During the summer of 2010, I was working in a small retail wine shop in St. Paul, Minnesota. We’d just switched over our point of sale system from a pair of old cash registers to a new sleek set of twin computers, both sporting retail software.
One afternoon in late June, one of the store’s two owners and I sat glued to the computer screen, watching Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie work to unlock Denmark’s defense. Another employee, busied with an expansion we were undertaking at that time, stopped short while carrying a case of wine. “What are you doing? There’s plenty of actual work, you know.” Looking at one another, then back to her, our response was a simple, if not water-tight rebuttal: “But—it’s the World Cup.”
For many soccer fans around the globe, the World Cup is an almost sacred event. As is so often the case, scarcity drives demand, and because the Men’s World Cup only comes around once every four years, the occasion takes on an intensity—and a global audience—that even the Super Bowl can’t top.
As such, for most devotees of international football, missing the World Cup would be a travesty, and willfully ignoring it would be almost unimaginable. But for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, an increasing number of soccer fans have claimed that’s precisely what they intend to do.
Heated Bidding Wars
In December 2010, for the first time in FIFA’s history, soccer’s international governing body chose the venue for two World Cups simultaneously. This may not have aroused immediate suspicion, but when the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar, rumors began to fly.
Although many concerns about the bidding were fueled by nationalistic jealousy from the countries with failed bids, as time has gone on, concerns about corruption have proven to be more than mere knee-jerk frustration. After the U.S. indictment of nine high-ranking FIFA officials earlier this year, the FBI is reported to be actively investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
But beyond the allegations of corruption in the bidding process, there are legitimate concerns about whether or not the game of soccer can even physically be played in Qatar during the summer. How, some asked, is the World Cup meant to be held in a country where summer temperatures routinely exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit?
Qatar claimed in its initial bid that all 12 of their brand new stadiums would be air-conditioned down to “only” about 80 degrees. However, four years after the bidding was concluded, on the eve of last year’s World Cup, the high temperature in Doha was a whopping 117 degrees, and Qatar had quietly admitted that the technology to cool down their stadiums was untested and uncertain, saying that the World Cup might be forced to move to the winter, a plan that was very far from the negotiation table during their bidding process.
Worked to Death
What’s most unsettling about the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is not the potentially unbearable heat during the tournament’s traditional months of June and July, nor even the allegations that millions of dollars illicitly changed hands in order to secure the event through back door bribery, but rather the working conditions for migrant laborers building the 12 new stadiums intended to house the tournament.
Several hundred migrant workers have already died during the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, with some estimates rising as high as 1,200 deaths. Qatar has been vociferous in its denial of the high death toll, but the government’s official stance has failed to convince many.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have publicly decried the labor practices in Qatar, with special emphasis being placed on the huge building projects the small, oil-rich nation has undertaken in preparation for the World Cup.
At the heart of the labor controversy in Qatar is what is called the Kafala system. In this system, migrant workers must obtain “sponsorship” from a local business in order to enter the country to find work.
While this might seem a logical step in visa sponsorship, within Qatar’s Kafala system—as with the Kafala systems in other neighboring Arab nations—a worker must receive a “no-objection letter” from their sponsor in order to quit. This means that employers can not only refuse to let their employees leave and enter the labor market, but because they are their employees’ visa sponsors and thus often hold their workers’ passports, they can even refuse them the right to leave the country.
If this sounds a lot like slave labor, that’s because it is.
Amid controversy that’s been roiling since construction on the World Cup stadiums began, Qatar has repeatedly promised to reevaluate the system. And then, Qatar has repeatedly broken those promises.
Most recently, a vote on proposals for reforming Kafala was delayed because there was need, Qatar claimed, “for further study.” Dovetailing with broken promises for labor reform, Qatari officials have been quick to condemn anyone criticizing the 2022 Qatar World Cup as racist, suggesting that critics simply believe that “our Arab region is not entitled to have such an event,” without addressing the myriad of concerns—from bribery to worker fatalities—that have dogged the World Cup in Qatar.
Who Will Stand With Us?
The question now is whether Qatar will continue its cycle of promising reform, backpedaling and then accusing its critics of anti-Arab sentiments to distract from any legitimate concerns, or whether the public outcry will reach a fever pitch that forces Qatar, or FIFA, to act.
Christopher Benz, a writer who has covered not only soccer and rugby, but also human trafficking, is campaigning to make sure that public outcry is as loud as possible.
“I’d like to see every college campus have leaders at tables, talking to students about slavery this fall,” Benz said. “With engaged activists, we could pressure U.S. Soccer to boycott the Qatar 2022 World Cup. The American TV market is enormous. FIFA would have to respond. And Qatar will do about anything to keep FIFA’s games.”
Benz has a sober, even grim perspective on what’s happening on the ground for migrant laborers in Qatar, but believes that the 2022 World Cup offers a special opportunity for action.
“Most human trafficking problems have diffuse, complicated supply chains. But in this case, the problem is in the hands of a few, powerful individuals. It’s a rare situation in which public outrage actually has leverage.”
And that leverage comes not only from concerned football supporters, but from a man whom many progressive human rights activists might consider a strange bedfellow: Rupert Murdoch.
“Fox Sports stands to lose massive amounts of money because Qatar’s winter World Cup overlaps with the NFL” Benz points out. In this case, tens of millions of dollars of television revenue mean that “the powerful financial interests that normally oppose activism are instead completely happy to pressure Qatar.”
“All they need” Benz says, “is an excuse.”
If enough soccer fans stand up to say they will boycott the 2022 World Cup on moral grounds, then companies like Fox “can point to [the protesters], to say, ‘Sorry. I’ve got to deal with these people. It’s not my fault.’”
The drama of a World Cup is second to none, and as an already rabid soccer fan, to miss an entire World Cup is almost unthinkable. However, as a privileged citizen of a free country, even more unthinkable are the conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar—not once every four years, but every day.
The drama of old national rivalries, beautiful technical skill on the ball, amazing athletic feats of speed, strength and endurance: these are only a few of the things that make a thrilling World Cup. But none of them, not individually, and not combined, is worth sacrificing the freedom, and certainly not the lives of the migrant workers in Qatar who are laboring to bring about the 2022 World Cup.