The Controversy Surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar


Sarah "Bella" Roth

Arguably the largest sporting event on earth, the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar on November 20th. Five billion people are expected to watch the month-long soccer tournament. Given the enormous cultural and economic implications of this event, the privilege of hosting the tournament is highly contended. Qatar is expected to receive over a million visitors as a result of hosting the World Cup, and the small Middle Eastern nation is expected to add $17 billion to their economy. 

Qatar is the first Middle Eastern or predominantly Muslim country to host the games. In a recent bid to be a proponent of equality, FIFA, the governing body of international soccer that orchestrates the World Cup, has allowed countries that have never hosted the games to have the honor. The previous three hosts, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, also did so for the first time.

FIFA has clearly made an effort to prioritize equity and inclusion in recent years. Former FIFA President Steph Blatter called the organization “a global unifying force for the good, a force that offers to be inclusive in every which way and a force that has written anti-discrimination on its banner under my presidency.” The organization also hosts an annual “Conference for Equity and Inclusion” where players and members of the organization host an open discussion on inequality and discrimination.

However, a paradox seems to have arisen in FIFA’s effort to be a proponent of inclusion. As they attempt to diversify their audience and stakeholders, FIFA has stumbled across, and arguably indirectly benefited from, human rights issues in the new countries they choose as hosts. In Qatar, an estimated 6,500 migrant workers have died on construction sites for World Cup stadiums, and thousands more continue to face inhumane working conditions. 

Qatar is a largely apolitical country, with limited free speech and a large population of migrant workers. These workers, numbering over two million, are barred from forming unions and have no political rights in the country; around sixty workers were arrested in August 2022 for speaking out against unpaid wages. Freedom House, a non-profit organization monitoring democratic change and human rights across the world, classifies Qatar as “Not free.” 

Further controversy has arisen around the country’s laws which make homosexuality illegal. Although the country’s government has agreed to not enforce this law for tournament goers, a UK minister was met with fierce criticism when he told gay citizens to “show respect” at the World Cup. 

Blatter, the President of FIFA at the time of the decision to have Qatar host, says it “may well be that we made a mistake.” Blatter and 16 of 22 other FIFA executives at the time have since been investigated for corruption in relation to their decision making. Blatter and a handful of others are now banned from the sport of soccer for life. 

Beyond being excited that the United States qualified for the tournament after an eight year hiatus, Vanderbilt Club Soccer player Gus feels conflicted about the upcoming event. He stated, “I think one of the most amazing things about the World Cup is that it should be a truly species wide unifying event that everyone can enjoy . . . It is a shame that FIFA awarded the event to a country that has a dubious history of human rights transgressions and that has continued to transgress while building stadiums.” Gus continued, saying that while players should not bear the burden of the governing bodies of FIFA and Qatar, he thinks, “FIFA has a duty to try and correct these wrongs.” 

However, there is a possibility that the spotlight that the World Cup has put on the small Middle Eastern nation has directly influenced significant labor reform. In 2020, Qatar established a minimum wage, limits to working hours, and ended the requirement for an “exit visa” that often kept workers stuck in the country. There is evidence that these changes have had a positive effect on wages, working conditions, and employment flexibility. For example, over 280,000 workers in Qatar have seen their wages increase in the last two years. Yet, some of the reforms have not been properly implemented in practice, and workers in Qatar continue to face significant rights abuses.

There is evidence that FIFA has benefited from human rights transgressions, but there is also evidence that they have helped induce positive change in Qatar. Time will tell what the long term implications of this momentous event will be for the country and for the future of the tournament. One thing is clear: billions of eyes will be on Qatar this month. 

Photo by Ben Koorengevel via Unsplash