Why Qatar is a controversial host for the World Cup
The selection of Qatar to host this year’s FIFA World Cup brought cheers to the streets of Doha in a celebration of the first edition of the tournament to be held in the Arab world.
But the choice, made in 2010, also sparked instant criticism – over the logistics of holding a sporting event in a country where summertime temperatures regularly top 100 degrees; over allegations of bribery and corruption among FIFA officials who voted for Qatar; and over concerns about human rights abuses that have persisted in the years since.
Now, with the World Cup days away, the Gulf country is expecting the arrival of more than a million fans. And billions more will tune in to watch the tournament’s 64 games. Yet the controversies have not subsided.
Recently, even the former head of FIFA called the selection of Qatar a mistake.
“It was a bad choice. And I was responsible for that as president at the time,” said Sepp Blatter, whose term as FIFA administrator ended in 2015 amid a bribery scandal.
A 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 huge numbers of visitors and requires the infrastructure to accommodate them.
At just 4,471 square miles, Qatar is smaller than the state of Connecticut by about 20%. Much of the country is a barren sandy plain, and most of its 2.8 million residents 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 stage the tournament. To build them, the country turned to its massive population of migrant workers, who make up 90% or more of its labor force. (Only about 300,000 of Qatar’s residents are Qatari citizens. Far outnumbering them are migrant workers whose visas are tied to their employment, a system that is common in the Middle East.)
Working and living conditions for those migrant workers were frequently exploitative and dangerous. A 2021 investigation by the Guardian found that more than 6,500 migrant workers from five south Asian countries had died in Qatar since 2010 from all causes – workplace accidents, car crashes, suicides and deaths from other causes, including the heat.
“Some of them include workers who collapsed on the stadium construction site and died after they were taken off it. Others died in road traffic accidents on their way to work in a company bus. And many others died suddenly in an unexplained way in their labor camps,” said Pete Pattison, one of the reporters on the investigation, in an interview last year with NPR.
FIFA and Qatar dispute that number. Qatar says that only three people have died as a direct result of work on World Cup construction sites, and acknowledge the deaths of 37 workers that were “non-work-related.”
Qatar also frames the World Cup as an “incredible opportunity to enhance welfare standards,” and officials say that conditions for workers have improved since the selection: In 2014, the country introduced a set of Workers’ Welfare Standards that created new protections (although advocates say the new regulations are not always enforced).
In May, a coalition of human rights groups called on FIFA and Qatar to create a remedy fund – a pool of money that can be used to compensate migrant workers, along with the families of those who died, for abuses endured while building stadiums and other infrastructure necessary for the World Cup.
The fund, they say, should total no less than $440 million – the same amount as the World Cup prize money.
“We believe that players don’t want to play in stadiums that workers died to build. We believe that fans don’t want to stay in hotels or use metros that workers died to build,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations calling for the fund.
Other human rights abuses
The concerns over human rights abuses go beyond the treatment of migrant workers. “In a word, the human rights situation in Qatar is bad,” Worden told NPR.
This week, Human Rights Watch urged journalists to look beyond soccer by publishing a 42-page report summarizing 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 “instigate” or “entice” another man to commit “an act of sodomy or immorality” could face one to three years’ imprisonment.
In a recent interview with a German broadcaster, a Qatari ambassador for the World Cup described homosexuality as “damage in the mind.”
“The most important thing is, everybody will accept that they come here. But they will have to accept our rules,” said ambassador Khalid Salman, a former Qatari national team player. The comments were widely condemned by western officials, including the U.S. State Department.
Advocates say that LGBTQ people in Qatar are subjected to conversion therapy, harassment by authorities and imprisonment.
“The fear is so, so real,” said Dr. Nasser Mohamed, who was raised in an ultraconservative Qatari community and applied for asylum in the U.S. over fears of retribution over his sexuality.
In a statement to NPR, the Qatari embassy said that the “safety of all visitors is of the utmost importance” to the host country and that Qatar is a “relatively conservative society.”
“Everybody will be welcome in Qatar for the World Cup,” the statement said. “We simply ask all visitors to appreciate and respect our culture, just as they would if they were traveling elsewhere in the region and in other parts of the world.”
Allegations of bribery and corruption
The selection of Qatar as World Cup host 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 won out over bids by the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Australia.
Over the years, various officials, both from FIFA and other organizations, have been accused of accepting or soliciting bribes to guide the World Cup to Qatar.
“There has been just so many allegations of corruption against the Qatari bid – of political machinations going on, in terms of government deals, gas deals between countries that would have a vote on who would host the World Cup finals,” said James Montague, a journalist who has written about Qatar and the World Cup, speaking in an interview with NPR’s Throughline.
About a dozen of the FIFA officials involved in the selection have since received bans from the organization – including its former president Blatter – or been indicted over allegations of corruption. In 2019, French soccer great and former head of European soccer Michel Platini was arrested during an investigation into a $2 million payment connected to his efforts to bring the World Cup to Qatar. Blatter and Platini have both denied wrongdoing.
A 2014 FIFA inquiry exonerated Qatari officials of any impropriety, allowing the tournament to go ahead.
The November schedule has put a strain on many players
The World Cup is traditionally held in the summer. But Qatar’s summertime heat and humidity made that untenable, and the event was instead scheduled for November. (The games will also be held in air-conditioned stadiums.)
The timing has caused major disruptions in professional soccer, especially in Europe, where most league schedules typically run from late summer through the following spring. Top professional leagues such as England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga have all announced two-month breaks to accommodate the World Cup.
That tight scheduling has caused “unprecedented workload demands” on players, according to a new report by FIFPRO, the union that represents 65,000 players worldwide.
For a typical summertime World Cup, Premier League players have historically had an average of 31 days to prepare and 37 days to recover, the report found. This year, prep and recovery time has dropped to seven and eight days, the union says.
“Overlapping competitions, consecutive back-to-back matches, extreme weather conditions, a condensed preparation period and insufficient recovery time together pose an ominous danger to player health and performance,” the report states.
Players participating in the cup will face “a really high risk” of injury, said FIFPRO consultant and exercise scientist Darren Burgess.