FIFA is an all-too-convenient fall-guy for football’s Qatar problem

Nicholas McGeehan
Jan 9, 2018 · 5 min read

FIFA stands for hope, FIFA stands for fair play, FIFA says no to racism and FIFA says yes to sustainability. Well according to its website it does. There is obviously a list of reasons as long as a US Department of Justice indictment that might lead a cynic to view these socially conscious statements with at least one raised eyebrow. But it’s the following crude comparison that suggests the 2022 Qatar World Cup is the most obvious example of FIFA hypocrisy: the Australian Agriculture Federation appears to care more about the deaths of sheep bound for slaughter in Doha, than the Qatari authorities or FIFA care appear to care about the deaths of the migrant workers who will make the 2022 tournament possible.

When 4,000 sheep died on a ship docked in Doha in September 2013, the Australian Agricultural Federation did what you’d expect a regulatory authority to do — they investigated and wrote a report about the incident with a view to preventing future tragedies. The report attributed 97% of the mortalities to heat stress from “extreme weather conditions.” Compare this to the actions of the Qatari authorities, who ignored recommendations in 2005 and 2014 that they conduct investigations into migrant worker deaths, and who have refused to release any detailed data on worker deaths since 2012, when 74% of 520 reported migrant worker deaths were unexplained.

A recent Human Rights Watch report, which I researched and wrote, drew on climatic data and the expertise of recognized heat stress experts to reveal just how dangerous Qatar’s climate is for outdoor workers (in short: very) and which exposed the negligence of the Qatari authorities when it comes to worker protection. A crude extrapolation suggests that there have been more than 2000 unexplained deaths since FIFA awarded Qatar the right to host the 2022 tournament.

FIFA’s official response to the findings, released on October 4, contained no expression of concern for the men whose deaths will remain unexplained, made no call for changes to the grossly negligent laws that provide minimal protection in this harshest of climates, and included no demand for data on deaths or for investigations. Instead it bristled with self-important indignation at findings which yet again suggest the Qatari authorities cannot be trusted to provide the most basic protection to workers.

It was FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Qatar that led to a construction boom that in turn led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of young men from south Asia. On arrival in Qatar these workers typically find themselves manacled to abusive employers by a medieval labour system, and housed in unsanitary labour camps outside Doha. About 800,000 now work in the country’s construction sector, which effectively means working 10 to 12 hour shifts in a toxic sauna for extended periods of time in June, July, August and September.

Qatar’s World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, deserve a modicum of credit for their attempts to impose higher standards for the 12,000 workers building the stadiums, but the heat stress index they use to impose breaks and work stoppages doesn’t take the effect of sunlight into account (a fairly staggering omission), and there is strong evidence to suggest they are not enforcing it properly. They also refuse to acknowledge that they don’t know how their workers are dying, and lay the blame for this unconscionable situation at the door of the Qatari authorities and their failure to conduct autopsies.

This supposed separation between the Qatari authorities and the Supreme Committee is Qatar’s attempt to divert people’s attention onto the 1% of workers building stadiums, and away from the rest of Qatar’s workers. It’s a fallacy, underpinned by a discriminatory rationale. If you accept the humane logic that a worker building the road to a 2022 stadium deserves the same basic protection as a worker building the actual stadium then don’t accept an inhumane system that only grants protection to the tiny fraction of workers on the most visible projects.

FIFA deserves fierce criticism for its role in this situation, and it is right that journalists, rights groups and trade unions continue to shine a spotlight on the organization and demand that they do more. However, it’s about time the football community as a whole took a look at itself instead of pointing lazy fingers at Gianni Infantino and co.

The Human Rights Watch report made a long overdue call on the national football federations who will participate in the World Cup to make their own calls for reform. The prize pot for the Russia 2018 tournament will be around $700 million, up 22% on Brazil 2014, and it will be even higher for Qatar 2022. National federations are business that will profit from this tournament and so whether they like it or not it’s their responsibility to speak out against these abuses.

Much of that money will end up in the bank accounts of the players who’ll play in Qatar, none of whom have yet said they’re not happy playing in a tournament tainted by abuse and unexplained deaths. Many of the game’s most high-profile figures — Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, and about half of the current Barcelona team, to name a few, have acted as formal or informal ambassadors for the Qatar tournament. “I admire their purpose and vision,” said Sir Alex Ferguson when expressing his support in 2010. Qatar sought the approval of former and current players because it understood the influence they wield. But that influence can go both ways, and expressions of concern from players would carry a lot of weight for those minded to stick their heads above the corporate parapet erected by clubs, sponsors and agents.

And then there’s Qatar’s funding of Europe’s elite clubs. The amount of money that Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain pays Neymar in a week — more than €600,000 after tax — could fund an investigation into worker deaths that could save hundreds if not thousands of lives. First Barcelona (latterly sponsored by Qatar Airways) and now Bayern Munich (now sponsored by Qatar airport) have pocketed millions of Qatari petrodollars in return for promoting the country on their shirts, but neither club has suffered anything that would count as a backlash. FIFA executives must surely be wondering why it’s only their connections to Doha that inspire thunderous denunciations from the football community.

Nor is this problem confined to Qatar. I’m writing this from Manchester, where Abu Dhabi money has transformed Manchester City into one of the finest teams in Europe, but where few pause to question how the United Arab Emirates’ own abuse of migrant workers — what is happening in Doha is happening in Abu Dhabi and Dubai- squares with the city’s radical past. This is the place where, in 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal cost, refused to touch any raw cotton picked by American slaves.

This problem doesn’t begin and end with Qatar, and FIFA isn’t the only actor whose dalliance with Doha deserves scrutiny.

Nicholas McGeehan

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Human rights researcher. Focus on Gulf, migrant workers' rights. Bit of football in there too.