Skip to main content

The case for

Cancelling the World Cup

Fireworks over the Khalifa International Stadium in 2017. Neville Hopwood/Getty Images

Should Qatar really be hosting it in 2022?

Isnt David Beckham fronting it?
Yes. “Golduneballs,” as The Sun is now calling him, is taking up an ambassadorial role for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. He’ll net a cool £150m for his troubles. “The hope is more westerners will be encouraged to see its beautiful beaches, vast expanses of sand dunes and incredible skyscrapers,” a source told the newspaper.

What’s wrong with that?
Beckham’s winning smile can’t hide gas-rich Qatar’s human rights abuses. Rape victims can face seven years in jail for having sex outside marriage. Homosexuality is illegal and carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. (Becks, apparently, has been reassured pro-LGBT rainbow flags can be flown in stadiums.) Thousands of migrant workers are thought to have died raising eight stadiums from the desert in sweltering 50C temperatures. And because of that heat, the tournament has been moved from the summer to the winter – disrupting domestic seasons in Europe and elsewhere. Even Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former head of Fifa, has said handing the sport’s showpiece to the Gulf state was a mistake. “But one makes a lot of mistakes in life.”

How did we get here?
In 2010 Qatar’s bid seemed as improbable as a Jamaican bobsleigh team. Then bribes of $1.5m were bunged to Fifa delegates, according to whistleblower Phaedra Almajid, who was on the emirate’s bid team. What’s more, Russia and Qatar reportedly agreed to back each other’s bids while tying up an energy deal. The Sunday Times alleged that a Qatari, Mohammed bin Hammam, made payments worth $5m to African football officials to win support. Following a lunch with Qatar’s crown prince in 2010, France’s then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is thought to have persuaded former France captain Michel Platini, then Uefa’s president, to switch his vote from the US to Qatar. Platini, who along with Blatter was later banned from football because of another corruption scandal, insists he just wanted to take the World Cup to a new region.

How rich is Qatar?
Rich enough to splash more on the 2022 tournament than every other World Cup and Olympics combined, says David Goldblatt in Prospect. The tiny city-state – essentially just Doha’s shimmering bay – has spent an easy $250bn on flashy stadiums, a swanky metro system and new hotels. So many needle-thin skyscrapers have gone up, at such a rate, that befuddled taxi drivers can’t find them on GPS. Qatar’s population is a piddling 2.9 million, but it leads the world in income per capita.

Has it always been so glitzy?
Until a few decades ago Qatar was a dust-blown backwater. The weekly plane that brought mail in the late 1950s sometimes didn’t even bother to land, dropping letters by parachute instead. In the 19th century Qatar’s founding leader, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, called the country the “Kaaba of the dispossessed” – after the revered black cube at the Great Mosque in Mecca. His Qatar became a lodestar for those seeking refuge across the Arabian Peninsula. Migrants account for 90% of Qatar’s population, and three-quarters of them are male.

What changed?
In 1995 the thrusting Sheikh Hamad deposed his father, Sheikh Khalifa. Two years later he began to export the country’s vast reserves of liquid gas, discovered in 1971. Five-star hotels, freeways and the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera followed, while little desert communities of pearl divers and fishermen were paved over. Hamad gave Qatar its “signature architectural style, Five-Star Soullessness”, says Simon Kuper in the Financial Times. Sheikh Hamad made the country’s first foray into World Cup bids, imported antiquities from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and riled rival sheikhdoms by funding Islamist uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

What happened to the dispossessed?
They kept coming. “Qataris are as hooked on cheap labour as they are on fuel,” says Kuper. But they were treated terribly. Qatar takes it for granted that Indians and Nepalis will come in, surrender their passports, do dangerous construction work and live packed in dusty huts for miserable (and sometimes no) pay. In February a bombshell Guardian report alleged that 6,500 migrant workers had died working on infrastructure projects in Qatar since it had been awarded the World Cup – roughly one for every minute of football to be played at the tournament. “The blood and sweat of Nepalis have been mixed in every development project in Qatar,” one worker told CNN. Qatar claims there have been just three fatalities related to work on stadiums, and 35 non-work-related deaths.

Why hasn’t Qatar 2022 been cancelled?
Money. The English Premier League doesn’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to human rights: it has clubs owned by Saudis (Newcastle) and Emiratis (Manchester City). Qatar owns Paris Saint-Germain, the French megaclub that now employs Lionel Messi. The sad truth is that much of football, and indeed Boris Johnson’s run-down Britain, is desperate to attract wealthy foreign investors, not to reject them. Nor have boycotts had much clout since the end of apartheid and the Cold War. Government threats about swerving the 2018 World Cup in Russia after the Salisbury poisonings came to nothing.

What do Qataris think?
Many of Qatar’s 250,000 or so nationals feel just as lost, says Kuper. “The sleepy desert town they once knew is gone. The UK chose Brexit partly because 8.5% of the population is foreign; imagine a country where 90% is.” Many Qataris grumble that pork is sold legally, that English has displaced Arabic in schools and that women are getting uppity. Treats such as the World Cup are what keep them happy – just. So the emir is willing to pay the price. What’s more, a labour reform programme is belatedly under way. “The World Cup, for the first time ever, has created international scrutiny of this country,” says Kuper. But can that really justify what Amnesty International has called a “World Cup of Shame”?