Opinion | Qatar kicks aside human rights as host of the World Cup


(AP Photo/Jon Gambrell, File)

Officials gather for a group photograph, with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, third left, and Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, center, at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait City in December 2017.

By Grant Van Robays, Staff Columnist

Every four years, FIFA — Federation Internationale de Football Association — puts on a grand soccer tournament at a pre-selected host country. The U.S. men’s national team regularly represents the country at the World Cup. Considering Americans are far more likely to favor the “big four” sports over soccer, this tournament may fall under the radar of the American public. I’m even a part of the crowd that couldn’t care less about an international soccer tournament halfway around the world. 

But this World Cup is different. Different for all the wrong reasons. 

This year, the World Cup comes to the wealthy emirate of Qatar. Like many states in the Middle East, Qatar is not a soccer mecca. In winning — or bribing — the right to host the Cup, Qatar aims to prove that the desert is a quality soccer pitch. In doing so, Qatar attempts to obscure its repression, bribery allegations and horrendous human rights record.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy currently ruled by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The country barely offers any political or civil rights to its populace, most of which consists of migrant workers. Qatar is especially oppressive against members of the LGBTQ+ community, as homosexuality is a crime punishable by up to seven years. A recent case involving Qatari police illustrates this anti-gay bias, in which government officials allegedly gang raped a gay man and sent him to jail before deporting him to his native Philippines. 

FIFA knew of Qatar’s oppression of the gay community in 2010, when it granted Qatar hosting rights. It knew of the monarchy’s demeaning treatment of women. But money speaks louder than morality. Plus, FIFA might prefer working with repressive regimes when putting on a tournament. Its leadership has noted that it’s far easier to organize the World Cup in undemocratic states, presumably because the word “accountability” means nothing to them. 

International sporting events bring about logistical nightmares. Teams need places to practice and fans need places to watch the matches and sleep. Stadiums, hotels, restaurants and transportation routes are required infrastructure for the hosts. Since 2010, Qatar has built seven new stadiums and renovated an eighth in the Doha area. To accommodate visitors, Qatar constructed thousands of new housing tents, set up cabins on cruise ships and built 105 new hotels. The cost of this construction totals upwards of $300 billion. The human cost is infinitely greater.

The Guardian estimates that 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010, nearly all of whom were in Qatar to work on World Cup projects. Turns out, having able-bodied migrants perform hard labor all day in 120 degree heat isn’t all too healthy. But Qatar doesn’t seem to care. The country often issues death certificates for workers without conducting adequate death investigations. Instead, officials attribute deaths to “natural causes” to avoid compensating the families. Only last year did Qatar introduce new worker protections for migrants and families, but it’s far too little and too late. 

Qatar wouldn’t put itself through these construction efforts and public scrutiny for nothing. Rather, Qatar is using the World Cup strategically. During the tournament, Qatar can show off its riches and culture under the guise of growing the game of soccer across the Arab world. Qatar hopes the glitz and glamor of the spectacle overshadows its shameful human rights record. 

The deliberate use of sport to obscure misdoings is called sportswashing, and is not without precedent. The most prominent example of sportswashing is the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler portrayed the games as a fair display of sportsmanship as part of an orchestrated propaganda effort to hide the Reich’s increasingly inhumane treatment of Jewish people. 

FIFA is no stranger to sportswashing, either. In 1934, Mussolini utilized the World Cup to promote fascism. In 1978, Argentina hosted and won the World Cup in the wake of a military takeover of the democratic government. Leaders of the junta in Argentina recognized the value of using sport as both a distraction to the world as well as a tool to consolidate power at home by giving the people something to rally around. 

Sportswashing normalizes negative behaviors by co-opting the positive attributes of athletics, such as fair play, equality and building social ties. Sports are communal events that foster the bonds of national identity. Fans at the Qatar World Cup can watch matches and unite behind their team and country. This passion for soccer or their nation can easily overwhelm concern for what’s happening behind the scenes. This is precisely what Qatar wants. 

Fans and teams cannot let that happen, and should protest the event to any extent possible. 

Protesting the World Cup can take different forms. National teams can simply not show up. While this option is surely the strongest stance players can make, it is not without its faults. For instance, members of national teams work their entire lives to play in a World Cup, so not playing could jeopardize their careers and personal aspirations. Meanwhile, fans could protest by not attending any matches in Doha or watching any on television. This would send a powerful message to FIFA and Qatar if carried out en masse, though this is an unrealistic expectation given that the World Cup is one of the most anticipated events in the world. Recognizing this, London and Paris devised an alternative form of protest by agreeing to not host any fan zones or public viewing areas for the World Cup. U.S. cities should do the same. This shows resistance to Qatar’s sportswashing, while not infringing on people’s right to hold private viewing parties. 

Fans and teams should utilize the World Cup to transform Qatar’s sportswashing into something positive. Athletes can use their platform to highlight Qatar’s human rights abuses and discriminatory behaviors, effectively shifting the narrative to chastise Qatar. Teams from Norway, the Netherlands and Germany have worn warm-up shirts with human rights messages in protest of the Qatari regime. According to Norway’s coach, the goal of the shirts was to pressure FIFA to be firmer with Qatar. In a similar yet slightly less harsh tone, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said he prefers to use the World Cup to bring awareness to the situation in Qatar as opposed to a boycott. 

Sportwashing only works if the populace is unaware of the evil that lurks behind the curtain. If teams and fans use the Qatar World Cup as a platform for spreading the message of human rights, they unveil that curtain. In doing so, people can render sportswashing powerless. 

Despite the controversy, Qatar’s World Cup will kick off on Nov. 20. It’s our job to ensure FIFA and Qatar do not get off scot-free. We must educate ourselves and each other on the rampant exploitation of migrant workers and oppression of minority communities. Don’t let soccer wash away these grave wrongs. FIFA recently asked all participating teams to respect the host country and focus on soccer, not the protests. But as far as I’m concerned, FIFA made its bed by dealing with Qatar in the first place. Now FIFA and Qatar have to sleep in it.

Grant Van Robays writes primarily about international affairs, social issues and basic human rights. Write to him at [email protected].