to host the tournament: an abundance of oil-rich corporate executives and financiers.
In the weeks leading up to FIFA’s 2010 bidding process to determine the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, widespread allegations of corruption and bribery began to emerge in the media.[iii] In November 2010, the BBC broadcasted the documentary FIFA’s Dirty Secrets, which detailed investigative reporting into accusations of bribery within the bidding process.[iv] In 2014, Michael Garcia, a high-profile US attorney, resigned as FIFA’s chief ethics investigator after FIFA had attempted to quash key findings of his report on corruption within the organization. The so-called Garcia Report, which was finally released in 2017, revealed all manner of impropriety and unethical behaviour in FIFA’s bidding process, including transfer of large sums of money to bank accounts of family members of FIFA executives.[v] Currently, the bidding process continues to be under criminal investigation by Swiss federal prosecutors.
Since the investigations began, many of the members of FIFA’s Executive Committee who voted in 2010 to award the tournament to Qatar have been banned for unethical conduct, indicted on corruption or bribery charges, or are currently being investigated for fraud, racketeering, and money laundering.[vi] A host of other corporate executives and high-ranking officials, including long-time FIFA President Sepp Blatter, have also been banned from participating in FIFA activities.[vii]
The Guardian Report
In addition to the corruption and impropriety surrounding Qatar’s bid for the World Cup, the country’s egregious human rights record has also been the subject of controversy. In particular, the exploitation of migrant workers has attracted growing attention from human rights observers and media organizations. Upon its selection as the host country, Qatar immediately began an unprecedented building programme, including the construction of seven new stadiums, a new international airport, public transit and infrastructure expansion, and hotels to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.[viii] In order to facilitate this large-scale construction project, the tiny gulf nation is almost entirely dependent on foreign migrant labour. As a consequence, the country’s population has increased nearly 40% since it was selected to host the tournament, with migrant workers making up an astonishing 95% of the country’s labour force.[ix] Since 2010, numerous international observers have documented widespread accounts of severe abuse and exploitation of these workers, including forced labour, unsafe working conditions, non-payment of wages, manipulative or misleading recruitment practices, and substandard housing conditions.[x] Observers also raised serious concerns regarding the growing number of deaths of migrant workers—though, until recently, little official data could be found.
In its most recent report, The Guardian conducted the first analysis attempting to determine the approximate number of migrant workers who have died. Drawing on data from various government sources from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Qatar, the report was able to confirm more than 6,500 migrant worker deaths since 2011—though the actual number is significantly higher.[xi] While the circumstances surrounding the deaths are often not accurately reported, it is clear that most of the deaths are a direct result of the severe health and safety problems associated with the labour and housing conditions of workers, including heat stress, exhaustion, electrocution, workplace accidents, and suicide.
Since the release of the report, there have been intensified calls to boycott the tournament, with a growing number of petitions in various European countries calling on their national teams to withdraw from competition. In the Netherlands, Parliament recently passed a motion requesting that the Dutch King and Prime Minister not attend the tournament.
Symptoms of a Diseased Sport
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is not by any means the first international football tournament to be confronted with allegations of corruption. Nor is it the first time that concerns have been raised surrounding the human and civil rights circumstances of the host nation. Perhaps most famously, the 1978 World Cup was hosted by Argentina in the thick of a brutal military dictatorship, drawing similar controversy and global calls for a boycott. There indeed exists a much broader and more longstanding crisis of legitimacy in international sports governance.[xii] Still, the current tournament is unique not only in terms of the brazenness of the corruption through which Qatar was able to secure its election, but also the degree to which the core human rights concerns are directly connected to the tournament itself. The stadiums, hotels and airports in which the tournament is to be celebrated and enjoyed by players and supporters were constructed through the systematic exploitation of migrant workers. At the same time, however, it should be recognized that the World Cup in Qatar is merely a symptom—or rather, the culmination—of a disease that has long plagued the professional world of football; one that is defined by corruption, greed, and exploitation.
As a criminologist, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar raises many important questions surrounding the nature of social harms associated with global sporting events; the disproportionate impact they have on vulnerable populations; the effectiveness of efforts to tackle widespread corruption; the opportunities for securing improved labour rights for migrant workers; and the general need for improving public legitimacy, transparency and accountability in international sports governance.
As a lifelong fan of ‘the beautiful game’, it’s difficult to shake the growing sense of bitterness and cynicism surrounding the sport. Despite overwhelming criticism, FIFA has maintained its persistent refusal to re-run the bidding process. In the coming months, we will undoubtedly see football’s biggest stars, pundits, and politicians engage in all manner of performative activism and ‘awareness-raising’, but it seems unlikely that any of them will be passing up the opportunity to perform on the world’s biggest stage. Unless those with real authority and influence over the sport are willing to take serious steps to ensure accountability, it’s equally unlikely anything will meaningfully change. With many months until the start of the tournament, perhaps there is time yet to persuade them. Shutting off our televisions tomorrow might be a good place to start—though, for the workers and their families, I suspect it will bring little consolation.
[i] K. Youd (2014), ‘The Winter’s tale of corruption: The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the impending shift to Winter, and potential legal actions against FIFA’, Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, Vol. 35(1), pp. 169-197.
[ii] R.J. Becker (2013), ‘World cup 2026 now accepting bribes: a fundamental transformation of FIFA’s world cup bid process’, International Sports Law Journal, 13(1-2), pp. 132-147.
[v] M. Payne, (2017, June 27), ‘FIFA releases full ‘Garcia report,’ outlining further corruption but no smoking gun in World Cup bids’, The Washington Post, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/06/27/fifa-releases-full-garcia-report-outlining-further-corruption-but-no-smoking-gun-in-world-cup-bids/
[vi] US Department of Justice (2015), ‘Sixteen Additional FIFA Officials Indicted for Racketeering Conspiracy and Corruption’, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/sixteen-additional-fifa-officials-indicted-racketeering-conspiracy-and-corruption; BBC (2016, January 6), ‘Who are the indicted FIFA officials?’, BBC, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-32897171; T. Panja & K. Draper (2020, April 6), ‘U.S. Says FIFA Officials Were Bribed to Award World Cups to Russia and Qatar’, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/sports/soccer/qatar-and-russia-bribery-world-cup-fifa.html.
[vii] O. Gibson (2015, December 21), ‘Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini banned from football for eight years by Fifa’, The Guardian, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/dec/21/sepp-blatter-michel-platini-banned-from-football-fifa
[viii] P. Pattison, N. McIntyre, et al. (2021, February 23), ‘Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded’, The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/23/revealed-migrant-worker-deaths-qatar-fifa-world-cup-2022
[ix] Amnesty International (2019), Reality check: The state of migrant workers’ rights with four years to go until the Qatar 2022 World Cup, available at https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE2297582019ENGLISH.PDF
[x] See, inter alia, Amnesty International (2019), supra note ix; Human Rights Watch (2020), ‘How Can We Work Without Wages? Salary Abuses Facing Migrant Workers Ahead of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022’, Human Rights Watch, available at https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2020/08/qatar0820_web_3.pdf; P. Pattisson (2013, September 25), ‘Qatar’s World Cup ‘Slaves’’, The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/revealed-qatars-world-cup-slaves
[xi] Supra note viii.
[xii] A. Geeraert (2015), ‘The legitimacy crisis in international sports governance’, Sports Governance Observer, available at https://www.sv-virnsberg.de/images/content/241115/SGO_report_final_2.pdf