Starting Sunday, the most talented soccer players will travel to Qatar to compete in the world’s most-watched sporting event – the FIFA World Cup. And while the United States is still relatively new to soccer, anticipation is at an all-time high with a hopeful new generation led by players Christian Pulisic and Brenden Aaronson representing the country. This year’s World Cup is especially meaningful to me because a series of legends I grew up watching in Germany are ready to retire, including Thomas Müller, Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema. Watching the World Cup is usually never out of the question for me, but for the first time, I won’t be tuning in.
After FIFA selected Qatar as the host back in 2010, U.S. federal prosecutors charged and arrested about two dozen FIFA officials in 2015 for arranging payments to secure Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid. Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA who resigned in 2015 over charges of criminal mismanagement, acknowledged the organization’s mishandling in assigning the World Cup to Qatar in 2014 because of “social considerations” and “human rights” concerns. Qatar’s unfair and inhumane treatment of migrant workers is reflective of the overall corruption in the FIFA organization, overshadowing the joys of this event and exposing the true cost of this so-called “beautiful game.”
The 2022 World Cup was nearly entirely built on the exploitation of South Asian, low-income and male migrant workers. Thirty thousand workers were recruited for the World Cup alone – all former subjects of the now-outlawed Kafala system. The system requires migrant workers to have a sponsor, oftentimes European or American corporations who exploited Qatar’s callousness and withheld workers’ passports to keep them from leaving the country.
At least 6,500 estimated workers died building the Qatar World Cup stadium, mostly from heatstroke while working 12 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes without drinking water. If fans held a minute of silence for each of those who died, they would have to remain quiet for the entirety of each of the tournament’s 64 games. When asked about these deaths, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said, “the workers have gained dignity and pride” because of the minor labor reforms their deaths brought to Qatar. While it is one thing to minimize the role FIFA played in these deaths, sarcastically labeling their deaths as dignifying speaks to FIFA’s general disregard for human rights and commitment to sweeping issues under the rug.
Qatar also outlaws all same sex-relations and punishes sexual acts between men as sodomy with up to three years of imprisonment, a law discouraging fans, journalists, sports agents, sponsor representatives and more from attending due to their sexual orientation. Ten team captains from countries including the Netherlands and Germany will wear pride armbands to raise awareness about the mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the country, but because FIFA has not yet approved them, they will bear colors duller and nontraditional compared to the iconic rainbow pride colors to fit with organization regulations. FIFA also vowed to keep politics out of soccer, proving that this form of activism is simply performative.
Western countries have voiced their outrage over Qatar’s human rights abuses after conveniently ignoring the state of basic civil liberties in other World Cup host countries in past years. When Brazil hosted the tournament in 2014, there was little protest over the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes to make way for stadiums. Instead, World Cup fans pointed to Brazil’s general passion for the sport to justify their support. Similarly, when Russia hosted the tournament in 2018 while bombing Syria and annexing parts of the Ukraine in 2014, protests were scarce. But people in countries like France are boycotting this year’s event, the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East. And while France is not wrong to question Qatar for its human rights violations, Qataris are asking when France – where islamophobia is on the rise – will begin to defend the human rights of the asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East on its very own shores or when it will end its exploitation of former colonies.
Granted, some believe that hosting the World Cup in Qatar has led the country to implement a minimum wage and abolish the Kafala system due to international attention and pressure from other countries. But the fear remains that such reforms are only a result of international attention, not a long-term commitment to progress. And the wealth of Qatar and other countries in the Persian Gulf continue to fund popular football clubs like Manchester City and Bayern Munich, showing how wealth still corrupts football on the world stage despite small efforts to bring reform to Qatar.
A boycott at this point will likely not change the fact that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup – it certainly won’t bring back the lives lost in the building of the stadiums. But dissociating from brands sponsoring the World Cup, avoiding broadcasters charging subscription fees for the matches and not buying official merchandise are some of the many ways to truly change the way FIFA plans its renowned tournaments. Under even the slightest threat of reduced fan revenues, FIFA may pay more attention to such issues in the future.
What defines the World Cup are the communal events it creates for friends to watch the games and enjoy the suspense, arguments and joy all at once together. That can still be found elsewhere. You can hit bars, play pool, do trivia or watch many other sporting events – but the 2022 World Cup shouldn’t be one of them. Come late November, this tournament I’ve grown up loving won’t have my support.
Flora Roy, a sophomore majoring in political science and geography, is an opinions writer.