A longer version of this article originally appeared in Polish in Political Critique.
I’ve been a fan for twenty years. Nothing except sleep and work takes as much of my time as football (or soccer, if you’re that inclined). Between watching games and highlights, browsing stats, and disagreeing with strangers on the internet, it’s easily a part-time job. Woken up in the middle of the night I could list the last 30 Champions League winners, tell you who was the top goalscorer at Euro 2004, and explain what it means to play with a false 9. Right now I should be counting down minutes until the kick-off of the World Cup, my favorite thing in the whole world.
I’m not, because I won’t be watching the World Cup in Qatar. Not the kick-off game, not the final, not even the Polish national team. I’m encouraging you to do the same.
In 2010, FIFA granted Qatar the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Back then, the small desert country had neither the infrastructure to host an event of this scale, nor the workforce to build it on time. Qatar had to bring in a massive number of workers to erect the stadiums, airports, hotels, and so on. Today, nearly 90 percent of the 2.8 million population of Qatar are immigrants. They came to work, mostly from South Asia and Africa, but after they arrived they were turned into slaves.
Workers were often forced to work long shifts in the desert heat. Their accommodation was spartan, often with limited access to food and water. And if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, because of the kafala system which allowed employers to hold on to the passports of immigrant employees. This made workers essentially owned by their visa sponsors. Last year’s investigation by The Guardian revealed that over 6,500 workers died in Qatar in the 10 years since announcing the country would host the 2022 World Cup. That’s more than a death per day and it’s still an underestimation because the data is so limited. Moreover, 69 percent of deaths were never investigated and just labeled as natural causes. A report by Amnesty International also points out thousands of underdocumented worker deaths.
Qatar is a 21st century slave state.
Also, homosexuality is criminalized. Qatari women are second-rate citizens, who can’t get married, work in some jobs, or even access the documents of their own children without the approval of a male guardian. Freedom of speech? Political opposition? Right to organize? Forget it. Qatar is just the playground of its Emir and his family, while most of the residents are immigrants denied basic rights.
FIFA and peak cynicism
None of this has ever been a secret or a surprise. But if the Qatari government is so transparently awful, why would FIFA grant them the right to host one of the biggest sporting events in the world?
Let’s answer with an anecdote. In 2015, the American Department of Justice charged nine high-ranking FIFA officials with fraud, including charges related to Qatari and Russians bids for the World Cups in 2022 in 2018 respectively. The scandal made front page news everywhere. As it happened, only two days later FIFA delegates were meant to hold a vote to elect the organization’s president. Despite being embroiled in a corruption case, the then-president Sepp Blatter easily won his fifth (!) term. Only the mounting pressure from media and corporate sponsors forced him to step down (last year he was finally charged with fraud himself).
FIFA is rotten and corrupt to the core. But it’s not just them. It’s the entire football community. In the 12 years since Qatar was named the host of the 2022 World Cup no one other than the consistently protesting fans has lifted a finger to question that decision. 32 national teams qualified for the World Cup and not a single team or player refused to play in Qatar. Harry Kane is planning to play in a rainbow armband to show his support for the LGBT community and that’s about it.
Media are also gearing up to cover this year’s World Cup like any other. There will be the match studios and live commentary from stadiums stained with slave blood. Gary Neville is joining the commentary team at beIN, a television network owned by the Emir of Qatar. In response to criticism he claimed no one cares about workers rights as much as he does (he really said that). His former Manchester United teammate, David Beckham, used to call the choice of Qatar as a World Cup host disgusting. He’s now a World Cup ambassador. I wonder if the 10 million pounds he’s set to receive for that helped change his mind.
Sponsors (Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai, and Visa) see no problem plastering their logos all over Qatar and playing uplifting ads at halftime during games They pushed Sepp Blatter out when FIFA was reeling from a corruption scandal but apparently thousands of dead workers and persecution of sexual minorities don’t bother them as much.
Don’t watch, don’t click
I have been traumatized by two decades of the Polish national team getting annihilated in major competitions but I still want to clench teeth and cross fingers for them again. I want to be watching the World Cup because there’s nothing I love more than that. But I can’t. I’m embarrassed that my country’s team is even going there. There is no amount of goals that Lewandowski could score to make it any less of a disgrace. Even if Polish players came back with the cup, it would be a hundred times bigger victory to have stayed home.
John Oliver once said about FIFA: And yet, here’s their power. I am still so excited about the World Cup next week. And it’s very hard to justify how I can get so much joy from an organizaton that’s caused so much pain […] Soccer is an organized religion and FIFA is its Church.
He’s right, of course. Football is a religion. It’s passion and joy, it’s screaming at the TV and having pints with friends at a pub. It’s clenching your fists so hard it hurts waiting for the VAR verdict. It’s the best thing ever. But there must be a limit somewhere. We can’t be forever lamenting the corruption inside FIFA just to start debating who will qualify for the Round of 16 in Qatar in the same breath. It’s sickening.
I was naively hoping that someone among the rich and powerful of football would say enough and that we can’t host our biggest celebration on the back of slave labor. I was hoping that Mbappe, Modrić, or Messi would refuse to play in Qatar. That one of the teams would boycott the tournament. That Sky Sports would show the conditions workers lived in, rather than match highlights. But no one did anything. The best we got is an armband.
They can have their World Cup. I’m done. Even as a spectator I don’t want to be participating in an event built on blood and suffering, touched up with hundreds of millions of dollars from corporate sponsors.
And since I’m not watching, you can not-watch with me. Don’t like, don’t comment, don’t subscribe. I have no delusion we’ll change anything, but at least we won’t be dancing on people’s graves.