Go back

2022 FIFA World Cup: The Beautiful Game’s Ugly Underbelly

Published 10 Dec 2022
Oliver Owens

On December 2, 2010, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would be the host of the 2022 men’s football World Cup, a decision which sparked immediate controversy. Allegations of bribery and corruption were levelled against Blatter and other FIFA executives, Qatar faced immense criticism over its human rights record, and many became disgruntled that the tournament would be moved to November to accommodate the host nation’s searing climate. Despite the banning of Blatter and his vice-president Michel Platini from football related activities, a 2015 corruption case against other FIFA officials, and continued findings and criticism about Qatar’s LGBTQ+ and migrant labour treatment, the Middle Eastern nation has remained the World Cup’s host, and the tournament has now commenced.

The furore that has surrounded this year’s world cup for over a decade raises serious concerns about the workings of the global football economy and the interactions that its billions has with issues of corruption, internal politics, and human rights. For Qatar, whilst the issues of financial corruption relating to its winning hosting bid remain muddy and largely unknown, the scale of the human rights controversies, both historically and in relation to the tournament are clear.

In Qatar, under the Kafala labour system, migrant workers are only allowed in the country on the proviso that they are legally sponsored by their employer. The practice has been heavily criticised for creating opportunities for the exploitation of workers, essentially making them slaves to their employers across various Gulf states, and despite its removal in Qatar in January of this year, has been in place for the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure development for the World Cup. So atrocious has this system been for the working conditions of Qatar’s foreign labour force, that as of 2021, over 6500 workers had died in the country since 2010 – a significant proportion of which has been attributed to the building of stadiums, transport, hotels, and even an entire new city around the stadium which will host the tournament’s final. Additionally, Amnesty International has reported that many foreign workers were forced to live in squalid accommodation, pay unreasonable recruitment fees, and had their wages withheld and passport confiscated.

Also under criticism in relation to the World Cup is Qatar’s tolerance towards LGBTQ+ people, and to a smaller extent, its treatment of women. Organisations liaising with FIFA and the Qatari government in relation to the treatment of LGBTQ+ persons attending the World Cup suggest that progress has been hard to come by and a high degree of concern remains for the safety of those in Qatar, given the illegality of same-sex relationships in the country. Qatar has confirmed that open displays of affection are frowned upon across all social groups, and that whilst allowed, the carrying of rainbow flags and exposing of knees and shoulders should be avoided for protection throughout the tournament.

Calls for the World Cup’s cancellation or boycott have been made repeatedly, as have some mini-protests from national team players. Norway’s team expressed concern, wearing shirts that read “Human rights – on and off the pitch” in a qualifying match against Gibraltar, and more recently, Australia’s Socceroos released a video of a collective statement from players condemning Qatar’s human rights record. The message behind these stances is obviously an important one to be circulated. Pressure has mounted and all eyes are on Qatar now that the  tournament has commenced, but true to the nature of sportswashing, once the victors are crowned and the spotlight has moved on, will we still be concerned about Qatari human rights?

Clearly the tournament cannot be stopped now, and FIFA must come under the spotlight as much as Qatar. Three tournaments in a row – Brazil 2014, Russia 2018 and this year’s, have been held in nations with questionable human right records. Given the organisation’s murky financial dealings, their continued corruption allegations and charges, and their pattern of hosting events in these places, we should be suspicious of where the organisation’s heart really is. Qatar 2022 yet again shows the ugly underbelly of the world’s beautiful game, and we should be prepared to ask ourselves what sort of events we are willing to throw our support behind for our own enjoyment when these issues come to light.

Oliver Owens is a recent graduate from the Australian National University where he studied a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and a Bachelor of Visual Arts with a major in ceramics. He has previously interned at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, where his research focussed on the Australian Government’s systems which administer regulatory information for the movement of cross-border goods. He also continues to pursue his arts practice by exhibiting work in galleries across Canberra and Sydney. Oliver’s research interests in international affairs are primarily associated with issues in security and climate policy, particularly across the Indo-Pacific region.

Oliver is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.