The True Cost of a World Cup

Twenty-two players on the field, eleven on each side. The game plays for ninety minutes. Those ninety minutes will fly by. You blink, you might miss out on magic happening on the field. Every thunderous kick of the ball is packed with passion. Every step over, every flick of the ball is backed with a touch of glimmering bliss. Every goal scored reflects the result of determination from the players. Every joyous scream and jeers from fans in the stand reflect the beautiful game. One of the oldest sports in human history remains unscathed with an unmatched love. 

The game of football unites people around the world, with people from different backgrounds coming together to enjoy the occasion. A forty year study from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has revealed that the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players. So why has the sport’s popularity dwindled in the past decade? How can the game that is known around the world be on the decline? These questions are answered by the nepotism of FIFA by allowing the beautiful game to be desecrated. 

A Middle Finger to the United Nations

Hosting their first World Cup starting in 1930, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the highest football governing body in the world. FIFA has hosted its World Cup every four years since its establishment in 1930 (with the exception of during World War II). Different countries host the tournament each time, with the last installment being hosted by Russia in 2018. In 2010, FIFA awarded the rights to host the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, an absolute monarchy run by the house of Thani since 1847. The past rulers have been notorious for committing numerous human rights violations for the sake of preserving their oil reserves. 

This proved to be extremely controversial; not only because of past corruption among high-ranking FIFA officials, but also because of the numerous human rights violations that have been committed by Qatar. Violations of the host nation include a modern form of slavery in the kafala system, failure to enforce health and safety standards in work environments that would not be addressed until a year prior the tournament could occur, worker exploitations that included short breaks while working long hours, no minimum wage, poor living conditions for workers,  predatory employment contracts that would not allow migrant workers to terminate their contracts, and if they could, they’d be required to pay a deployment fee that was significantly higher than a regular fee, sometimes migrant workers were promised high paying jobs in their contracts that were written in a foreign language that they could not comprehend, and the suppression of unionizing in Qatar could not allow migrant workers to stage any boycotts or attempt collective bargaining. All of these human rights violations occurred between 2011-2020, just shortly after the Qatari government began constructions on the World Cup.    

This is a cry for help from those who have been silenced by the football governing body and shunned upon by leaders around the world while these atrocities are being committed. Articles 4 and 5 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that, “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” All statutes listed in the document are mandated to all participating countries in the United Nations, yet Qatar has chosen to ignore this for the sake of football and enriching the shareholders who support the infrastructure of modern football.

Corrupted Officials

On May 10, 2011, former Football Association chairman Lord Triesman brought allegations forward against certain members who were influenced by gifts in exchange for their votes. Some of these allegations included a request from Jack Warner, former FIFA Vice President and Minister of National Security of Trinidad and Tobago, who asked for 2.5 million pounds to build an educational center in Trinidad in exchange for his vote. Ricardo Teixeira, former president of  Brazil’s football confederation reportedly told Triesman, “Tell me what you can do for me when you come to see me.” This statement infers Teixeira would not discuss anything with anyone without some type of advantage. These allegations did not vanish, instead, more arose with time. In 2010, Qatar paid FIFA officials an estimated $4oo million from Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera for television rights 21 days before the host country would be decided. They also paid another $480 million three years later. 

In addition to that, in 2014, The Telegraph discovered that former FIFA officials were paid up to $2 million from a firm that was connected to Qatar’s bid. As a result of the series of corruption, football officials were punished for their role in the fiasco. The FIFA president at the time, Sepp Blatter, resigned amidst the corruption scandal and was banned for 90 days from football activities before receiving an eight-year ban from footballing activities (he would ultimately receive a follow-up ban of six years in March of 2021). Former UEFA (a sub government body of FIFA that is dedicated to European countries) President Michel Platini was arrested on June 18th, 2019 due to tampering with the election, accepting bribes, and coercion in the process of awarding Qatar the World Cup. Other members who were influenced by third parties in the process were also arrested and indicted on several charges. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter described allowing Qatar to host the World Cup as a “mistake” and followed up by saying, “The technical report into Qatar said clearly it was too hot but the executive committee – with a large majority – decided, all the same, to play it in Qatar.” In actuality, FIFA officials were paid large sums of money to elect a nation that was not suitable to host a World Cup. Unfortunately, it is now too late to change this decision and they will live with their mistakes and the potential harm that the cup will cause to the player’s health.

Kafala System

To understand the humanitarian crisis in Qatar, it is important to know about the system that perpetuates it. The Kafala system is the relationship between foreign workers and local sponsors who are their employers in most cases. If an immigrant from Pakistan, for instance, is offered a job in Qatar, he or she would need a sponsor to provide a passport, a plane fare, a place to stay when they land, equipment that they will need for their job, etc. Since these immigrants do not have the capacity to pay for their own entry into the country, they rely on their employers to do so. A common practice is that the migrant workers are given two choices: 1) they take a loan that has high interest, or 2) they have their wages reduced or withheld for months to cover the fees. There are reports that suggest these workers chose to receive little to no pay as long as they avoided the loan as they felt it was a “better option than taking out high-interest loans or paying up-front”. 

