The next men’s World Cup is not until 2022, but the controversy has been rife from beginning of the announcement of the host country, Qatar – and this time, the drama has nothing to do with the ongoing rivalry over whether Ronaldo or Messi is the best player. Qatar has long been less-than-stellar on human rights issues; it still practices forced labor, and living conditions for foreign workers are often abysmal. So why host a major sporting event there? FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, is responsible for the decision, and Qatar’s selection underscores FIFA’s problematic role in sports and international affairs.
Bombarded by international outrage over Qatar’s selection, FIFA floated a plan to move some of the games to neighboring host countries, namely Kuwait and Oman. But even this backup plan has flaws. Kuwait and Oman are also guilty of significant human rights abuses including on freedom of speech and workers’ rights, a coalition of Gulf States is boycotting Qatar, and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is dealing with crises from Yemen to Syria to Sudan.
Aside from FIFA’s insistence on holding the World Cup in Qatar, this proposed expansion underlines just how out of step soccer’s international governing body continues to be with global human rights concerns. Consider, for example, that Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup not even two years after meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Furthermore, Russia is one of the worst countries when it comes to imprisoning and killing journalists, and has carried out extrajudicial attacks in the UK and elsewhere. Add in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and one would be forgiven for questioning whether FIFA officials read the same newspapers and human rights reports as everyone else.
Finally, FIFA itself has been embroiled in scandal, including the 2015 FBI probe which led to the arrest of around 30 officials on charges of bribery and corruption. Qatar was alleged to have made a lucrative deal with FIFA before its selection for the 2022 games, proving that FIFA may have learned very little from the 2015 scandal.
FIFA’s decisions are made years in advance, and human rights scores are given to each country bidding to be host. Yet, in the case of Russia and Qatar, accusations of human rights violations were not new, and FIFA’s decisions reflect a pattern of ignoring abuse. To address this discrepancy, in late 2018 FIFA released its Second Report by the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board. In the report, FIFA outlines some steps it has taken to improve worker protections, but recognizes remaining challenges including “heat stress” on workers. Why was this not considered before 2018, when it was effectively too late to cancel Qatar’s host duties?
One reason may be that FIFA’s financial gains from the games blind it to real introspection and change; consider that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada 2026 cohosts stand to make $11 billion in profits for FIFA (for comparison, Armenia’s 2017 GDP was roughly $11 billion). And, not calling out MENA countries specifically may be to FIFA’s advantage, as the region was estimated to comprise the second-largest viewer market of the 2018 World Cup. Criticism or outright avoidance of holding games in countries that are guilty of human rights violations may reduce FIFA’s viewership.
It may not be realistic to ask players and teams, some of whom have waited their whole lives to play in soccer’s most prestigious event, to boycott the World Cup in Qatar. However, the international community can be instrumental in pressuring FIFA to change in advance of and beyond World Cup 2022.
First, given consumers’ immense influence on the World Cup being financially successful through viewership and merchandizing, they should raise awareness of any company’s involvement in World Cup planning or advertising, from construction companies to fast food empires. Examples like Nike’s incorporation of former NFL player and social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick into a 2018 advertising campaign prove that companies do not have to shy away from taking controversial stances; consumers take notice, and Kaepernick’s involvement even led to a sales boost for Nike.
Consumers can also call out FIFA directly. With Kaepernick, the NFL lost viewers during the initial national anthem protests. While citizens of the countries in which FIFA holds the World Cups may not be as civically engaged – think the lack of Arab Spring uprisings in the Gulf countries – there are consumers within FIFA’s wider marketing web active in human rights discourse. Given FIFA’s potential economic gains from World Cup 2022, it is sure to notice such an effort.
Second, human rights advocates should continue to pressure FIFA and the governments of Qatar (and possibly Oman and Kuwait) to respect minorities, engage in ethical labor practices, and encourage free and fair press and civic engagement efforts. This pressure has already had some success. FIFA recently agreed to address the potential human rights concerns of expanding the games to Kuwait, Oman, or elsewhere.
Third and finally, the U.S. and other countries have committed to sports diplomacy. The World Cup and other major sporting events have the potential to bring countries together, which may be especially important in the ongoing boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain. In fact, one good step that FIFA has taken is to block Saudi Arabia and the other boycotting countries from hosting regional games in 2022 unless they restore ties. This move could help discourage further geopolitical jockeying like that preceding the blockade.
But sports diplomacy should not be a cover for cozying up to dictators in Russia or engaging with problematic regimes in Qatar or elsewhere. FIFA risks legitimizing countries like Saudi Arabia, which faces accusations of murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and recently executed a number of predominantly Shia minority “troublemakers” who were allegedly not given due process. It seems here as if FIFA is confusing diplomacy with neutrality, and this sets a dangerous precedent that when there is money to be made in sports, we should turn a blind eye to abuse. If sports diplomacy is to succeed, countries need to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on sporting bodies like FIFA to effect change.
FIFA has made some important strides ahead of World Cup 2022, but will it be able to overcome its reputation as being blind on human rights issues for future games? In the three years that remain until the 2022 games, FIFA needs to reexamine the ways in which it chooses and evaluates potential host countries, and the international community has an important role in ensuring these changes happen and stick for years to come.