Qatar FIFA World Cup controversy: What you need to know

5:31 pm on 12 December 2022
FIFA World Cup controversy explainer illustration.

Photo: RNZ / Michelle Tiang

Explainer - The Qatar FIFA World Cup has been surrounded by controversy around worker's rights, same-sex relationships and allegations of corruption.

With the tiny gulf state of Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, everyone from football fans, politicians and commentators have had their say on the ethical dilemmas of this year's iteration of the world's biggest sporting event.

As the tournament reaches fever pitch and the drama around the on-field action increases, it's important not to forget the troublesome path which has led the world of football to Qatar.

Along the journey to the 2022 World Cup there have been allegations of corruption, criticism of non-inclusive laws and teams blocked from protesting on the field, so what is behind all this controversy?

RNZ is here to clear it all up.

Qatar's stance on same-sex relationships

Qatar is an Arab nation, the first to host a FIFA World Cup, and one of the most widely criticised issues at the tournament has been FIFA's decision to award hosting rights to a country where homosexuality is prohibited by law.

Qatar's official religion of Islam is interwoven within the nation's cultural and governmental leanings, with Islamic law enshrined in the country's constitution.

Under the Qatar Penal Code 2004, same-sex intercourse is criminalised and carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

The law also criminalises 'Leading, instigating or seducing a male in any way to commit sodomy' and 'inducing or seducing a male or female in any way to commit illegal or immoral actions' which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

International outrage towards the host country's non-inclusive stance was stoked in the buildup to the World Cup, when former Qatari footballer and ambassador for the tournament Khalid Salman described homosexuality as "damage in the mind" in an interview with German media.

World Cup 2022 chief executive Nasser Al Khater said Qatar was a tolerant country and LGBT+ individuals would not face "persecution of any sort".

However, many football fans and commentators have argued Qatar's stance on homosexuality does not reflect football's ethos as a game for all.

In an apparent attempt to reduce the politicisation of the issue, Qatar World Cup officials have been removing LGBTQIA+ symbols from fans entering stadiums, such as rainbow flags or clothing that induce similar imagery.

Weeks before the tournament FIFA released a statement calling for nations to "focus on the football", which drew heavy criticism from human rights organisations and commentators around the world.

On the field, many international teams that planned protests using rainbow "One Love" captain's armbands were coerced into dropping their protests before the first game kicked off, with any player wearing the symbol threatened with on-field disciplinary action through an immediate yellow card.

Germany players cover their mouths. Protest versus the ban on wearing the One Love captain's armband. World Cup 2022.

Germany players cover their mouths in a protest against the ban on wearing the One Love captain's armband at the Qatar World Cup. Photo: AFP

Deaths of migrant workers and human rights abuses

The Qatar World Cup boasts the highest infrastructure expenditure in FIFA's history, with the Qatari government spending well over $200 billion on the tournament, according to Forbes.

This incredible amount of money went into funding the construction of eight brand new stadiums, roading, accommodation and other infrastructure in Qatar's capital city of Doha, where all 64 games are being played.

With the mixture of intense investment in construction and Qatar's questionable record of worker's rights abuses, accusations of needless deaths of migrant-workers have blighted the reputation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In the buildup to Qatar 2022, thousands of migrant workers travelled to the Gulf state to take up a plethora of job opportunities created by the booming rush to create infrastructure in time for the tournament.

Many of these workers came from developing countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal.

It has been reported that many of these migrant workers have been victims of labour rights abuses, living in poor conditions, with some workers reporting being misled around the nature of their employment.

Many Qatari companies operated a system called 'Kafala', which required them to sponsor workers to enter the country but also prevented them from leaving their jobs without permission from their employer.

Some workers arriving in Qatar for engineering jobs found themselves forced into manual labour jobs, others had their passports confiscated and many lived in squalid and cramped living conditions.

Over the last decade, international pressure has seen Qatar introduce labour reforms, including the abolition of the 'Kafala' system and increases to minimum wage rates.

While there have been widespread claims that thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar, it remains unclear the exact total of deaths related to the World Cup, with reporting varying between different news outlets and NGOs.

