A Qatari Quagmire: Remember The Hidden Casualties Of The 'Best' World Cup Ever
Football fans around the world are still riding the high from Argentina's historic win at the FIFA World Cup 2022. We witnessed probably the greatest, most chaotic final match in World Cup history with Mbappe single-handedly giving La Albiceleste a remarkably tough battle to conquer. Their win at the penalty shootout was a stunning, fairy tale end to Messi's long-standing desire to be World Champion and made him change his mind about retiring from international football.
The FIFA World Cup is a heritage that means the world to billions of people who like myself, got initiated into it through their parents or grandparents, with the absolute joy and wonder we shared with them while watching the most skilled players score goals. It's indelibly etched into us in the form of memories that we the cherish for decades. So when something so sacred is linked to allegations of corruption and exploitation, it's highly disorienting for people who love the game.
You may or most likely may not have heard the stories of the death of migrant workers who built those stadiums where the matches took place in Qatar. Among pure excitement, such stories went largely unnoticed by fans who weren't going to let anything bring down their World Cup cheer. But what the game is essentially loved for is exactly what was endangered in the months before the World cup started — humanity.
Let’s start from the beginning. Qatar was announced as the next World Cup host country in 2010 in a shocking decision despite it being largely unfit for such a massive international event and also being the smallest country in history to do so.
In November 2010, allegations of corruption started to emerge even before the vote was made. And after years of investigations and indictments, in 2020, the United States Department of Justice said for the first time that representatives working for Russia (the host for 2018 WC) and Qatar had bribed FIFA officials to secure their respective hosting rights.
Heidi Blake, the co-author of The Ugly Game disclosed in an interview that FIFA conducted its own objective analysis for the host and found that Qatar was an unsuitable and even dangerous place for the World Cup because of the scorching summer heat that would be hazardous for the health of both players and fans. This is the same reason why it was postponed to November. Furthermore, Doha, its capital wasn’t big enough to accommodate multiple new stadiums and training facilities so an entire city would have to be built; a city with 7 mega-stadiums, medical centres, sports training centres, roads, an airport, a whole metro system and around 100 new hotels. Qatar’s government spent more than 300 billion dollars on this ginormous infrastructure, which they can afford thanks to their oil and natural gas reserves. What they didn’t have, however, was a workforce.
88% of Qatar's population is made up of migrants, the largest of which comprises South Asians, with those from India alone estimated to be around 700,000 in number. 77% of the entire labour workforce of the country happens to be South Asian. So it was no surprise when more than a hundred thousand migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka were recruited and brought to Qatar to build the infrastructure to facilitate the World Cup.
Sounds business as usual until you find out that journalists had their cameras broken by security and officials in a public place for just asking about the working conditions in Qatar, which is only the tip of this egregious iceberg of human rights violations. The migrant workers were brought in through the Kafala system which took a recruitment fee of $4000; meaning that the workers were in debt before they even entered Qatar. Minky Worden, an American human rights advocate and author calls this system modern-day slavery.
When they arrived, they had to work in the scorching heat of 52 degrees celsius for hours a day and months on end. 90 minutes on the field in such weather was unimaginable for the players when FIFA moved the World Cup but the same courtesy wasn’t extended to the workers who built those stadiums. The living conditions were even worse; 8 men to a room and 150 to a house, the workers lived in small hot rooms with filthy kitchens and no bathrooms, bathing in the toilets. The workers were paid just a few dollars a day and some waited months and even years to get paid in a country with a higher GDP than the US.
You can watch a video produced by David Scott for ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumble’ capturing the living conditions of these labour camps in Qatar below.
A report by revealed 6500 deaths of South Asian workers between 2010-2020. Meanwhile, Qatar's Supreme Committee has always maintained there have been only three work-related fatalities and 37 non-work-related deaths among migrant workers at World Cup stadiums since construction for the tournament began in 2014.
The Kafala system was dismantled in 2018 in Qatar, after most of the infrastructure had already been built. Secretary General at the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Hassan Al Thawadi, who was in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar Local Organizing Committee told a CNN reporter that labour laws have since been reformed and the exit permit system, which didn’t allow the workers to leave the country, has also been dismantled. But the workers that they still need permission from their employer to change jobs and when they do ask, they are met with strong pushback and even outright refusal, which doesn’t quite scream 'freedom' to me.
FIFA has found infamy for its associations and tacit approval of authoritarian governments. Its former Secretary General, Jerome Valcke told a symposium in 2013, “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup. When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018, that is easier for us organisers than a country such as Germany where you have to negotiate at different levels.” FIFA was also aware of the male guardianship rules and the draconian anti-LGBTQIA+ policies of the country with their previous president Sepp Blatter even about gay fans “refraining from sexual activities” in Qatar.
‘Sexual activities’ aside, the act of even acknowledging homosexuality was banned in Qatar. US journalist Grant Wahl was detained in Qatar for wearing a rainbow shirt in support of the LGBTQIA+ community and many European team captains refrained from wearing rainbow armbands against the threat of yellow cards being issued to the players by FIFA which is outright ridiculous for a sport that has VAR (video assistant referee) to make sure the game stays within regulation rules.
The World Cup this year took place in a city that didn’t exist just a decade ago, built on human suffering, in a country that has no respect for human rights. For months now my Instagram algorithm has been showing me emotional, heart-touching moments of football history that reflect the humanity, respect and beauty in the game. But the same is missing from what went into making it happen. The disparity between the two is bizarre. With no accountability, FIFA carries on, unquestioned, running on the love fans have for football. The international spectacle has turned into a giant monster that just trudges along with no regard for the damage it’s causing to people below its feet.
The deaths of the migrant workers and the minuscule coverage those stories got amidst a seastorm of news about the matches and schedules is also concerning. It's like entertainment took precedence over morality. People largely believe that FIFA is responsible for organising the World Cup so the accountability lies with them. While this may be true, we as fans have more power than them as we’re the ones who make the tournament as big as it is. It’s worth imagining what could be done to protect the spirit and sanctity of the game by holding the federation to the same standard we do the players and never again allowing it to think a game matters more than human life.