Since 2010, the leadup to this World Cup has been mired in concerns that have challenged both Qatar and FIFA’s standing. Among them are the scheduling of the World Cup in the middle of the big European league seasons (to beat the Middle Eastern summer), Qatar’s labour and migrant worker standards around construction of infrastructure, and Qatar’s apparent disrespect for gender equality or LGBTQ+ rights.
But while the details in this case are different, the football World Cup has seen controversy before.
In fact, it’s hard to find a staging of the tournament in the modern era (circa 1974 onwards) that hasn’t been in some way tainted by the vast sums of money in play and the political benefits up for grabs.
What is different in 2022 is the impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had on the sporting world. Almost overnight, open expressions of support by athletes and fans for Ukraine across numerous major sporting events have broken down the wall between free speech and sport.
What used to be frowned upon, or even outlawed, is now acceptable and even encouraged.
Former Socceroo and human rights activist Craig Foster argues the tide is turning.
“The world’s players will need to take greater responsibility for how their game conducts itself, particularly former players,” he says. “Unfortunately, FIFA has always shut the mouths of the world’s greatest players with money, prestige [and] awards.”
The treatment of mostly migrant workers in Qatar as part of the construction effort for the World Cup has intensified as the event gets closer. Amnesty International reported in August 2021 that there were over 15,000 deaths of migrant workers in Qatar between 2010 and 2019.
While Amnesty notes that Qatari authorities have made improvements, such as reforming the ‘kafala’ system of rortable worker sponsorships, “thousands of workers have been subjected to serious exploitation and labour abuse, sometimes amounting to forced labour”.
Foster argues: “We have a World Cup soaked in the blood of vulnerable workers caught in a modern slave trade. By my calculation, each goal scored will have been created by the corpses of around 193 migrant workers.”
An ongoing corruption trial of former UEFA chief Michel Platini and former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter in Switzerland only adds to the perception of a widening gap between the overseers of the world game and its huge, global fan base.
FIFA began to take its current shape in 1974, when Brazilian sports administrator and businessman Joao Havelange was voted in as president on an openly expansionist agenda. Basing his ambitions on Americanised big-money sport and seeking to challenge the ubiquitous presence of the Olympic Games, Havelange, who died aged 100 in 2016, revolutionised football.
As a former Brazilian Olympic official, he knew well the power of sports to not only unite people but gather sponsors and, with the burgeoning medium of international TV broadcasts, football was a winning bet.
In 1974, FIFA was a fairly sleepy organisation of around a dozen employees and a small office set up in Zurich. According to Havelange: “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty.
“On the day I departed 24 years later [in 1998], I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion. Not too bad, I’d say.”
In its 2021 Annual Report, FIFA says it is “well on track to exceed its projected revenue target of $US6.4 billion” for the 2019-2022 budget cycle.
But money was only the beginning of Havelange’s takeover. He quickly went about centralising FIFA and making its administration untouchable. Part of this was exercising football’s vast reach to become the leading go-to soft power device across the globe.
The practice of sportswashing – whereby leaders manipulate sporting events for political gain – has become part of every government’s survival kit.
Pielke notes that while the money is significant, “when looking at real businesses, it is tiny. The issue is more the concentration of power and the general lack of accountability.”
But challenges are now coming from the players themselves, who might seem to have as much as anyone to gain from the status quo.
Current Tottenham Hotspur and England captain Harry Kane recently said that he was speaking with other leading international players about making an expression about the issues surrounding the Qatar event, perhaps even during the event.
“When we come to a decision of something we want to do, for sure, we will share it,” he told reporters. “I think it will be important to do it collectively. I feel like it will be a bit more of a stance, a bit more power.”
Major international teams have made statements during World Cup qualifying games.
The Socceroos too have been pondering their stance. Football Australia told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that they are “currently engaged in education and dialogue with multiple stakeholders on this topic”, but were unwilling to go into details at this point.
The co-chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Kathryn Gill, said: “If football is to be a genuine force for good, the sport needs to take responsibility when human rights are violated.”
The PFA “will continue to work with the players and experts to ensure we play our part in ensuring a lasting legacy.”
FIFA has rules in place to outlaw any form of political or rights-based statement in the middle of, say, a World Cup match. Law 4 states that it is against the rules to include “any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images” on team uniforms.
FIFA’s Disciplinary Code and its Code of Ethics can also be invoked to block any form of political expression during FIFA events.
The organisation has recently changed its rules to include “permitted slogans, statements or images” if each team and the competition organiser agree.
Whether these changes can head off the possibility that players, teams or fans will “go rogue” in Qatar and freely express their views on human rights, FIFA or their general dissatisfaction with the way the game is being run remains to be seen.
J.J. Rose’s new novel Game, focusing on the Qatar World Cup hosting bid, is released next week.
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