The 2022 World Cup officially kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, beginning weeks of competition in the world’s most popular sport. But even as soccer stars take to the world stage, the first World Cup to be held in a Middle Eastern and Muslim country remains marked by more than a decade’s worth of questions and controversy.
Among them: a global corruption scandal, the astronomical price of building the necessary facilities, serious human rights concerns over the country’s treatment of migrant workers, and outrage at Qatar’s treatment of women and LGBTQI+ people.
How did Qatar, a nation smaller than the state of Connecticut, get the right to host the World Cup?
“To understand this question, you have to know that football is governed by FIFA,” says Roger Bennett, founder of Men in Blazers Media, which produces several football-related podcasts whose governing body is FIFA, the international governing body of football and soccer aims, according to Bennett, to “grow and protect the game”. Held every four years, the World Cup is awarded through a bidding process that invites potential host countries to submit a proposal to the FIFA Council.
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In 2010, in an unusual move, FIFA awarded the rights to two tournaments at the same time – the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The victorious host countries were Russia and Qatar, respectively. “There was quite a lot of expectation that the United States would win this tournament,” said Sam Stejskal, covering football for The Athletic. “And as we learned in subsequent investigations, it wasn’t quite on the rise.”
A Justice Department investigation into how football officials awarded television and marketing deals led to at least 25 FIFA executives being charged in 2015 with “their participation in a 24-year program of enrichment through the corruption of international football”. And the US claimed in 2020 that officials from Russia and Qatar bribed voting FIFA members to support their ultimately successful bids.
In addition, having two world championships at once “was the perfect way to maximize the amount of money bribed,” Bennett said.
Qatari officials deny the bribery allegations, but FIFA’s own analysis of Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup “flags almost every advantage of Qatar’s bid as dangerous,” Bennett said. These included the extreme summer temperatures that would require the World Cup to be moved from its typical summer start to November and the challenges of building new facilities, all essentially located in one city in the country.
Bennett stressed that having the opportunity to host the World Cup was right for Middle Eastern nations, but that Qatar, whose team had never qualified for a World Cup before being included as hosts by default, was the wrong choice. “There are nations in the Middle East with incredibly rich footballing heritage and traditions: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, they all deserve the right more,” said former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was in charge of FIFA, as Qatar won the bid for the World Cup, and who has been accused of corruption throughout his tenure as FIFA boss, described the decision as a “bad choice”, although he cited its small size as the main reason.
In order to host the World Cup, Qatar had to build – “In short, everything. It’s remarkable here in Doha; You can’t escape the construction,” Steskal told NewsHour from Qatar.
Qatar, a country of fewer than 3 million people – the vast majority of whom are immigrants – estimates that it would be home to more than 1 million fans.
Lacking the large stadiums available in countries with major national football leagues and programs, Qatar has had to build seven new stadiums and fully rehabilitate an eighth.
To accommodate a million fans, Qatar accelerated construction of an entirely new city, Lusail, and a metro system to support them. It expanded its airport and built new residential buildings, hotels, and more. And while the total price hasn’t been released, estimates put it at over $200 billion – easily the most expensive World Cup ever.
To achieve all of this, Qatar has relied on an army of migrant workers from countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ghana and others. While Qatar says it brought in 30,000 migrant workers, that number only refers to those building stadiums. And the conditions migrants have reported have raised serious human rights concerns.
Anish Adhikari, a migrant worker who came to Qatar from Nepal lured by a higher salary than Adhikari could earn at home, described the conditions in a recent interview with PBS NewsHour and independent filmmakers Fat Rat Films. “Sometimes the company would give us spoiled food. The fish would smell disgusting. We used to get diarrhea,” Adhikari said. “It got up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t get the water we needed. The water we got was almost 90 percent ice. We asked why they were doing this and told them it was impossible to drink water like that. They said they froze it because workers would drink more if they provided plain water.”
The conditions under which workers were kept in the country also led to allegations of forced labour. “Many of these people have their passports confiscated upon arrival in the country. They will not be returned to them until they complete their contracts, Stejskal told NewsHour. “As reported, the living conditions were sometimes very, very bad. Tons of people crammed into tiny, run-down shelters and there were many dead.”
The Qatari government says 37 migrant workers have died since 2015, just three of them from work-related causes. But as with estimates of total workers, this count excludes those building non-competitive facilities such as hotels and transit buildings.
According to an analysis by the Guardian, which contacted the embassies of nations that have sent workers – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – at least 6,750 workers have died in construction in Qatar since the 2010 World Cup was awarded.
And the nonprofit Human Rights Watch points out that the Guardian’s analysis could still be underwhelmed, as not every nation that posted workers was contacted.
The death toll, Bennett said, is something “that teams are grappling with now. They will be forced to play the game of their dreams in stadiums literally drenched in blood.”
The outcry surrounding the tournaments has led to some public protests. The Australia national team have released a video showing members of the Socceroos – their national team – going through some of the issues surrounding this World Cup. Denmark will make a mark with its jersey, an all-black mourning shirt, in memory of the workers who lost their lives.
And the captains of teams from England, Germany and France planned to wear an armband reading “One Love” in similar colors to the LGBT pride flag in protest of Qatar’s anti-homosexuality laws. This plan was scrapped after FIFA warned teams that players wearing an armband not approved by FIFA would receive a yellow card.
But the problems surrounding this World Cup are not unique. For example, China hosted the recent Winter Olympics amid criticism of forced labor practices and mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims.
And Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup four years after annexing Crimea while backing separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, and amid allegations of anti-gay “purges” in Russia’s Chechen Republic.
“It’s a pattern,” said Bennett, noting that the 1930 World Cup was hosted by Italy, then under the control of fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “The first World Cup I remember as a little kid, 1978, Argentina. The military junta used the World Cup to try to present a modern and attractive face.”
Many fans will be watching this World Cup on a “split screen” of sorts, Bennett said – their love of watching football co-exists with the corruption, exploitation and human suffering that have led to this point.