Should Fifa withdraw from Qatar?

Conor Heffernan


In the aftermath of the recent draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, media attention appears to have shifted away from recent allegations surrounding human rights abuses in Qatar. However, in the face of human rights abuses and allegations of modern slavery, the question should remain as to whether or not the football governing body Fifa have a moral obligation to withdraw the 2022 World Cup from Qatar? Arguably yes. Will they withdraw? If history is anything to go by, the answer appears to be no.

The allegations of modern slavery in Qatar are far reaching, extending not only to the workers constructing the stadiums for the Qatar World Cup, but also footballers within the country. There are allegations of unpaid wages for labourers, passports being seized to stop movement of labour and appalling working conditions that have led to the deaths of a number of Nepalese labourers. Those who complain to their employers about their conditions have allegedly been met with violence or contempt. The problem revolves around the fact that exit visas are required to leave Qatar. Who is often responsible for such visas? An employer or sponsor? What happens when the employer holds all the power? In one word, slavery. Such a system is not unique to Qatar but this system has been the undoing of many labourers wishing to leave and has also affected the world of football.

In November 2013, Zahir Belounis, a French-Algerian soccer player based in Qatar finally gained an exit visa. He had been unable to leave the country for more than two years because of a contract dispute with his former club, El Jaish. Belounis’s situation was so dire that he contemplated hunger strikes and even committing suicide. What was Fifa’s response to the situation? Avoidance. Fifa opted out of the controversy on the basis that Belounis began his legal process in Qatar instead of through their own channels. Fifa retained its status of being apolitical.

While many in both footballing bodies, Uefa and Fifa declare that the organisations are apolitical, the reality appears to be anything but. Football is unfortunately not divorced from politics or monetary concerns. And while people may argue that the days of Fifa hosting a World Cup in a totalitarian state (Italy 1934) are over, recent dealings by Fifa have shown that the interests of local populations appear to be of little importance.

If the last World Cup in South Africa is anything to go by, the interests of Fifa outweigh the interests of locals. While Fifa, a non-profit organisation, earned billions in tax-free revenue, local sellers were excluded from selling within a 1.5 km radius of stadiums. This was despite expectations from South Africans that the World Cup would provide a much-needed boost to the local economy. Not only this but Fifa had the right to fine local businesses, restrict hawkers from selling unauthorised Fifa products, ban the sale of beverages or other products of non-sponsoring companies within this certain radius. Even more scandalously, South Africa agreed to set up 54 special courts (‘Fifa Courts’) to handle World Cup related offences, such as hooliganism or playing live games on TV in public places without obtaining special Fifa licences. Indeed, it is an apolitical institution. Myopic greed on the part of the footballing body does not bode well for those calling for Fifa to withdraw from Qatar.

This is not an isolated incident, as recent rioting in Brazil during the Confederations Cup this year showed the unrest a World Cup could ignite. Although the Brazilian protesters had a multitude of grievances, their main complaints centred around the contrast between new World Cup stadiums being built and the dire state of Brazilian public services. The construction of stadiums for the tournament allegedly resulted in nearly 700 families in Rio de Janeiro, mostly in low-income communities, being displaced by World Cup-related construction. Such is the anger felt by locals and politicians alike that Romario (yes that Romario), now a Brazilian Congressman, has recently come out and accused Fifa of ‘robbing Brazil’.

So have local concerns changed Fifa attitudes? Blatter, the acting head of Fifa, has reacted to such outrages with thinly veiled appeals for calm and repeats his assertion that Brazil will be ready for the World Cup. While Fifa may present itself as apolitical, it’s inference in host countries day-to-day politics is anything but.

So how has Fifa, an apolitical organisation, become involved in such a political situation? The answer appears to revolve around money and political pressure. Regarding money, the bidding process of the World Cup System is highly dubious. The Fifa Executive Committee has 24 members who vote in rounds to decide host nations for World Cups.

Each member of the committee then goes out to each bidding country and appears to have an obligation to extract as many gifts as possible. One need only cast their mind back to England’s failed World Cup bid and the outcry regarding £230 gift bags given to each of the Fifa delegates in the understanding that this was the done thing to garner support. The controversy emerged when Fifa delegate, Jack Warner returned his bag to the English FA because he was unaware accepting the gift pledged his support to the English World Cup Bid. The English FA also paid for accommodation and meals for each Fifa delegate but this was ‘within Fifa accepted bounds’. These bounds appear vague in practice, often referred to as simply symbolic gifts. England spent £35,000 paying for the Caribbean Football Union’s gala dinner in an attempt to gain their vote for the 2018 World Cup.  Is this too a symbolic gift? Is this merely an act of kindness by the English FA?

While such accepted bribery apparently has a limit, there are now allegations that the son of African Fifa delegate Amos Adamu, was offered $1m by Qatar to host a gala dinner ahead of the vote to decide 2022 World Cup. It is unlikely this was a coincidence. Qatar also spent roughly £1million sponsoring the Confederation of African Football’s congress. Money either openly or clandestinely appears to direct Fifa’s decision-making.

Along with this, Fifa hire an outside consulting company to run an extensive bid analysis and they rank each city based on seven criteria. Where did Qatar rank in terms of World Cup bids for 2022? Last. So is money the sole determinant in this process? Yes and no. While the bidding process appears largely determined by who can buy the most delegates, other factors appear to be at play.

In an interview with German magazine Die Zeit, Fifa President Sepp Blatter revealed that Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup was won with the help of “political influences” from prominent figures in Europe. Blatter claimed this was from European leaders who recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar, because of major economic interests in their respective countries. Yet of the 24 Fifa delegates, only 3 of the eleven members who voted for Qatar were from Europe.

It would perhaps be more apt to say that Qatar’s global investment in Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East has shown the importance of politics for all voting members, and not just those from Europe. Maintaining that it was solely European political pressure that resulted Qatar’s successful bid is not only factually wrong, it is misleading. Football like, politics, is now a global issue. It is just unfortunate Fifa seems unable to completely divorce football from global politics. It is important to remember that Fifa was fiercely apolitical in the Belounis case and submissive regarding Qatar’s bid. Contradictions reign supreme in Fifa house.

If Fifa’s recent behaviour is anything to go by, local human rights issues (and abuses in the case of Qatar) will not deter them. The next World Cups after Brazil, in Russia and Qatar respectively, have the potential to be very damaging to football. Neither State is known for respecting human rights. What will the future of the World Cup bring?

In an interview this year Blatter told us

“The Fifa World Cup…is bound to bring people together. There are no differences in football; social classes don’t exist”

Social classes may not exist in football, but a modern-day slave system certainly does in Qatar. Will Fifa withdraw from Qatar due to human rights abuses? Recent history presents a very grim answer.