A different World Cup

Meanwhile, fans of the beautiful game will lay back and enjoy the spectacle, little bothering about all that has happened for the World Cup to be held in Qatar

The Qatar World Cup is shining a light on migrant deaths and human rights challenges for the vast migrant workforce in the region
The Qatar World Cup is shining a light on migrant deaths and human rights challenges for the vast migrant workforce in the region

The world’s fascination with football is difficult to explain. Some call it ‘the beautiful game’. Others claim that its popularity comes from two facts: it is simple to understand its rules – except perhaps for the notorious offside rule – and it is an almost perfect balance between skill and luck.

In many other sports, the better contestant is almost guaranteed to win. Not so in football in which victories by small teams against the much bigger ones are more possible. The subtleties involved in the game are also a big attraction. Many believe that playing football teaches people to learn how to win and lose gracefully. Working hard towards a worthy goal and paying the price of self-sacrifice is also learned by playing football – except for football hooligans, of course.

One also recalls the famous comparison between rugby and football made by Oscar Wilde, which perhaps sums it all up: “Rugby is a game for barbarians played by gentlemen. Football is a game for gentlemen played by barbarians.”

There is no doubt that the FIFA World Cup is a world football feast that the followers of the game enjoy every four years.

It was 12 years ago that former FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood at a podium in Zurich and prepared the convened dignitaries for the second World Cup host announcement of the night. Moments earlier, Russia had been awarded the 2018 World Cup. Then he turned his attention to 2022. Blatter listed the candidates – Australia, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and the USA – before delivering the line that has echoed endlessly since then: “The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.”

The decision was more widely understood much later, when the United States Department of Justice said FIFA officials had taken bribes to secure hosting rights in both Russia and Qatar. At the time, though, the news itself was stunning.

The most popular sporting event in the world was headed to a tiny Arabian Gulf state that lacked a prevalent soccer culture and was subject to a scorching summer heat. Moreover it had an inadequate infrastructure and concerns about the country’s track record with human rights – both issues that theoretically should have served as immediate disqualifiers.

A peninsula that juts out from the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into the Arabian Gulf, Qatar has an area of 11,581 sq.km and a total population of 2.7 million, with only some 313,000 of them being Qatari citizens while the rest are expatriates, mainly from Asian countries.

For Qatar, the World Cup is a most significant opportunity, part of a decades-long strategy for the oil-rich nation to establish itself on the world stage, acquire soft power and jump-start the process of diversifying its economy.

Many have claimed that the organisation of the World Cup in Qatar is an example of so-called ‘sportswashing’ – a derogatory phrase applied to any country or regime with questionable human rights records or autocratic rulers who use their financial clout to acquire major roles within the sporting world. The irony is that although such attempts are intended to deflect attention away from human rights abuses and lack of freedom, the links with sport have had the opposite effect because they intensify the focus on those issues.

An incident in which a Danish TV reporter was shut down live on air as he reported from Doha, Qatar a few days ago made it to the international news and continued to exacerbate the bad human rights record of the Qatar authorities.

Without foreign workers, Qatar would not have been able to build the fantastic football stadiums in which the World Cup will be played. These workers were subject to a controversial sponsorship system which means that they needed their employer to get permission to enter Qatar. Human Rights Watch has documented how this sponsorship system facilitates abuse and exploitation. Employers have unlimited power to secure and renew the residency and work permits of migrant workers, and their ability to cancel these permits at any time and to allow – or refuse – the immigrant worker to leave or change jobs.

Claims on the number of deaths directly related to work on the World Cup stadiums are not reliable – but according to a new report from an international human rights research group, migrant workers constructing stadiums for the World Cup endured labour exploitation and human rights violations.

According to a report made by Equidem – a human rights and labour rights international NGO – migrants from Africa and Asia working on the eight new World Cup stadiums suffered abuses at the hands of major construction firms, including wage theft, physical assault and inadequate nutrition. The World Cup organising committee denies these allegations.

Earlier this week, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in an interview that it was “a mistake” in 2010 to award Qatar the World Cup: “It is too small a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for it,” Blatter told Tamedia – a Swiss newspaper group.

Blatter’s change of heart cannot be taken but with a pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, fans of the beautiful game will lay back and enjoy the spectacle, little bothering about all that has happened for the World Cup to be held in Qatar.

Under his watch

Prime Minister, Robert Abela, tackled the issue of impunity from legal action in an interview that was published in the Sunday Times of Malta two weeks ago in an intriguing way.

Although he did not say as much, his underlying message was that there is a difference between abuses made under his watch and abuses made before he became Prime Minister. He argued that abuses made under his watch were always investigated with action being taken against the alleged abuser as the laws provide.

A recent spate of court cases instituted by the Police seems to bear out that the Prime Minister was genuine about this. This is intriguing. The law does not differentiate between criminals and abusers on the basis of who was the Prime Minister when an illegality occurred.

The number of instances when the police closed their eyes to abuses under the Muscat regime are too numerous to be counted. No action was ever taken by the police on most of them. That many of these can be pursued even at this late stage does not seem to bother Robert Abela. For him it is a closed chapter.

But it isn’t.