Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

FIFA’s corruption has soured this World Cup

The host nation of Qatar is proudly repressive and has engaged in human rights abuses. Love of soccer or no, I can’t ignore my conscience.

I’m not going to call it a boycott.

After all, I didn’t intend to skip out on this year’s World Cup. I did not set out, as others did, on a moral crusade to get others to stop watching. I just haven’t.

It isn’t that I’m not interested. Far from it, I’ve been in love with o jogo bonito for as long as I can remember. Nike’s classic 1998 ad for the World Cup, in which Brazilian players start a pickup game in a busy airport (even dodging planes on the tarmac), is ingrained in my consciousness.

As young kids choosing our own pickup games in a shared driveway in Frankford, I was soccer’s only consistent supporter. Since my family didn’t have cable, I would walk to my grandparents’ house to watch World Cup games. With the U.S. not expected to be a real contender, it was easy to transfer my support to the Brazilian team, whose spectrum of skin tones reminded me of my family and neighborhood.

Still, I have not been able to bring myself to watch this year’s matches. I’ve checked the scores, scanned the tables of games, but when I switched on the TV for the inaugural match between Ecuador and host nation Qatar, my attention went elsewhere, quickly. It hasn’t really returned. By holding the tournament in the proudly repressive country, FIFA went too far.

Love of soccer or no, I couldn’t ignore my stubborn conscience.

» READ MORE: US OKs $1B arms sale to Qatar during key World Cup match

Sadly, corruption has been a part of international soccer since the start. While I couldn’t have known it as a 9-year-old, the game I was growing to enjoy is run by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. That’s French for one of the most corrupt organizations in the world.

As a history student at Temple, I studied the history of global soccer — the record is abysmal. When FIFA held the 1934 World Cup in Italy, Swedish referee Ivan Eklind met with Benito Mussolini before the semifinal and championship matches. Eklind’s choice has led to a long-standing belief that Mussolini conspired with FIFA to fix the tournament in Italy’s favor, a massive propaganda win for his fascist movement.

The corruption, and sanction for repression, didn’t stop there. FIFA picked Argentina, ruled by a military junta that killed tens of thousands in the “Dirty War,” to host the 1978 championship. Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament, despite invading Ukraine four years before and Georgia a decade earlier.

In some ways, locating the cup in Qatar, one of the oil-rich, authoritarian Gulf States, is broadly in line with tradition. And soccer is hardly the only sport to rely on unsavory, racist, misogynistic, and wealthy elite leadership. But as bad as those choices may have been, choosing Qatar is worse.

Most World Cups are played in existing stadiums with their own legendary history — such as Brazil’s Maracana or Wembley Stadium in London — or make do with stadiums built for other sports, like our own Lincoln Financial Field. Lacking these facilities, the Qataris had to build them. To do that, they used slave labor.

According to an investigation by the Guardian, more than 6,500 of these captive laborers died as a result of FIFA’s boneheaded choice. While Qatari sources dispute this death toll, their own statements put the number in the hundreds, an unconscionable sum. Qatari leadership has claimed to not even have an official number, showing just how little these lives were valued.

Euphemistically termed “migrant labor,” these workers paid the blood price for FIFA executives’ greed. The death tolls, whether you accept the Qatari estimates of the Guardian’s research, are brutal.

Migrant workers have long been a part of the economic calculus of Qatar. Estimates put the nonnative share of the population at nearly 90%. While some are highly compensated, well-educated professionals, others are subject to the brutal Kafala system of sponsorship-based employment, which traps them in a cycle of abuse. Some companies operating in Qatar have even been formally charged with holding workers in involuntary servitude.

Of course, Qataris, and their defenders, say that criticism of Qatari law is an example of Western arrogance and neocolonialism. Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, went as far as to compare the treatment of LGBTQ people under Qatari law to the “bullying” he apparently experienced for his now nonexistent red hair.

» READ MORE: Top US diplomat criticizes FIFA armband threat at World Cup

While certainly fans can survive a few hours without beer at a stadium — which the conservative host nation banned two days before the first game — the lack of libation is hardly the most pressing cultural issue at hand. Unspoken was the obvious question: How could gay fans, women, and others who lack basic rights in Qatar trust the assurances of fair treatment, given the last-second U-turn on something as lucrative as booze?

Qatar isn’t a nation being colonized unwillingly by occupiers; it is itself a wealthy and powerful nation, so much so that it was able to bribe FIFA to win its bid, erect seven brand-new stadiums, build a new rail system, and even construct an eerily empty city for the tournament.

By utilizing the captive labor of migrants to accomplish these feats, it is the Qataris who are engaged in exploitative and cruel practices most associated with colonial imperialism, not those who have stood up for human rights. After all, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

As much as I love soccer, and even with the corruption and misconduct I’ve long had to put up with as a fan, the reality of daily life in Qatar has soiled the beautiful game.