Qatar’s new Lusail National Stadium under construction in 2019 © Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Qatar 2022: The World Cup that shamed the world

Vulnerable migrants have died in their thousands working on stadiums in sweltering heat. The footballing world is waking up—but it’s far too little, far too late
May 12, 2022

Twelve years ago in Zurich, Fifa chose to double the planet’s World Cup excitement by selecting the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 finals on the same day. England were bidding for 2018 hosting glory—and finished last. But it was not only sour grapes that made Fifa’s choices for host—Russia in the summer of 2018 and Qatar in the summer of 2022—a little perplexing.

You could just about make a case for Russia: big football tradition, big fan base, plausible climate in July. Vladimir Putin hadn’t yet annexed Crimea, used chemical weapons in Salisbury or invaded Ukraine. But Qatar seemed an incredible choice. It had never qualified to play in the final stages of the World Cup; it had a population of less than two million; summer daytime temperatures often reach above 40°C. But the bid was preferred to those from America, Australia, South Korea and Japan. Even Fifa’s then emperor, the much-lampooned Sepp Blatter, seemed puzzled by the decision.

All the same, Blatter appeared unworried by Qatar’s anti-gay laws—noting, a tad optimistically, that “in football we have no boundaries”—while at the same time suggesting that gay people going to Qatar for the World Cup should practise abstinence. Blatter being Blatter, it wasn’t clear if he was joking.

Other human rights concerns of the type listed in the near-contemporaneous US State department report on Qatar did not seem to weigh heavily on Fifa minds either. There were, the report said, “prolonged detentions in crowded facilities, often ending with deportation. The government placed restrictions on civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press (including the internet), assembly, association, and religion… Trafficking in persons, primarily in the labour and domestic worker sectors, was a problem. Legal, institutional and cultural discrimination against women limited their participation in society. The unresolved legal status of ‘Bidoons’ (stateless persons with residency ties) resulted in discrimination against these non-citizens. Authorities severely restricted worker rights, especially for foreign laborers and domestic servants.”

We can only wonder what it was that allowed Qatar to win so easily, although we are not short of clues. The whole process stank from the beginning. Blatter himself—who was finally disgraced in 2015 and banned from football-related activities amid a welter of corruption allegations—thought it wasn’t only the climate that needed explaining. But a two-year inquiry by Fifa’s own ethics committee found nothing of significant concern. Not surprisingly, that was not the last word on the matter.

The Swiss authorities got going in 2015, opening criminal proceedings against individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering relating to both the Russia and Qatar decisions.

But there’s a lot more. One of Qatar’s surprising supporters in the 2010 vote was the Uefa bigwig Michel Platini: a truly fabulous player for those of us old enough to remember, but perhaps not so nimble-footed on the ethics side. He was arrested by French police in 2019 in relation to the Qatar selection.

The US Department of Justice has also taken a stern view, believing that representatives working for Russia and Qatar bribed Fifa officials to win their respective bids. Meanwhile a Sunday Times investigation four years ago accused Qatar of using former CIA agents and a PR agency to spread fake propaganda about its main competitors. Qatar’s “Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy,” we should note, has rejected all suggestions of wrongdoing.

But let’s politely put aside these pesky allegations and the messy business of what we might call financial lubrication, and look at how a positive case might be made for Qatar as this year’s World Cup host. The bid’s motto, after all, was “Expect Amazing.”

The tournament had successfully been to Africa—courtesy of South Africa in 2010—so why shouldn’t the Middle East have a crack at it? Qatar had hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and the world hadn’t fallen apart. No Islamic country had hosted the World Cup, and the Qataris positioned their bid as representing the entire Arab world—so the tournament would be a bridge between the west and Middle East. Football (men’s football, at any rate) certainly has a following in the Gulf. Qatar now owns one of Europe’s elite clubs—Paris St Germain—via its sovereign wealth fund, and has put money into Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The Arabic-speaking commentators on Premier League games can enthuse with the best of them (find them on YouTube). And some ageing football superstars have chosen to conclude their playing careers with gentle runouts in the Qatari domestic league and have had a perfectly good time. 

