When former Fifa president Sepp Blatter was charged with fraud by Swiss prosecutors earlier this month, it provided yet another reminder of the world soccer governing body’s previous transgressions.
The 85-year-old, along with Michel Platini, once the president of European soccer body Uefa, is due in court over an alleged illegal CHF2 million (US$2.2 million) payment. The formal charge arrived after a six-year investigation, and with it comes a repeat examination of Blatter’s 17-year tenure at the helm of Fifa, including accusations of bribery and corruption in the selection of Qatar to host next year’s World Cup.
Indeed, malpractice has been intrinsically linked with Fifa since the 2015 corruption case levied against the organisation by US federal prosecutors. Since then, Blatter’s successor Gianni Infantino has led an ongoing struggle to restore the governing body’s image, with an increased focus on everything from transparency to women’s soccer in a bid to curry favour.
But if Fifa has tried to draw a line under its past actions, the 2022 World Cup remains a sobering reminder of the old ways. With only one year to go until kickoff in Qatar, several questions remain unanswered, with human rights abuses, an awkward calendar slot and diplomatic concerns all continuing to dominate the buildup to the tournament.
Qatar was announced as host of the 2022 World Cup back in 2010
Irrespective of what truly swayed Fifa to hand Qatar hosting duties for the World Cup, the organisation has found itself on the back foot from an organisational perspective since Blatter pulled the Gulf state’s name out of the envelope. With that decision in 2010, history was made on two fronts. Soccer’s biggest event would head to the Middle East for the first time, but it would be doing so in the smallest nation by area ever to stage the World Cup.
Major infrastructure investment has been required. Given its vast financial resources, Qatar was never going to shirk from such an outlay. Still, the spending has been staggering. In 2015, The Guardian reported that US$200 billion was being invested, including on a new rail network, hotels and roads. The total cost of Qatar 2022 currently stands at an estimated US$220 billion, a galaxy away from the US$11.6 billion Russia forked out when it played host in 2018.
With a population of just 2.9 million people, such a vast construction project has not been possible for Qatar without bringing in foreign labour. According to human rights group Amnesty International, there are 1.7 million migrant workers in the country, accounting for over 90 per cent of the workforce. Such a reliance was something Fifa failed to fully anticipate, or one it perhaps assumed would be properly managed by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), but the evidence suggests it has been anything but.
The Lusail Stadium, pictured in February, will host the final
‘A World Cup of shame’
Worries over Qatar’s suitability as a host have persisted over the last decade. The country’s dependency on migrant workers was promptly laid bare to the world, specifically through an employment system at odds with the modern, welcoming image Qatar has been keen to promote. Amnesty has drawn attention to the deeply resented kafala sponsorship system, which tied migrant workers to their employers and meant they couldn’t leave the country or change jobs without permission. Accusations of staff being deceived over working conditions and pay, as well as threats, expensive recruitment fees and forced labour, have been prevalent.
Deepak, a metal worker at the Khalifa Stadium, one of eight venues being used for the tournament, told Amnesty his life in Qatar was “like a prison”. Another worker named Prem described his ordeal as “torture”, saying his family was homeless and two of his children had been taken out of school. Of those Amnesty spoke to working on Khalifa Stadium, their average monthly salary came to US$220. According to a report by The Guardian in February, at least 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died since Qatar was appointed host.
Legal reform has arrived in recent years which, on paper, allows workers to leave Qatar or change jobs without permission. However, a new 48-page report published this week by Amnesty claims that ‘progress has stagnated’ over the last 12 months and that ‘the worst elements of kafala’ have resurfaced.
According to May Romanos, Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher, the implementation of the new laws has been “very weak”.
“The practice in itself has not changed,” she tells SportsPro. “Migrant workers are still struggling to change jobs. Many of them continue to face wage theft or unpaid salaries. It means that they need to take the cases to court and the access for justice remains challenging for them.
“There are also the health issues and concerns related to their working conditions, especially those posed by Qatar’s climate conditions. Health experts we consulted said that the measures in place are not enough to protect migrant workers from the risk of heat stress and the lack of proper investigations into causes of deaths meant that many deaths remain unexplained, depriving families from their right to compensation.
“Migrant workers are also unable to form and join a trade union to collectively fight for their rights and improve their working conditions, which also remains a problematic element of this system.”
SC secretary general Hassan Al Thawadi (left) and Q22 chief executive Nasser Al Khater have said they will use the tournament to promote positive change
Amnesty’s latest 48-page report, titled ‘Reality Check 2021’, notes that the daily reality for migrant workers in Qatar ‘remains harsh’ and urges the country to take urgent action ‘before it is too late’. Romanos believes there was an appetite from the Qatari government to change the system but the employers, fearful of additional costs, are not being held accountable.
“There has been some serious pushback from the local community to the recent changes introduced,” she continues. “That has led to progress being paused, especially with regard to workers’ ability to change jobs freely.
“The business community was very vocal, arguing that such changes would harm their interests.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Amnesty has described Fifa’s showpiece event as the ‘Qatar World Cup of shame’, condemning the organisation for its failure to challenge the country. Since then, February saw the SC and Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 LLC (Q22) sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) to collaborate in raising awareness of human rights issues.
