This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
December 1, 2022
How do you kick back and enjoy your favorite sporting event when you know that people have suffered to make it happen?
It’s a question that billions of us have been forced to ask ourselves over the last couple of weeks. The 2022 World Cup is now happening in Qatar, and there’s quite a few things wrong with that statement.
First and foremost, it’s tough to appreciate the temporary soccer stadiums, made from recycled shipping containers that will then be dismantled and sent to under-developed countries to help build housing.
I know that sounds kind of cool, so why would I be criticizing it? Because it’s now believed that more than 6500 migrant workers died to build them, a figure that’s almost too shocking to accept.
An average of 12 workers is said to have died every single week from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka over the time it took Qatar to prepare for one of the biggest sporting events of them all. Some succumbed to accidents, but many seem to have been quite simply unable to take the heat.
This world cup was rescheduled for the winter, when it’s just about manageable in Doha. But the workers who built those stadiums were toiling in 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and I somehow doubt they were enjoying the best of working conditions.
Of course, we’ll never know exactly what went wrong, because the Qatari government has listed a sinister percentage as “natural deaths” and doesn’t seem inclined to probe further. They’ve claimed it’s only 500 deaths but, even if that’s true, it’s still far too many.
FIFA, the governing body for world football, was no help whatsoever, having been quoted as saying: “The frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel like there would have been some sort of investigation if the attrition rate in the construction industry was that high. You’d be losing two people every time a new barn got built – the population of Sundance would be halved by next Christmas.
My dear husband was not surprised, as he feels the appropriate word to describe FIFA at the best of times is “supervillains”. After all, this is the same body that didn’t mind forcibly removing tens of thousands of working-class Brazilians from their homes to make way for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and thought it was a great idea to host the last one in Russia.
At least Brazil makes sense as a venue – their team is ranked number one in the world. Russia is all the way down at 33, so one suspects they chose it for the same reason as the not-exactly-well-known-for-its-soccer Qatar: money.
There was a certain amount of surprise when FIFA announced Qatar would be hosting, given that it was going up in the bidding process against countries including Japan, Australia and, yes, the United States.
We all felt vindicated for our suspicions when two members of the committee that’s responsible for choosing the host nations were suspended from FIFA for offering to sell their votes.
It then turned out that one former member of that committee hailed from Qatar and had paid millions of dollars in bribes to FIFA officials – and this was after getting a lifetime ban for corruption.
Please draw your own conclusions – I know I did.
I wish this was the end of the story, but it’s not. There’s also Qatar’s appalling human rights record.
Someone coined the word “sportswashing” a few years ago to describe the efforts of repressive governments to improve their international reputations by hosting sporting events, and it’s certainly being applied right now to a tournament taking place in a country where criticizing the emir or spreading “false news” is a criminal act and LGBT folks are also at risk of arrest.
FIFA’s CEO tried to smooth things over with a truly bizarre speech, in which he seemed to dismiss all these things by saying that he, too, has been the subject of discrimination, because he has red hair and freckles. I’ll get back to you when I figure out what point he was trying to make.
Then there’s the fact that FIFA (you know, the supervillains) polished their halo by claiming this would be the first ever carbon neutral World Cup. Not only did they use some impressively creative math to figure this out, they’re buying so-called carbon offsets from a group that turns out to be connected to Qatari state-owned entities.
Then there was a big to-do about FIFA refusing to allow players to wear armbands in support of human rights, and then there was the Iranian team refusing to sing their own national anthem.
They did this in support of protesters back home who are speaking out after a 22-year-old woman was arrested by the “Guidance Patrol” (which is exactly as creepy as it sounds) for not wearing her hijab properly. Somehow, she died while in custody.
The team did sing their anthem before their second match. Once again, I leave you to draw your own conclusions about why they might have backed down.
It’s all very frustrating. Sport is supposed to be the great equalizer, bringing out the best in all of us – not the worst. So many things are wrong with this event that one protestor who rushed onto the pitch during the Portugal vs. Uruguay match was trying to show support for Iranian women, gay rights and Ukraine all at the same time, which was about as muddled a spectacle as you might imagine.
I think Roy Keane summed it up best, England’s grumpiest football star. If you’ve seen the fabulous show “Ted Lasso”, the character of Roy Kent was based on this loveable curmudgeon.
“Just to dismiss human rights flippantly because of a football tournament…it’s not right,” he said, live on air as he commentated a match.
“The bottom line is, we are talking about common decency, how you treat people. Football, the greatest sport in the world, there is so much money involved, there will be corruption but let’s get back to basics, you have to treat people with decency. It should start and finish with that.”
He’s right, you know. There are more important things than football (which is a sentence I never expected to write). I might not like it that my matches are marred by controversy, but it’s a never a bad thing to be reminded that not everyone has the choice to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the show.