The World Cup is one of my favorite sporting events. I’m too young to have a clear memory of Maradona’s Hand of God goal, but the grainy footage has been etched into my mind over the years. And the theme song from that year, Arrow’s Hot, Hot, Hot, will always be a jam.
In 2007, when my country, Jamaica, qualified for the tournament for the first time in our history, we declared a national holiday.
In 2005, when for the first time in its history, the Ivory Coast won a place in the tournament, the team pleaded with its supporters for an end to the country’s bloody civil war, and it worked. For a while.
Football means a lot to the world. It means a lot to me.
But the World Cup is tainted.
It’s long been an open secret that FIFA was a corrupt organization and a magnet for slippery conmen who were always on the lookout for ways to get their palms greased. Some of the organization’s dirty laundry came to light in 2015 when U.S. federal prosecutors indicted a slew of high-ranking FIFA officials on charges of wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. The IRS got in on the action as well. The investigation set off a chain of arrests across the world.
Exposing the bribery and fraud that made FIFA run didn’t do much to dislodge my affection for the sport of football or for the World Cup, though. I’d known for a long time there was a dishonest machine churning underneath it all.
But something has shifted for me.
FIFA awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar never looked right. I mean, it’s a desert, and the initial plan was to stage the tournament during the summer. It was a preposterous proposal.
The belief that Qatar bribed its way into hosting the tournament was part of what sparked the investigation leading to the 2015 arrests. But it’s been the country’s handling of the construction of the venues that’s making my stomach churn.
Workers on the 2022 World Cup construction are being subjected to appalling, life-threatening work conditions. Like most of the construction workers in Qatar, they are poor migrants from South Asia.
The oppressive heat in Qatar, where highs can be 120°F, is causing workers’ deaths. It’s also the thing the Qatari government hides behind to obscure the numbers. It is unsafe to work in that kind of heat, but deaths from heat stress are often not linked back to working conditions. Falls from what have been described as “inherently dangerous” working conditions are also killing workers.
There are migrants slaving literally to death under the desert sun to build mammoth structures under the supervision of something called the “Supreme Committee” (that is the real, not-made-up name of the group in charge of the getting Qatar ready to host the 2022 World Cup).
It’s all too Old Testament for my tastes.
Laborers are nearly always exploited whenever these enormous international sporting events are staged. But there’s something different about what is happening in Qatar. There’s a brutality at work there that I can’t get to sit right with me.
Business and Human Rights Resource Centre is maintaining a Qatar 2022 World Cup: Migrant Worker Fatality Tracker. There’s a death table.
These people are dying so Qatar can put on spectacular entertainment for us in four years.
I can’t get that out of my head.
I want the World Cup to be all good fun. I want it to be nothing more than a display of athletic skill. I want to cheer and watch penalty shootouts between my fingers. But I can’t muster up any anticipation. The weight of what I know is happening to those workers in Qatar is too much of a downer. The excitement I usually feel when the World Cup approaches just isn’t there. Whenever I see photos of a stadium, I wonder how many people were abused and mistreated during its construction (Russia isn’t known for being a touchy-feely paradise for workers either).
Maybe when the drama of the knockout rounds start, I’ll be infected by everyone else’s enthusiasm. But for now… I don’t think I can watch.