The World Cup is officially underway in Qatar. Here’s why it’s so controversial.

The 2022 World Cup officially kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, beginning weeks of competition in the world’s most popular sport. But even as soccer’s stars take the world stage, the first World Cup to take place in a Middle Eastern and Muslim country remains dogged by more than a decade’s worth of questions and controversies.

Among them: a global corruption scandal, the astronomical price tag of building the necessary facilities, serious human rights concerns about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and outrage over Qatar’s treatment of women and LGBTQI+ people.

So how did Qatar, a nation smaller than the state of Connecticut, win the right to host the World Cup?

“To understand that question, you have to know that football is governed by FIFA,” says Roger Bennett, the founder of Men in Blazers Media, which produces multiple soccer-focused podcasts FIFA, the International Association Football Federation, is the governing body of soccer, and is meant to “grow and safeguard the game,” according to Bennett. The World Cup, which takes place every four years, is awarded via a bidding process in which would-be host countries are invited to submit a proposal to FIFA’s Council.

READ MORE: FIFA president scolds critics of World Cup, Qatar in hour-long diatribe

In 2010, in an unusual move, FIFA awarded the rights for two tournaments at the same time – the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The winning host countries were Russia and Qatar, respectively. “There was pretty wide expectation that the United States would win that tournament,” said Sam Stejskal, who covers soccer for The Athletic. “And as we’ve learned in subsequent investigations, it wasn’t quite on the up and up.”

An investigation by the Justice Department into how soccer officials awarded television and marketing contracts led to at least 25 FIFA executives being indicted in 2015 for “their participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.” And the U.S. alleged in 2020 that officials from Russia and Qatar had bribed voting FIFA members to support their ultimately successful bids.

Adding to this, awarding two World Cups at once made “it the perfect way to maximize the amount of money being bribed,” Bennett said.
Qatari officials deny the allegations of bribery, but FIFA’s own analysis of Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup “flagged almost every asset of the Qatari bid as being dangerous,” Bennett said. This included the extreme summer temperatures, which would demand the World Cup be moved from its typical summer start to November, and the challenges of building new facilities all located in essentially one city in the country.

Bennett stressed that it’s right for Middle Eastern nations to have the opportunity to host the World Cup, but that Qatar, whose team had never qualified for a World Cup before being included by default as this year’s host, was the wrong choice. “There are Middle Eastern nations with incredible, rich footballing heritages and traditions: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, all of them deserve the right more” Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was in charge of FIFA when Qatar was awarded the World Cup, and who was accused of corruption throughout his time as head of FIFA, said the decision was a “bad choice,” although he mainly noted its small size as the reason.

To be able to host the World Cup, Qatar had to build — “Everything, in short. It’s remarkable here in Doha; you can’t escape the construction,” Steskal, who spoke to the NewsHour from Qatar.

Qatar, a nation of fewer than 3 million residents — the vast majority of whom are immigrants — estimated that it would be hosting more than 1 million fans.

Lacking the large stadiums available in nations with large national soccer leagues and programs, Qatar had to build seven new stadiums and fully rehabilitate an eighth.

To be able to host a million fans, Qatar accelerated the construction of an entire new city, Lusail, and a subway system to support it. It expanded its airport and constructed new residential buildings, hotels and more. And while the total price tag has not been made public, estimates put it over a staggering $200 billion — easily the most expensive World Cup ever.

To achieve all of this, Qatar has relied on an army of migrant workers from countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ghana and more. While Qatar says it brought in 30,000 migrant workers, that tally accounts for only those who were building stadiums. And the conditions that migrants have reported, have raised serious human rights concerns.

Anish Adhikari, a migrant worker who came to Qatar from Nepal, lured by a salary higher than Adhikari could earn at home, described the conditions to the PBS NewsHour and independent filmmakers Fat Rat Films in a recent interview. “Sometimes, the company gave us rotten food. The fish would smell disgusting. It used to give us diarrhea,” Adhikari said. “It got up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t get the water we needed. The water we got was almost 90 percent ice. We asked why they did that and told them it was impossible to drink water like that. They said they froze it because, if they provided normal water, the workers would drink more.”

The terms under which the workers have been kept in the country have also led to allegations of forced labor. “A lot of these people, their passports will be taken from them upon arrival in the country. They will not be returned to them until they submit until they finalize their contracts, Stejskal told the NewsHour. “The housing conditions, as reported, have been very, very bad in some cases. Tons of people crammed into tiny, squalid living accommodations, and there’s been a lot of deaths.”

The Qatari government says that, since 2015, 37 migrant workers have died, only three of them for work-related reasons. But, as with its estimates of the total number of workers, that count doesn’t include those building non-competition facilities, such as hotels and transit.

According to an analysis by the Guardian, which contacted embassies of nations who sent workers — India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — at least 6,750 workers have died building in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded in 2010.

And the nonprofit Human Rights Watch indicates that the Guardian’s analysis could still be an undercount, since not every nation that sent workers was contacted.

The death toll, said Bennett, is something “that the teams are now grappling with. They are going to be forced to play the game of their dreams in stadia which are literally soaked in blood.”

The outcry surrounding the tournaments has led to some public protests. Australia’s national team released a video with members of the Socceroos — its national team — walking through some of the issues around this World Cup. Denmark will make a statement with its jersey, an all-black mourning shirt, in memory of the workers who lost their lives.

And the captains of the teams from England, Germany and France were planning to wear an armband with the phrase “One Love,” with the colors similar to the LGBT pride flag, in protest of Qatar’s laws against homosexuality. This plan was scrapped after FIFA warned teams that players wearing a non-FIFA-approved armband would be given a yellow card.

But the issues around this World Cup are not unique. For example, China hosted the most recent Winter Olympics amid criticism over forced labor practices and mass detention of Uyghur Muslims.

And Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup four years after the annexation of Crimea, while backing separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine and amid allegations of anti-gay “‘purges” in the Russian Republic of Chechnya.

“It’s a pattern,” Bennett said, noting that the 1930 World Cup was hosted by Italy, then under the control of fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “The first World Cup I remember watching as a tiny kid, 1978, Argentina. The military junta used the World Cup to try and present a modern and attractive face.”

Many fans will be watching this World Cup through a kind of “split screen,” Bennett said — their love for watching soccer coexisting with the corruption, exploitation and human suffering that led to this point.

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