As for the way the tournament will proceed, teams won’t have to travel far. Everything—hotels, training camps, stadiums—will be near everything else. And after years of wrangling, the weather problem has been dealt with by moving the matches from June and July to November and December. So we won’t, after all, have weeks of footballers expiring through heatstroke on our screens. 

article body image All kicking off: the completed national stadium in Doha © Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

All kicking off: the completed national stadium in Doha © Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

True, there had been no mention of a winter tournament when Qatar secured its improbable victory, but Fifa decided not to run a unique and probably deadly experiment in human endurance, choosing instead to prevail against the hostility of European clubs who hated the idea of a winter World Cup because of the disruption to the normal rhythms of their playing seasons. Even so, the daytime temperature could still hit 30°C—one of the reasons why England won’t win. And the tournament will have to be compressed so that domestic competitions aren’t totally ruined.

The pitches will have high-quality grass grown under sunshades. The games will be played in tremendous new stadiums—if fewer than specified in the bid. There’s been oodles of money to build them and they look sumptuous. The lucky spectators will benefit from air-cooling technology—meaning less carbon-hungry air conditioning. So the global warming agenda has been taken into account. 

But after all this, things become decidedly problematic. Fifa surely should have known in 2010 that the workforce needed to build not only these aesthetic and environmentally friendly sporting palaces, but the associated infrastructure required to make the tournament happen, would have to be imported. Roughly 95 per cent of Qatar’s workforce comes from elsewhere—notably India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and the Philippines. But the Fifa bid evaluation report, the one that mentioned the heat, doesn’t get near it. There is crisp and sensible analysis of hotels, transport systems, money, media and technology facilities, but on human rights and migrant workers? Nothing. Although perhaps this deliciously vague sentence in the executive summary was a hint: “additional specific undertakings and securities are necessary given the special situation in, and the special hosting concept of, Qatar.”

The truth about the number of people who have been killed or injured while building the stadiums and infrastructure is not easily discoverable. Human rights groups have fretted about the quality of data on migrant worker deaths. In a report last year, Amnesty International discovered that a majority of them are attributed to “natural causes” or vaguely defined cardiac or respiratory failures, classifications that it called “meaningless” without an explanation of the underlying cause of death.

The Guardian too has been campaigning for years, and in 2021 suggested there had been 6,500 migrant worker deaths—these were fit young men—since the bid was won. But the true total is unknowable even for the most diligent reporter. Recently the Daily Mail joined in, with a powerful piece about how the apparently healthy Nepalese workers who died from exhaustion will “haunt this year’s tournament.” As of a year ago, the Qatari organising committee said there have been 37 deaths among workers directly linked to the construction of stadiums, of which they classified 34 as “non-work related”—whatever that means. 

It’s hopelessly unknowable. Thousands of migrant workers may have died young from working in the frazzling heat. Qatar argues otherwise, but it is clearly not revealing the full picture. 

There have been some improvements in workers’ rights, and Fifa wants to take the credit. Last year, over a decade after the bid was won, Qatar introduced measures to protect workers from the worst of the heat stress. There is now a minimum wage and greater attention is being paid to risk assessments. But the central claim that the kafala system (which makes it illegal for migrant workers to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission) has come to an end, again only recently, is disputed by Amnesty, which believes that “on the ground” things have stagnated. And a recent Human Rights Watch report said “passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices remain largely unpunished.”

Fifa should not be surprised that it’s struggling to convince everybody that enough has been done; the event risks being sunk by waves of opprobrium. And the fuss is not going to disappear. Once upon a time those playing, managing and commentating would not have been brought into the controversy—but football now has some articulate types in its midst. The post-match interviews may still feature inglorious exchanges of timeless banalities, but there are examples of highly socially aware players and managers, along with a pundit aristocracy (Gary Neville at Sky Sports, or the national icon that is Gary Lineker), prepared to say something meaningful about life beyond the pitch. 

