Ever since FIFA named Qatar the 2022 World Cup host in 2010, the nation’s human rights abuses have been oozing into global consciousness. And some prominent members of the soccer world are speaking out.
Before the games began on Sunday, Nov. 20, Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes made clear that he understood the political context: “We know the surroundings of the World Cup, about the people that have died on the construction of the stadiums. We are not happy about that at all.” Christian Eriksen seconded his teammate, but with reservation: “There’s a lot of focus on why it’s in Qatar. I don’t agree with how it’s happened, but we’re footballers and we play football. Change has to come from somewhere else.”
The U.S. men’s national team installed a rainbow-clad logo at its training facility to demonstrate support for the LGBTQ+ community. (Same-sex relationships are a crime in Qatar, punishable by seven years in prison.) U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson said, “We are a group who believes in inclusivity, and we will continue to project that message.”
Phillip Lahm, a World Cup champion with Germany in 2014, bluntly noted, “The choice of Qatar was a mistake.”
Meanwhile, FIFA President Gianni Infantino had the gall to co-sign a letter to all participating World Cup teams advising them to leave politics behind and focus on football. FIFA also put the kibosh on Denmark’s plan to wear shirts to training that read, “Human Rights for All” (“Menskeregetteigs for alle,” in Danish) because FIFA deemed the garments political.
Qatar has spent $220 billion preparing for the World Cup, an all-time record. No expense was spared, except, of course, when it came to labor costs. As human rights organizations have amply documented, migrant workers have endured an array of exploitative circumstances, from abominable housing conditions to delayed or unpaid wages to forced labor.
Qatar has come under criticism for its kafala system for migrant workers. This worker-sponsorship program had long forced migrant laborers to surrender their passports to their employers and rendered them unable to change jobs. Under pressure, Qatar agreed in 2017 to reform the kafala system. In 2020, the country passed a new labor law, but human rights groups have slammed Qatar for lack of enforcement of the new law.
This is a moment that cries out for what we can call “smart solidarity.” Human Rights Watch’s #PayUpFIFA campaign is a great place to start. It is providing $440 million – the same amount that FIFA gives to teams that successfully advance in the tournament – to migrant workers and their families. Creating a permanent workers’ center in Qatar – an idea supported by the international players’ union (FIFPRO) and the Building and Wood Workers’ International – is another worthy project.
Billions will watch the World Cup. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness. More players speaking out would aid in this effort.