Critics are unlikely to have been swayed by this given recent reports, nor the accompanying comments from SC secretary general Hassan Al Thawadi.
“The SC has worked tirelessly to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers engaged on the Qatar 2022 project,” Al Thawadi said. “We are proud of our achievements over the past ten years and strongly believe that our actions have created a benchmark for excellence – not just in Qatar, but across the region and around the world.”
Al Thawadi would go on to say that the SC has “always welcomed constructive feedback and collaboration with experts”. Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of Q22, has maintained throughout that Qatar will use the tournament “as a catalyst for positive social, human and environmental change”. There is a large audience waiting to be convinced.
If Fifa wants to make football a driving force to promote human rights, it needs to take serious steps towards implementing its own human rights policy and bidding criteria.
In addition to the appalling working conditions for migrant workers, there have also been concerns over Qatar’s intolerance of the LGBTQ community. The country has said it will comply with Fifa rules to promote tolerance and inclusion, meaning displays such as rainbow flags will be allowed in stadiums, while Al Khater previously insisted to the Associated Press (AP) that “everybody will be welcome and everybody will be treated with respect”.
Still, though, there are those who will rightly have reservations about travelling to a country where same-sex relations result in punishment. In a recent interview on The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast, Josh Cavallo, the world’s only openly gay top-flight men’s soccer player, said he would be “scared” of playing at next year’s tournament.
Speaking to the AP in December last year, Joyce Cook, Fifa’s chief social responsibility and education officer, moved to allay any fears.
“I’m an openly gay woman in football, so this is personally, to me, something I’m close to as well,” she said. “We will see a progressive change in all of those aspects and rainbow flags, t-shirts will all be welcome in the stadium – that’s a given. They understand very well that is our stance.”
Commercial appeal stays strong
Despite all the controversy, the World Cup’s commercial appeal appears largely unaffected. In October, the event retained its place at the top of the SportsPro World’s 50 Most Marketable (50MM) Properties list powered by SponsorPulse, finishing ahead of the Summer Olympic Games and the National Basketball Association (NBA).
As would be expected, local brands are throwing their weight behind the tournament. Logistics company GWC was the first out the gate in September 2020. At the time of writing, telecommunications firm Ooredoo was the latest domestic organisation to come on board, signing up as a regional supporter across the Middle East and Africa.
Greater focus, though, has been on how Fifa’s existing global partners, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, the Wanda Group, Hyundai, Qatar Airways and Visa, would respond to the negative press. They have been steadfast in their commitment, though, which perhaps speaks to the World Cup’s status as one of the most globally recognised sporting events. According to Fifa, a combined 3.572 billion viewers tuned in to watch the tournament in 2018.
“Nothing else engages 200 markets at the same time,” says Henry Chappell, founding partner and chief executive of Pitch Marketing Group. “There’s nothing to compare in terms of the ability to engage big audiences in all key markets. That’s the World Cup’s continued attraction.”
In November 2020, Chappell and Pitch teamed up with SDIsports to launch The Football Collective, a joint venture offering services across sponsorship strategy and activation, content creation, experiential, social and PR for the next two editions of the World Cup. When asked if the tournament’s commercial prospects have been adversely affected, Chappell admits it hasn’t all been plain sailing, pointing to sizeable sponsorship inventory that could still be filled.
“There are categories where you could easily have a global partner,” he says. “They don’t have a global financial services partner, a global insurer, a global energy partner, or into other kinds of B2B spaces. Had there been no negativity and no issues around it, you’d certainly be expecting the world’s biggest sports event to have partners in those guys.
“By and large, it hasn’t been as negatively impacted as perhaps the British media would have you believe. If the concerns don’t manifest themselves, it’ll be interesting to see how much more of an uplift there is in the commercial programme with the North American World Cup [in 2026] and a fairer wind without the controversy and without Covid in a big commercial market. I think there probably is a considerable one.”
Visa is one of Fifa’s biggest partners
It’s an old saying, and an unoriginal point to make, but money talks. Global brands featuring at Qatar 2022 will have plenty to say. For Chappell, there are positives that companies can lean into next year as they look to craft a narrative around the World Cup.
“It is pretty incredible that this amazing event is taking place in the Middle East, which you would never have deemed possible,” he continues. “It is a positive thing that the World Cup is going to new territories, it’s fantastic.
“There is a lot of good in it. Fifa need to do a better job of packaging up and telling that story, and ensuring that the negative side of that coin is addressed and dealt with.”
Indeed, Fifa is going into its second consecutive World Cup against a backdrop of considerable controversy. The Putin regime dominated the buildup to Russia 2018, only for a heady mix of eye-catching games and fervent local support to produce a feeling of goodwill. There is a risk that a repeat this time around could mean certain issues are not appropriately tackled. On the flipside, it is being advertised as an opportunity for soccer to use its influence to bring about meaningful change.
There’s nothing to compare in terms of the ability to engage big audiences in all key markets. That’s the World Cup’s continued attraction.
Ultimately, Chappell feels that brands are not going into Qatar 2022 ignorant to the concerns.