An independent investigation from Amnesty International in 2021 claimed that as many as 15,000 migrant workers had died in World Cup-related circumstances.

Meanwhile, an investigation from The Guardian in the same year claimed a total of 6500 deaths.

However, fact checkers have deemed the results of these investigations to be misleading as they are based on official figures from Qatar and those of home nations of migrant workers relating to deaths of all migrants in the country.

A worker carries wood at a construction site at the Corniche in Doha on 16 November, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament.

A worker carries wood at a construction site at the Corniche in Doha on 16 November, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. Photo: AFP

For an extended period, Qatari authorities have claimed that during the construction of the eight stadiums in and around Doha there had been only three deaths of migrant workers in work-related events and 37 in non-work-related events. Though this claim only pertains to the construction of stadiums.

In comparison, eight workers died during the construction or refurbishment of 12 venues at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Meanwhile, a Humans Rights Watch report claimed 18 workers lost their lives on World Cup stadium sites in preparation for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

In late November 2022, the head of Qatar's World Cup organisation Hassan al-Thawadi admitted in a TV interview there have been "between 400 and 500" migrant worker deaths in wider construction related to the World Cup since 2010.

Just days later, Qatar's Supreme Committee refuted these claims with a statement saying that number referred to work-related deaths "covering all sectors and nationalities" nationwide from 2014-2022.

Human rights organisations and various football associations are continuing to push FIFA to establish a compensation fund for the families of migrant workers who have died in Qatar.

Alleged corruption in bidding process

After Qatar was awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in December 2010, questions were raised about the legitimacy of the FIFA bidding process.

The decision, which also awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia, has been dogged by accusations of widespread corruption, with two investigations launched by Swiss prosecutors and the US Department of Justice in 2015.

However, both Qatar and Russia maintained their innocence and were effectively cleared of any wrongdoing by a FIFA investigation in 2017.

In 2020, the US Department of Justice revealed details about money received by five top-level FIFA board members ahead of the vote which resulted in Russia and Qatar being awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively.

US prosecutors claimed that Qatari and Russian representatives had bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Fifa's Sepp Blatter announes Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup.

Former Fifa President Sepp Blatter announces Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup. File photo. Photo: Photosport

The New York Times reported most FIFA officials who voted on the hosting rights of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, including the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, have been accused of illegal or dishonest behaviour, though not necessarily charged with a crime.

In November 2022, the disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter said the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was a "mistake", a move which was widely deemed to be a futile attempt to distance himself from the controversy.

Blatter said he voted for the United States and blamed then-Uefa president Michel Platini for swinging the vote in Qatar's favour.

Beer ban

While alcohol and football are widely enjoyed together around the Western world, fans at the Qatar World Cup were left disappointed when its organisers reversed a decision to allow the sale of alcohol at stadiums.

Just two days before the first match kicked off, FIFA announced no alcoholic beer would be sold at stadiums.

"Following discussions between host country authorities and FIFA, a decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, removing sales points of beer from Qatar's FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters," a FIFA spokesperson said in a statement.

While the sale of alcohol is not prohibited by Islamic law in Qatar, it is heavily restricted, and it is an offence to drink alcohol or be drunk in public.

Brazil supporters drink beer as they attend the FIFA Fan Festival at Al Bidda park in Doha on 20 November, 2022, on the opening of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football tournament.

Fans are able to purchase and drink heavily marked-up beer in allocated fan-zones. Photo: AFP

The government had initially committed to relaxing its laws around the sale of alcohol for the tournament, to allow fans to drink and buy alcohol at venues.

However, after extensive negotiations between FIFA, long-time World Cup sponsor Budweiser and Qatar World Cup organisers, the deal fell through when over a million fans were already travelling to the tournament.

For many years, the Qatari organisers had promised alcohol would be widely accessible to fans but the decision left supporter groups questioning the country's ability to fulfil its commitments.

While unable to drink in venues, supporters are still able to purchase beer in designated Fan Zones at an eye-watering price of $US14 per half litre.

Meanwhile, those with VIP tickets at World Cup matches will still be able drink freely at stadium suites with FIFA advertising a selection of beers, Champagne, wines and premium spirits.

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