The dark side of the FIFA World Cup

The beautiful game’s ugly secrets

Alexandra Westley

Alexandra Westley

When Qatar won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, it quickly led to a stream of controversy that remains ongoing. With sweltering temperatures during the tournament’s traditional summer slot, and comments made by FIFA’s own Secretary General Jérôme Valcke, it appears many major leagues will potentially have to be rescheduled for the first ever winter World Cup – an organisational nightmare.

It’s not the first time Sepp Blatter’s FIFA has had problems of this sort, and past allegations of corruption from the media have certainly done little to help the federation’s image. Brazil’s preparation for the hosting of the World Cup this summer has already been rife with problems and six stadiums missed FIFA’s deadline for completion. One stadium, Curitiba, has been described as ‘critically’ behind schedule by Valcke.

Workers’ deaths and construction catastrophes – such as a crane collapse – have plagued the Itaquerão and other stadiums, and employees regard the building site at Manaus as ‘rated zero for safety’.

It is these workers’ safety that continues to make headlines, and in Qatar, they have it worse. There is an ongoing fear surrounding the construction industry for the 2022 World Cup that hasn’t been laid to rest by months of Blatter’s reassurances – fears which were initially given their global voice through The Guardian’s investigation all the way back in September.

The article depicts how Nepalese workers died almost daily during the stifling summer in Qatar, with many claiming to have had their basic human rights impeached, telling horror stories of abuse, denial of drinking water and being tricked and exploited in a manner that stinks of modern day slavery.

Sepp Blatter’s claims after meeting the country’s emir that Qatar was now “on the right track” to deal with worker’s rights did little to reduce the growing unease surrounding the event.

The pressure on FIFA was kept alive by an Amnesty International report that was published just one week later in November, focussing on how a tolerant legal environment allowed for the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers by their employers. The “simply inexcusable” revelations led Amnesty general secretary Salil Shetty to state that “FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup.”

So what is keeping workers from just leaving the whole thing behind? The answers lie in the kafala sponsorship system of labour, which binds immigrants to their employers, so that a builder cannot work for another company or be allowed to leave the country whilst in such a contract.

As if that wasn’t enough, some workers claim that they have been lied to, left unpaid, or not given ID cards – which effectively gives them illegal immigrant status, leaving them even more powerless.

At the end of last month it was confirmed that at least 185 workers from Nepal alone died during 2013 building the infrastructure for the sporting event – a figure which is expected to rise as new cases continue to come to light.

Amid a clamour for FIFA’s sponsors to reconsider their support for an organisation with links to such a cruel industry, the chief executive of the World Cup organising committee Hassan al-Thawadi vowed that the competition would not be built “on the blood of innocents”.

Jérôme Valcke has now given the committee a deadline of 12th February to workers in Qatar, before a hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels the next day. But is it too little, too late?

It’s clear that once again, FIFA’s image has been tarnished by a seemingly lacklustre effort to ensure the positive running of events. For FIFA, it’s time to change the game.

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