Editor’s note: Roger Bennett is the founder of Men In Blazers Media Network and co-author of Gods of Soccer. Tommy Vietor is a former spokesman for President Barack Obama, co-founder of Crooked Media, and host of the foreign policy podcast Pod Save the World. Together they collaborated on the World Corrupt podcast series examining the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own. Read more on CNN.
This November, billions of people around the world will tune in to the World Cup, one of the biggest sporting spectacles in human history. It’s an event that has stopped wars, canonized sporting saints and sinners, and united the planet, savoring every exclamation point, last move, and intricately choreographed celebratory knee slide.
There’s just one problem: it’s happening in Qatar this year.
In Qatar, journalists are jailed for investigating the conditions of migrant workers. LGBTQ+ people are considered criminals. Women in many cases have to ask men for permission to marry, travel and study abroad.
And Qatar’s labor practices have been compared to modern-day slavery, with 6,500 South Asian migrant workers reported to have died in Qatar since it was awarded the 2010 World Cup. Experts say that most of these deaths are likely to be related to the construction of the tournament.
6500 deaths – at least. The total death toll is almost certainly higher, as the number does not include many countries that send workers to Qatar, including the Philippines and African countries.
(Qatar claims that the death rate for its migrant worker community is within the expected range for its population size and demographics.)
In recent years, Qatari authorities have introduced “several promising labor reform initiatives,” according to Human Rights Watch. But it said there were “significant shortcomings”, including “widespread wage violations” and a failure to “investigate the causes of the deaths of thousands of migrant workers”.
Let’s not pretend that the Qataris won the cup on merit alone. After all, Qatar, a peninsula smaller than Connecticut and so hot that playing soccer in the summer months is a potential health hazard, is the last place that would make sense to host a giant international sports tournament.
So how was Qatar chosen? Well, as an endless stream of investigative journalism claims, it does won the competition using a process that was rigged from the top down. (Qatar strongly denies the allegations).
Shortly after France’s support vote, for example, Qatar Sports Investments bought the Paris Saint-Germain football club; around the same time, another Qatari firm bought a stake in French energy and waste company Veolia.
Not to mention: a firm linked to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund hired the son of former UEFA chief Michel Platini. Nepotism? Zut alors!
But don’t take our word for it. Matt Miller, a former Justice Department official who traveled to Zurich with former Attorney General Eric Holder to witness the bidding process, told us, “It was the most corrupt thing I’ve ever seen in my career, and I spent a couple of years. working in New Jersey politics.
Jokes aside, this all begs the question: why would Qatar want to host the World Cup in the first place?
The answer is that the country is looking to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a chance to expose its human rights abuses and shine on the global stage. By hosting the World Cup, Qatar wants to create a cosmopolitan image as that from its neighbor the UAE, indicating that it is open for business, welcoming tourists and a player in global politics.
To ensure this image, Qatar even announced that international television crews would be prohibited from filming in locations without prior approval from the Qatari authorities. As James Lynch of London-based human rights group FairSquare told the Guardian, these “extremely wide-ranging restrictions” will make it difficult for the media to cover any stories that aren’t strictly games-related.
(Qatar Supreme Committee for Supply and Heritage said a statement, statement Twitter that filming permits are in line with global practice).
When you think of Qatar, its leaders don’t want you to picture migrant workers dying in the heat, or Doha to be seen as less important compared to neighboring Dubai. They want you to remember the otherworldly thrill of Lionel Messi running through a goal, or the epic thrill of a physics-defying fingertip save by Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
And that’s what Qatar will get after this World Cup — unless we all work to tell a different story that draws the world’s attention to Qatar’s atrocities and serves as a warning to other authoritarian regimes watching. We must send a clear signal that autocrats cannot amass soft power through the broken glow of sporting immortality.
That means ensuring that by the end of this tournament, every single person who is supposed to tune in — all 5 billion of them of them – know what is happening off-screen in Qatar.
There have already been some positive steps in this direction. Denmark’s monochrome ‘protest shirts’ make a powerful statement – and one which has upset the Qatari government. In the opening round of the World Cup qualifying tournament, the teams of Germany and Norway wore shirts with the inscription: “HUMAN RIGHTS”.
Meanwhile, Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal called FIFA’s rationale for holding the tournament in Qatar “nonsense”. The legend.
These steps should only be a starting point.
National teams – and, critically, their governments – can and must hold Qatar to account. The most important step is to back off from Human Rights Watch’s pointless #PayUpFIFA campaign. It is an attempt to demand that Qatar and FIFA pay at least $440 million – an amount equal to the prize money awarded in the World Cup – to the families of migrant workers who have been injured or killed in preparation for the tournament. Every club with a conscience should strongly support this.
So far, US Soccer has quietly signed on to the #PayUpFIFA campaign, but has spoken little publicly about the issue. As the world’s richest nation with a large military base in Qatar, America has a special mandate to defend these values, especially given the current administration’s commitment to prosecuting Gulf autocrats.
The FA has been equally weak in its response. After European football federations vowed to call out Qatar in more than “just a t-shirt”, they finally committed to wearing rainbow armbands, which literally means less than a t-shirt.
All national teams need to step up and the players also play an important role in this effort. We can only imagine the pressure these athletes are already under. They have probably dreamed of this moment since childhood – and fought so bloody and gave so much to make it a reality.
They didn’t start kicking football thinking they would have to talk about human rights. But there is also a long tradition of sports activism, from Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in Mexico City to Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford fighting against child hunger in the UK.
This does not mean that every player has to speak. But those who do need to be supported and strengthened, such as the Socceroos of Australia, who invited compensation for injured workers and the decriminalization of all same-sex relationships in Qatar.
After all, it is more than the World Cup. It’s about whether people who believe in democracy and human rights will let authoritarian regimes get away with hijacking the sport we love.
Saudi Arabia is already trying to wash its image athletically with LIV Golf and WWE. Russia and Bahrain have tried to do this through Formula One. But if we stand up to Qatar on the world stage, maybe we can make the next generation of autocrats worry more about Qatar’s 2022-style humiliation than yearning for a 2008 Beijing moment.
Fans can help by using their social media platforms to draw attention to Qatar’s human rights abuses and by pushing football associations to publicly support the #PayUpFIFA campaign.
Our activism could also change the calculus of FIFA, who might be less inclined to award the World Cup to countries like Qatar if they know it will lead to years of boycotts, protests and damaging press.
It matters. Because, as any football fan knows, the World Cup is more than a tournament. It has been compared to a global eclipse that hits the entire planet for one month.
It is a unique arena where countries can compete fiercely and then shake hands. It should represent the best of us – our incredible diversity and our shared humanity.
It is no wonder that the authoritarian authorities want to take over these events themselves. And that’s exactly why we can’t let them.