In Hunter Davies’s fly-on-the-wall study of Tottenham decades ago, The Glory Game, almost all the players were portrayed as politically ignorant, jovial reactionaries. Not so much now. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, with their campaigns against child poverty and racism respectively, have been the most obvious recent examples, but many others have a sense of what’s going on around them: they work for charities and may well speak out.

Eric Cantona, a great figure in the history of European football and a man who normally specialises in footballing ellipsis, has opted for plain English to express his disgust about the coming revelries: “personally, I will not watch it… It is not a real World Cup for me… It’s only about money and the way they treated the people who built the stadiums, it’s horrible.”

Various national football associations aren’t happy either. The Danish FA persuaded its commercial partners to give up space on training kits to lobby for better conditions for migrant workers, and last year the Danish, Norwegian, German and Dutch national squads wore t-shirts with statements of support. And the Danes are co-ordinating with Amnesty to keep up the pressure after the World Cup has ended.

The English FA has not been so vocal, but its website says it’s talking to Amnesty—as well as Fifa. The line is that things have improved, that there’s more to be done, that assurances have been received about LGBTQ+ fans being welcomed in Qatar to support their team during the tournament, that differences in culture must be recognised and that we should strive to be respectful. It’s a reasonable enough defence of constructive engagement, but not exactly an articulate exposition of the moral conundrums. 

The 2010 bidding -debacle left Fifa in a sewer of its own -making

Gareth Southgate, the manager whose palpable decency has persuaded us to like the national team after years of celebrity nonsense and under-performance, is wrestling with it all. He counts for a lot more than his employer because, unlike the FA, he is largely trusted and the players value his opinions. “As a collective and individually,” Southgate says, his players became “much more aware” of human rights issues after some of them were racially abused during matches in Montenegro and Bulgaria in 2019. 

Fifa and the Qataris can hardly complain if they are at the receiving end of deep suspicion. Qatar is the home of Al Jazeera, but it doesn’t believe in journalism. In November two Norwegian journalists who had been reporting on conditions for migrant labourers were arrested. Their equipment was confiscated and not returned. The internet is censored, criticism of the ruling family is outlawed. Qatar ranks 128th on the World Press Freedom Index—just below Sri Lanka and the Central African -Republic. 

There won’t be a boycott. And the England fans will turn up to marvel at the architecture, soak up the sun, down a pint (drinking will be allowed, at higher-end venues and in designated zones, for the duration of the tournament). They will travel to support a team that is not full of inflated egos. And Southgate got the 2018 England team to the World Cup semi-finals—albeit with large dollops of good fortune. It would be nice to win it. Neither Southgate nor the players are in any way to blame for Fifa’s history of rottenness. Captain Harry Kane, forever destined not to win anything with Tottenham, deserves recompense for years of high-class toil. And Southgate should have his knighthood. 

But even without the heat, England are not creative enough to triumph. When it comes to the big games, they mostly (but not always) lose to the true footballing powers. We are historic under-performers, given the size of the country’s population and the importance of football in national life. But if you choose to ignore Cantona’s strictures, it will doubtless be fun to watch. 

Which was not the case for spectators at last year’s Euros final, staged at Wembley. On the pitch England ended as plucky runners-up, but the event itself was a truly world-class security shambles—with ticketless and often drunk spectators storming the stadium; poorly trained stewards overrun; Italian spectators beaten up. All in all, the FA and the Metropolitan Police made a complete mess of it. But at least there was an inquiry that pulled no punches, describing the event as “a national shame” and a “perfect storm” of lawlessness. 

Fifa’s inquiries, however, do not enjoy a high reputation. The bidding debacle left it in a sewer of its own making. Its formal statements are now bitterly critical of Blatter, Platini and others while striking a self-pitying tone—with contemporary Fifa cast as a victim of past misdeeds. It remains a deeply unloved organisation and the current president, Gianni Infantino, has joined the ranks of those being investigated by the Swiss for possible criminal misconduct.

If all goes well, Fifa will end up with a $3bn World Cup profit. They must be praying that there are no protests and that the Qataris keep their word about all fans being welcome. Perhaps they will make amends for their misdeeds by giving some of the money to the families of the dead migrant workers. But don’t hold your breath.