Another reason this system is flawed is that workers do have the option of returning home– but only at their own expense. While this seems plausible, “Interviews with government officials, recruiters, and migrant workers alike revealed that many could not afford to pay the deployment costs (which amounted to almost a year’s salary) and were forced to resume work and finish the length of their contracts.” This is known as prohibitive deployment cost, a vile act that traps migrant workers from leaving by exploiting their economic status.

The Desecration of the Beautiful Game for Now

Qatar’s population has exploded in the last decade. At the end of 2009, its population was listed at 1.7 million, just before their World Cup bid was accepted by FIFA. Ten years later, the population reached 2.4 million. By 2013, migrant workers already dominated Qatar’s labor force, comprising 94 percent of all workers and 86 percent of the country’s total population of nearly 2 million, the world’s highest ratio of migrants to citizens. Qatar’s own population could not build the infrastructure that was required by FIFA’s standards. Under provision III, clause 2 of FIFA’s standards it is stated that “All Team Delegation Members shall comply with the Laws of the Game and the FIFA Statutes and all applicable FIFA regulations (including these Regulations), in particular the FIFA Disciplinary Code, the FIFA Stadium Safety and Security Regulations, the FIFA Anti-Doping Regulations, the FIFA Code of Ethics, the FIFA Media and Marketing Regulations and the FIFA Equipment Regulations as well as all circulars, directives and decisions of FIFA bodies, unless these Regulations stipulate otherwise, and all further FIFA guidelines that have any significance regarding the FIFA World Cup.” 

They instead diverted to exploiting immigrants to work in vile conditions, a blatant violation of  FIFA’s code of ethics and the UN’s constitution. Since Qatar won the right to host this World Cup in 2010, there have been 5,927 deaths of migrant workers. These deaths come from the collapse of the Qatari government to protect them from the abuse by actively ignoring the issue at hand of abuse of these agencies toward migrant workers. There was a story in February 2021 where a 29-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh passed away in his room via electrocution from flood water coming in contact with loose electric cables. Allowing nearly 6,000 people who had families back home to die in such a manner simply to build playgrounds for our entertainment should never be allowed by FIFA or the UN.

Where Do We Go From Here?

How do we remedy the loss of life in this grueling process? Does Qatar and/or FIFA provide restitution to the affected families? How about reforming the system altogether? These questions have been asked for years, yet FIFA and Qatar have been silent up until 2017 when the Qatari government proposed reforms to the flawed kafala system.  In 2018, Qatar ended the ‘exit permit’ requirement for most workers which allows them to leave the country without needing to pay prohibitive deployment fees to their employer’s before leaving. And recently in 2020, Qatar ended the No-Objective Certificate requirement which allows workers to change their jobs without needing the permission of their employer and they also created a new mandatory minimum wage for workers. 

These reformations have restored faith in the upcoming tournament for many American viewers who have been concerned about the ongoing abuses. Projected viewership for the cup as of April 2021 is around 30% in America. It’s time to boycott the tournament. Migrant workers are unable to call strikes, let alone boycott due to Qatar’s strict policies on unions. And while it may be too late to propose a new host country with less than a year to go, it’s not too late to boycott the tournament. Nearly 12% of Americans strongly support boycotting the tournament. This number must increase. The lives that have been lost in the making of the tournament should not be in vain. 

The 5,927 who died had families back home to which they can never go back to. We may not have the ability to bring them back, but we can honor them by boycotting the tournament. Lives should never be lost for our personal entertainment. If history has taught us something, it is that boycotting works. We can look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted over a year in response to segregation in busing. There was a mass hold out which resulted in the city losing money before they decided to revert their decision. We can look at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where numerous Jewish athletes boycotted the games due to the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler and the Nazis, and it was a successful movement that would provide structure for boycotting future sporting events. The U.S. has one of the highest viewerships of the World Cup across the world in recent years, and a boycott would send a strong message to the football governing body that we will not place our entertainment over people’s lives. As tough as it is for all of us football fans, I urge you to join me in boycotting the World Cup. For the sake of the 5,927 lives that were lost.

Photo by Fauzan Saari

Published by Daniel Ngongo

Daniel Ngongo is an undergraduate student at the University of Louisville majoring in Political Science with an emphasis on Law and Public Policy, and minoring in the interdisciplinary study of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Ares of interests for Daniel are public and policy, foreign affairs, human rights watch and climate politics.

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