The wait is over. Despite delays involving the COVID-19 pandemic and unusually hot weather, the world’s biggest sport is having its most important event. The FIFA World Cup will begin on Nov. 20 in Qatar. In the time leading up to the event, sports fans have followed a number of narratives surrounding the Cup: the USA’s return to the event, superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo chasing their first World Cup victories and France’s title defense amid concerns about early international play. One of the most pressing stories, however, doesn’t concern any of the players who will take the field.
There has been a significant amount of backlash raised over FIFA’s decision to grant the responsibility of hosting the World Cup to Qatar. Qatar secured the rights back in 2010, becoming the first Arab nation to host the tournament. Many, including competitor USA, accused them of bribing FIFA officials in order to land the spot. Though a FIFA investigation has cleared Qatar from any sanctions, the United States Department of Justice has continued an investigation for years, recently bringing up new evidence in a stream of accusations against FIFA officials involved in the case.
After the bid was awarded, criticism of Qatar’s hosting took a new angle, oriented toward social justice. Qatar utilized its vast wealth to demonstrate its capability to create a World Cup, and the construction of stadiums, housing, airports and other projects has created a bill of over $220 billion that Qatar must foot. For reference, Russia spent $11.6 billion in 2018 and Brazil spent $15 billion in 2014. The problem is that these massive projects have been built on the backs of migrant laborers. Qatar’s government reported hiring over 30,000 foreign workers just to build stadiums. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized poor living conditions and wages for workers, calling it “modern slavery.” Influential reporting from The Guardian last summer found that 6,500 foreign workers have died since Qatar was granted the host spot, including 37 directly linked to stadium construction. Moreover, Qatar has been attacked for laws criminalizing homosexuality and minimizing women’s rights.
This isn’t the first time that a global sporting event has come under fire. The 2016 Rio Olympics were attacked for air and water pollution.Formula 1 regularly races in oppressive countries such as Azerbaijan and Bahrain. But the combination of soccer’s global appeal and the multitude of scandals surrounding the event has created a backlash unlike any other. For the casual soccer fan, there is concern over cheating corrupting the sport, preventing their teams and countries from having a fair shot to play and host. After all, home-court advantage can be everything. Activists across the world are seeing their work intersect with soccer’s biggest stage. FIFA telling participating nations to stay away from politics has only added fuel to the fire.
The results have been significant. There are fewer fans traveling to Qatar than in past World Cups, citing prohibitive costs, largely due to how small Qatar, and its capital Doha, are. Many country’s clubs have taken a stand, with European clubs participating in a diversity campaign supporting LGBTQ rights in Qatar. Even FIFA’s president at the time of the decision, Sepp Blatter, has stated that he regrets allowing Qatar to host, as they are “too small” for such a big event.
As people are pushing for change at an executive, club and individual level, it is important to consider the impact of any decision. Though there has yet to be a formal boycott like the Olympics notably saw in the USSR’s 1980 Games, the soccer world is moving toward change. FIFA’s current president claimed that five billion fans will tune into this year’s games, so it is in FIFA’s best interest to not jeopardize this incredible market share. They are certainly cognizant of these issues, even if they are currently unresponsive. It is important that fans and players alike continue to advocate for the issues that matter. Structural change is hard, particularly in such an impactful sport, but this year shows that many people have an interest in bettering the institutions around them.
Many advocate for the separation of sport and politics, claiming politics will ruin the sport. In reality there should be a balance. Staying open-minded and critical of the media you consume creates not just a more just world, but a more enjoyable product on the field.