Why Qatar is a controversial host for the World Cup

Updated November 18, 2022 at 10:21 am ET

The selection of Qatar to host this year’s FIFA World Cup brought cheers to the streets of Doha as the first edition of the tournament was celebrated in the Arab world.

But the decision, made in 2010, also drew immediate criticism – over the logistics of holding a sporting event in a country where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees; over allegations of bribery and corruption among FIFA officials who voted for Qatar; and at concerns about human rights abuses that have persisted in the years since.

With the World Cup days away, the country of golf awaits the arrival of more than a million fans. And billions more will tune in to watch the 64 games of the tournament. But the controversy has not abated.

Most recently, even the former Fifa boss described Qatar’s selection as a mistake.

“It was a bad choice. And I was responsible for that as president at the time,” said Sepp Blatter, whose tenure as Fifa administrator ended in 2015 amid a bribery scandal.

Lack of infrastructure and deaths of migrant workers

Qatar is the smallest nation to ever host the World Cup, a complex international sporting event that draws large numbers of visitors and needs the infrastructure to accommodate them.

At just 4,471 square miles, Qatar is about 20% smaller than the state of Connecticut. Much of the country is a barren sand plain, and most of its 2.8 million people live in the area around the capital, Doha.

When it won selection in 2010, Qatar lacked many of the stadiums, hotels and highways needed to host the tournament. To build them, the country turned to its vast population of migrant workers, who make up 90% or more of its workforce. (Only about 300,000 residents of Qatar are Qatari citizens. Far superior to them are migrant workers whose visas are tied to their employment, a system common in the Middle East.)

The working and living conditions of these migrant workers were often exploitative and dangerous. A 2021 investigation by the Guardian found that since 2010, more than 6,500 migrant workers from five South Asian countries had died in Qatar from all causes – work accidents, car accidents, suicides and deaths from other causes, including the heat.

“Some of them are workers who collapsed at the stadium construction site and died after being lifted off it. Others died in traffic accidents on the way to work on a company bus. And many others died suddenly and unexplainedly during their work camps,” said Pete Pattison, one of the reporters on the investigation, in an interview with NPR last year.

FIFA and Qatar dispute this number. Qatar says only three people have died as a direct result of working on World Cup sites and admits the deaths of 37 workers were “non-work related”.

Qatar is also calling the World Cup an “incredible opportunity to improve social standards,” and officials say conditions for workers have improved since the selection: in 2014, the country led a series of Workers’ Welfare Standards, which have created new protections (although proponents say the new regulations are not always enforced).

In May, a coalition of human rights groups called on FIFA and Qatar to set up a relief fund – a pool of money that can be used to compensate migrant workers and the families of those who died for mistreatment they suffered in the construction of stadiums and other necessary infrastructure for the World Cup.

The fund, they say, will be no less than $440 million — the same amount as World Cup prize money.

“We believe players don’t want to play in stadiums that workers died to build. We believe fans don’t want to stay in hotels or use subways that workers died to build,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations sponsoring the fund.

Other human rights violations

Concerns about human rights violations go beyond the treatment of migrant workers. “In short, the human rights situation in Qatar is bad,” Worden told NPR.

This week, Human Rights Watch urged journalists to look beyond football by releasing a 42-page report that summarized what it described as “the numerous human rights concerns surrounding Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup.”

Qatar’s Penal Code criminalizes sex outside of marriage, which has led to the prosecution of rape victims. And homosexuality is effectively criminalized: sex between men is punishable by up to seven years in prison, and men who “incite” or “induce” another man to commit “an act of bestiality or immorality” face one to three years detention.

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In a recent interview with a German broadcaster, a Qatari World Cup ambassador described homosexuality as “damage to the mind”.

“The most important thing is that everyone accepts that they are coming here. But they will have to accept our rules,” said Ambassador Khalid Salman, a former Qatar international. The comments have been widely condemned by Western officials, including the US State Department.

Advocates say LGBTQ people in Qatar face conversion therapy, harassment from authorities and prison terms.

“The fear is so real,” said Dr. Nasser Mohamed, who grew up in an ultra-conservative Qatari community, applied for asylum in the US because he feared retribution for his sexuality.

In a statement to NPR, the Qatari embassy said the “safety of all visitors is of paramount importance to the host country” and that Qatar is a “relatively conservative society”.

“Everyone will be welcome in Qatar for the World Cup,” the statement said. “We simply ask all visitors to appreciate and respect our culture as they would if traveling elsewhere in the region and in other parts of the world.”

Bribery and corruption allegations

Qatar’s selection to host the World Cup has long been dogged by allegations of bribery and corruption.

The selection was announced in 2010 after a series of votes by FIFA officials. Qatar beat offers from the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

Over the years, various officials from both FIFA and other organizations have been accused of accepting or soliciting bribes to steer the World Cup to Qatar.

“There were so many allegations of corruption against the Qatari bid – political machinations in terms of government business, gas deals between countries that would vote on who would host the World Cup,” said James Montague. a journalist who has written about Qatar and the World Cup speaks in an interview with NPR conduction.

About a dozen FIFA officials involved in the selection have since been suspended by the organization – including its former president Blatter – or charged with corruption allegations. In 2019, French soccer star and former head of European football Michel Platini was arrested during an investigation into a $2 million payment related to his efforts to bring the World Cup to Qatar. Blatter and Platini have both denied wrongdoing.

A 2014 FIFA investigation cleared Qatari officials of any impropriety and allowed the tournament to go ahead.

The November schedule has weighed on many players

The World Cup traditionally takes place in summer. But Qatar’s summer heat and humidity made that unsustainable, and the event was rescheduled for November instead. (The games will also be played in air-conditioned stadiums.)

Timing has caused significant disruption in professional football, particularly in Europe, where most league fixture schedules typically run from late summer to the following spring. Top professional leagues such as the English Premier League, German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga have all announced two-month breaks for the World Cup.

That tight planning has created an “unprecedented workload” for players, according to a new report from FIFPRO, the union that represents 65,000 players worldwide.

For a typical summer World Cup, Premier League players have historically had an average of 31 days to prepare and 37 days to recover, according to the report. This year, the preparation and recovery time has dropped to seven and eight days, respectively, the union says.

“Overlapping competitions, back-to-back matches, extreme weather conditions, reduced preparation time and insufficient recovery time all pose a menacing threat to player health and performance,” the report reads.

Players participating in the Cup are at “really high risk of injury,” said FIFPRO consultant and sports scientist Darren Burgess.

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