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For a sport so beloved around the world, the beginning of this year’s FIFA World Cup tournament is bringing nothing but controversy. A deal brokered twelve years ago amidst calls of scandal and bribery is still causing trouble now that the tournament has arrived. In addition to the unbearable temperature in Qatar, officials are still worried about corruption and bribery allegations, disrespect of the LQBTQ community, overworked soccer players, and a myriad of human rights abuses. This is certainly not a very cheery beginning to the world’s most watched sporting event that is the highlight for soccer fans around the globe every four years.

The Culmination of a Twelve Year Scandal

The World Cup is unfolding in Qatar this week amid a sea of controversy. A million fans are expected in the country of Qatar, with billions of other soccer fans watching from home. There are 64 games scheduled to be played, beginning on November 20 when Qatar plays Ecuador, and ending on December 18. But what is supposed to be a joyful and memorable time for soccer fans around the world, is turning out to be anything but. As a soccer fan, having watched this event as a young child, watching the World Cup has certainly shaped my memory and passion for the sport. It is truly a slap in the face how FIFA could and would do what they have done in bringing the World Cup to Qatar.

The backdrop of bribes and scandals that have allowed the biggest tournament to be played in Qatar, where human rights debacles abound, is a travesty of justice. In 2010, when soccer officials voted, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and Australia were also vying to host the tournament. Even the former head of FIFA, who voted for it at the time, admits this is a terrible choice. “It was a bad choice. And I was responsible for that as president at the time,” said Sepp Blatter, whose term as FIFA administrator ended in 2015 amid a bribery scandal.

In fact, almost every single one of the 22 people who voted to hold the World Cup in Qatar were charged with corruption, with some people arrested, some banned from FIFA, and some kicked out of soccer for life. In 2019, French soccer great and former head of European soccer Michel Platini was arrested in an investigation into a $2MM payment relating to the World Cup vote for Qatar.

“There have been just so many allegations of corruption against the Qatari bid — of political machinations going on, in terms of government deals, gas deals between countries that would have a vote on who would host the World Cup finals,” said James Montague, a journalist who has written about Qatar and the World Cup.

A House Built on Sand Will Surely Fall

In addition to the bribery scandal, the lack of infrastructure in this tiny country has led to a whole host of problems. Infrastructure is lacking in the country that is 20% smaller than Connecticut, and migrant workers have been working for years to build the stadiums that are needed. Unfortunately, this has led to the loss of life in many cases, where workers were not able to work safely.

“This event was entirely built on the backs of migrant workers, on a completely unequal balance of power,” said Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “These were very predictable abuses.”

Since the vast majority of the country is sandy plains, migrant workers, who make up most of the workforce, were called in to build roads, hotels, and stadiums in order to support the cause. But there was nothing safe about the work the migrant workers were asked to do. A 2021 investigation by the Guardian found that more than 6,500 migrant workers from five south Asian countries had died in Qatar since 2010 from all causes — workplace accidents, car crashes, suicides and deaths from other causes, including the heat.

“Some of them include workers who collapsed on the stadium construction site and died after they were taken off it. Others died in road traffic accidents on their way to work in a company bus. And many others died suddenly in an unexplained way in their labor camps,” said Pete Pattison, one of the reporters on the investigation, in an interview last year with NPR. FIFA itself disputes that number, saying that only 3 people have died in the line for work, while 37 others were “non-work related”.

Pain for Players and Spectators Alike

Both the players and the spectators alike will experience undue harm in this tournament, most of which could have been avoided had officials chosen a more hospitable host country. This could best be described as a case of “sportswashing,” a term that was coined in the mid-2010’s to explain how repressive governments use large sporting events to buoy their reputation around the world. Unfortunately, it is innocent people who are paying the price.

Many in the LGBTQ community, for instance, are worried about the ramifications about Qatar’s laws about homosexuality. Some officials had thought that hosting the World Cup would help Qatar to progress, but the reverse seems to be true, that Qatar is trying to hold back the rest of the world. Not only is intercourse outside of marriage criminalized, but so is homosexuality, which can be punishable by up to seven years in prison. In fact, a Qatari ambassador for the World Cup recently described homosexuality as “damage in the mind.”

Officials in Qatar are not mincing words. “The most important thing is, everybody will accept that they come here. But they will have to accept our rules,” said ambassador Khalid Salman, a former Qatari national team player. The comments were widely condemned by western officials, including the U.S. State Department.

Often, LGBTQ people in Qatar must undergo harassment by authorities, conversion therapy, and even imprisonment. “The fear is so, so real,” said Dr. Nasser Mohamed, who was raised in an ultraconservative Qatari community and applied for asylum in the U.S. over fears of retribution over his sexuality.

Although the Qatar organizers talk a good game, saying that the LGBTQ community would be safe, the world is not so sure. After all, Qatar had planned to allow the sale of beer in its eight stadiums for the dedicated fans, even though it is against their Muslim faith, but revoked that pledge just a few days before the tournament began. This begs the question of whether they will do what they said in other avenues.

The fans are not the only ones in the hot seat. The timing of the tournament is affecting the players as well. Since the normal tournament time of early summer is unbearably hot in Qatar, the games have been moved. The top professional leagues like England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga have all announced two-month breaks to accommodate the World Cup.

The toll the tournament will take on the players is also intense. According to NPR, “For a typical summertime World Cup, Premier League players have historically had an average of 31 days to prepare and 37 days to recover, the report found. This year, prep and recovery time has dropped to seven and eight days, the union says.” With the extreme weather, the back-to-back matches, and lack of recovery time, players are setting themselves up for possible injury.

Clearly this World Cup is making fans around the world uneasy, and the list of problems based on the choice of Qatar for the World Cup seems endless. For a sport that is as beloved as soccer is, FIFA’s choice to hold the tournament in Qatar is a real slap in the face.

The Whistle Heard Around the World