“They still want to be sure that Fifa is doing everything they can to address the human rights issues,” he states.
Romanos adds: “Companies and sponsors have a responsibility to ensure that their own operations in Qatar do not cause or contribute, and are not linked, to human rights abuses.
“They need to have a clear and robust action plan and must take concrete steps to identify, prevent and address actual and potential abuses that might arise as a result of their participation in this tournament.”
Fifa president Gianni Infantino has maintained that Qatar will put on an “unforgettable event”
It would be easy to forget the role of the fan during all this. Each and every one of those watching Qatar 2022 will have their own personal opinion on proceedings, whether that be desire for a boycott or for the focus to be on the game itself. For Romanos, “everyone has a role to play”.
“Fifa has a role to play, the national associations have a role to play,” she says. “Then you have the fans, who can also play an active role by putting the pressure on their national association and on Fifa to take serious actions and shed light on the situation of migrant workers in the country.
“Amnesty has not called for a boycott. But we respect those who do feel that they want to boycott this World Cup and urge Fifa and Qatar to respond to such calls by providing the safeguards and guarantees to ensure the World Cup is not tainted by abuse.
“We see this World Cup as an opportunity for change and have chosen to use the spotlight it brought to try to improve the situation of migrant workers in the country. We will continue to document the experiences of migrant workers and identify the risks associated with the delivery of this World Cup. We will continue to share our findings and recommendations so that everyone interested in the human rights situation in Qatar fully understands the reality on the ground.
“We will use every opportunity to put the pressure needed on all these stakeholders to bring the changes we want to see and support migrant workers.”
Norway’s Erling Haaland was among the players to show concerns over Qatar’s human rights record
As for the players, a number have already taken action. In March, players from Germany, Norway and the Neherlands wore t-shirts presenting their concerns over human rights in Qatar ahead of their World Cup qualifying games. At the time, Germany’s Joshua Kimmich said calls for a boycott had come “ten years too late”, but insisted players should still speak out.
“As footballers we have a certain responsibility to talk about things,” said the Bayern Munich star.
“In football, you have the chance to point things out and we should continue doing that and use our publicity to raise awareness about things.
“But it’s not just down to us footballers…we should work together.”
One association has already got its entire organisation onside. The Danish Football Association (DBU) has announced that it will be using the national team’s platform at the tournament to highlight human rights issues in Qatar.
The Danish team will not participate in any commercial activities arranged by the event organisers, with the DBU delegation making minimal trips to Qatar.
Crucially, the move has the backing of the governing body’s sponsors. Danske Spil and Arbejdernes will display messages of support for human rights on the team’s training apparel during the tournament.
Alright on the night?
Speaking four years out from Qatar 2022, Infantino unsurprisingly declared that all the ingredients were there to make the tournament an “unforgettable event”.
“It will be a very compact World Cup, all stadiums are one hour distance maximum from each other,” Infantino said. “It will be a World Cup which is hosted by a country that has all the infrastructures and the possibilities ready to welcome the world to Qatar.”
He continued: “I’m sure that the experience of anyone going to Qatar will be amazing. They will discover an amazing country, not only because of the sunshine and the beaches and the sand but also because of the football and because of the possibility to celebrate the best event ever.
“So, the only message I can really give to everyone in the world who loves football, come to Qatar, come to the Middle East, to the Gulf in 2022 and enjoy the best World Cup ever.”
That may come to fruition, but the rocky journey Fifa and its flagship product have been on over the last 11 years should not be understated. From shifting to winter due to Qatar’s unforgiving summer heat, or fears matches would have to be played in neighbouring countries to ease political tensions, Fifa will feel a sense of relief when the soccer can finally do the talking.
Organisers of the World Cup hope to attract 1.2 million tourists
As for what will be left when the dust settles on the 22nd edition of the World Cup, Infantino is optimistic of a “great legacy” that will include both a social and sustainable impact.
Beyond those lofty expectations, Amnesty wants Qatar 2022 to serve as a reminder for Fifa, and wider soccer, of what to consider when handing out hosting duties for major events.
“That’s the long-term battle for us,” says Romanos. “The important thing is that Qatar serves as a precedent to establish what should be done in this regard.
“We are concerned about Fifa’s decision to award the Club World Cup to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) without any transparency around the due diligence process it followed and what steps it undertook to identify, prevent, mitigate and publicly account for how it addresses any negative human rights impacts that could be linked to the holding of the tournament in the UAE.
“If Fifa wants to make football a driving force to promote human rights, it needs to take serious steps towards implementing its own human rights policy and bidding criteria when considering the hosting of any sports events.”
At this stage, Qatar 2022 is still shaping up to be a World Cup that divides opinion. Even when the trophy is finally held aloft in December next year, there is a sense that the tournament’s success will be measured on whether it delivers the tangible change Fifa claims it will. For Chappell, things will become a lot clearer once the action gets underway.
“I think we should all give up predicting anything these days,” he concludes. “But normally, sports events, they end up okay. They are usually alright on the night.
“When the sport takes over, rightly or wrongly, all can be forgotten.”