World Cup: Why Qatar is such a controversial host nation

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Qatar 2022 is almost upon us, with the host nation set to face Ecuador in the opening game of the 22nd World Cup on Sunday.

As Qatar's preparations move into their final stages, with fans, teams and media all beginning to arrive, the excitement locally will be building.

Ordinarily, much of that buzz would be shared by football fans all over the world, but the anticipation for many simply isn't there this time.

This is undoubtedly the most controversial World Cup of all time for many reasons.

Allegations of corruption

To fully appreciate why this is such a contentious tournament, you first have to rewind the clock more than a decade.

The bidding process for the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was beset by allegations of corruption.

It should be highlighted that Qatar – who were awarded the tournament in late 2010 – have always vehemently denied any accusations of wrongdoing during their bid, and a 2015 FIFA investigation cleared them as well.

However, the then president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Mohammed bin Hammam, was accused in 2011 of buying votes to support the bid. Bin Hammam and those implicated denied the allegations made by The Sunday Times.

Bin Hammam was banned for life from all football-related activities by FIFA in July 2011 following allegations of attempting to buy votes in the governing body's presidential election. Although the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) later overturned the decision due to a lack of evidence, he was banned for life again in 2012 for "conflicts of interest" when AFC president.

While Bin Hammam is Qatari, the Qatar campaign team always insisted he never had an official role in supporting his home nation's push to stage the event. Essentially, they claim regardless of any potential wrongdoing, he acted independently.

Since then, 16 of the 22 FIFA executive committee members who voted on the Qatar 2022 bid have been investigated or accused of alleged corruption or bad practice. Only one of the 22 is still on the ExCo.

Migrant workers

Concerns have been routinely raised about the treatment of migrant workers used in the massive construction projects for the tournament. Amnesty International said labourers in Qatar were subject to abuse, inhumane working conditions and poor pay, describing "a playground for unscrupulous employers" in September 2019.

Qatari authorities changed their employment law after entering a partnership with the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) aimed at reforming their labour policies.

The introduction of a new minimum wage and a commitment to end the 'kafala' system, which had made it impossible for workers to change jobs without their employer's permission, were welcomed by the ILO and Amnesty International.

However, Amnesty's final pre-tournament briefing in October demanded authorities "re-commit" to delivering on their previous labour reform promises for "now and beyond the World Cup" as the body claimed abuses remained prominent in the country.

There was an acknowledgement from Amnesty regarding Qatar's improvements, but the organisation suggested the compensation of those who have suffered is behind schedule.

"Although Qatar has made important strides on labour rights over the past five years, it's abundantly clear that there is a great distance still to go," Amnesty International's head of economic and social justice, Steve Cockburn, said in a statement.

"Thousands of workers remain stuck in the familiar cycle of exploitation and abuse thanks to legal loopholes and inadequate enforcement. With the World Cup looming, the job of protecting migrant workers from exploitation is only half done, while that of compensating those who have suffered abuses has barely started.

"It's also imperative that Qatar commits to improving conditions in the long term. Progress must not grind to a halt once the World Cup roadshow leaves Doha."

Amnesty claims the "deaths of thousands" of migrant workers – not just working on World Cup projects – "over the past decade and beyond…remain unexplained". A recent Guardian investigation reported over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since 2010.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar's Emir and head of state, believes the country has been the victim of an "unprecedented campaign" of "fabrication and double standards". Qatar says there were only three work-related deaths between 2010 and 2019.

LGBTQ+ concerns

Perhaps the most-discussed area of controversy – at least relating to fans – for this World Cup has been around the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Male homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. It carries a punishment of up to three years in prison and a fine. While it is said the "offence" can also be punished with the death penalty under sharia law for Muslims, there is "limited evidence" of this occurring "in recent years" according to the Human Dignity Trust.

FIFA and Qatar's Supreme Committee have insisted "everybody's welcome" at the World Cup, and the official Fan Guide says: "Everyone deserves a fair and inclusive tournament experience that is welcoming, safe and accessible, while respecting their rights. Any form of discrimination is prohibited at all FIFA tournaments, as per Article 4 of the FIFA Statutes. If you experience or witness any offensive or discriminatory behaviour during your FIFA World Cup 2022, we encourage you to report the incident to tournament staff, safety security personnel and/or to the FIFA World Cup 2022."

Suffice to say that may not be enough to assure people from certain communities, particularly when tournament ambassador Khalid Salman last week said in an interview with German television station ZDF that being gay was "damage in the mind". This comment led to the interview being immediately ended by a World Cup press officer, ZDF claimed.

Ten countries have backed the OneLove campaign, meaning their captains will wear rainbow heart-adorned armbands throughout the tournament in an effort to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

However, regardless of such initiatives and assurances by FIFA, many will not attend out of fear, with Liz Ward, director of programmes for LGBTQ+ rights charity, Stonewall, saying as recently as last month: "As we approach the 2022 men's World Cup, we must remember that Qatar is a country where LGBTQ+ people are persecuted simply for being themselves. Sadly, this year's tournament is not safe for everyone."

A 'winter' World Cup

Compared to some of the other concerns around the World Cup, the weather might seem trivial for many, but it obviously poses certain health risks hosting the tournament in such a warm climate.

The decision to stage the World Cup during the Northern Hemisphere's winter was taken due to the extreme heat common in summer in Qatar. However, temperatures will still regularly exceed 30 degrees Celsius during the day.

Stadiums will have air conditioning, but otherwise fans – and players – will have to front up to significant temperatures.

There is also the knock-on impact to the rest of the football calendar. Moving the tournament to November and December, when the European club season is at its busiest, has already forced the first part of the campaign to be condensed, and that will also be the case for many leagues after the tournament – some Premier League teams could be in EFL Cup action two days after the World Cup final.

A chief concern here is the physical toll the prolonged season will have on players.