Qatar 2022: A World Cup plagued by controversy from the start

It is safe to say no World Cup has generated as much debate and controversy before a ball is kicked as the finals in Qatar, which will at last get under way this month after a build-up of almost 12 years.

This was a tournament “awarded in an unacceptable way, with unacceptable consequences”, Norway’s Football Association president Lise Klaveness told FIFA Congress in Doha earlier this year.

“Human rights, equality, democracy, the core interests of football, were not in the starting XI,” she added.

Lise Klaveness addressing the FIFA Congress in Doha earlier this year
Lise Klaveness addressing the FIFA Congress in Doha earlier this year (Nick Potts/PA)

There were immediate calls for a rerun of the vote, and even talk of boycotts, when FIFA’s executive committee awarded the tournament to Qatar in December 2010, ignoring warnings even from FIFA’s own bid evaluation report of the “potential health risk” of playing the tournament in searing desert heat in June and July.

An independent ethics investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process by Michael Garcia, a former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was released in 2017 and identified no ‘smoking gun’ of corruption to warrant the withdrawal of Qatar’s hosting rights.

The old FIFA regime that made the award has been widely discredited in the years since 2010, though, even by the current president Gianni Infantino, who has talked about “money disappearing” from the organisation under his predecessor Sepp Blatter.

Infantino has also overseen reforms to the World Cup bidding process, which he now says is “bullet-proof”.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani greet each other at the World Cup finals draw in Doha in April
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani greet each other at the World Cup finals draw in Doha in April (Nick Potts/PA)

Infantino is nevertheless an enthusiastic supporter of Qatar’s hosting, and has spent a good proportion of his time based in Doha this year in the run-up to the finals.

Which brings us to what Klaveness described as the “unacceptable consequences” of giving the World Cup to Qatar.

The most obvious sporting consequence was the calendar disruption the finals caused. The tournament was officially moved to the European wintertime back in 2015, and will force leagues on this continent and elsewhere to halt mid-season.

But the human consequences have been far graver.

Qatar has spent over 200 billion US dollars (£177.7bn) on infrastructure since 2010, according to the Supreme Committee responsible for organising the finals.

That infrastructure has largely been built by migrant labourers, whose working conditions have been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny since the World Cup was awarded.

The Guardian reported last year there had been 6,750 deaths of south Asian migrants in Qatar since 2010, with labour rights advocacy group FairSquare Projects saying a “significant proportion” of those migrant workers were only in the country because of the World Cup award.

Critics of Qatar, including human rights group Amnesty International and Klaveness, accept there have been improvements and that labour reforms passed by the government to end the ‘kafala’ system – which effectively tied workers to an employer – are a welcome step.

However, Amnesty is less impressed with how those reforms have been implemented on the ground and has said it is “business as usual” in many ways.

Mahmoud Qutub, a senior advisor to the Supreme Committee, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in October: “Challenges remain – but there is no finish line to this work.”

Members of a UEFA working group on Qatar have also called on FIFA to follow through on promises to support the creation of a migrant workers’ centre and a compensation scheme.

Amnesty wants the global governing body to put up USD440 million (£381 million) towards those projects – equivalent to the World Cup prize money pot as part of its #PayUpFIFA campaign.

The Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final on December 18
The Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final on December 18 (Nick Potts/PA)

FIFA has also been criticised for staging a World Cup in a country where same-sex relationships are criminalised.

Tony Burnett, the chief executive of anti-discrimination group Kick It Out, told the PA news agency it was akin to awarding a World Cup to apartheid-era South Africa.

Organisers are at pains to stress everyone is welcome, but ask that visitors to Qatar are good guests and respect local culture.

Enabling law introduced for the duration of the tournament is expected to mean a degree of latitude is applied by security forces, but the fact remains this is a country where public displays of affection – even between heterosexual couples – are not part of the local culture.

LGBTQ+ rights campaigner Dr Nasser Mohamed insists players have an “absolute responsibility” to raise awareness of these issues during the finals, even if they had no choice in the decision to award Qatar the World Cup, as the secretary general of the FIFPRO world players’ union Jonas Baer-Hoffmann has pointed out.

“It was an awful deal (to award Qatar the World Cup), with a lot of people not consenting to it,” Dr Mohamed told PA.

“(Qatar’s LGBTQ+ community) didn’t consent to it either, but we’re here. And right now we have to deal with all the awfulness that it’s caused, causing and may continue to cause post the World Cup.”

Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has been criticised by human rights organisations as an attempt by the Gulf state’s government to ‘sportswash’ its international reputation.

But the counter to that is, had Qatar not succeeded with a World Cup bid, would there be so much attention on its migrant worker record and its attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people?

For those who will remain in Qatar after the final ball is kicked on December 18, the desperate hope is that the scrutiny continues.