Qatar world cup: a dilemma that ought to be easy to resolve

A lot has been talked about the football world cup that starts today in Qatar. Questions like ‘Should it have been awarded to Qatar?’, ‘How many construction workers have really been killed and injured?’ and ‘Where does having a global sporting event in a state where same-sex relationships are illegal leave the fight for sexual equality?’ are all reasonable, but they don’t address the fundamental question of what sports fans should do over the next month: to watch, or not to watch?

I was in Qatar in December 2006 for the Asian Games, a continent-wide mini-Olympics with a range of sports open to Asian athletes only. I covered the tennis, and it was a fascinating experience in which Asian tennis players were allowed to shine the way they normally don’t on the global men’s and women’s tours. But it was also a troubling one.

Near our hotel was a building site, where Tamil construction workers from Sri Lanka were ferried in every day in a decrepit yellow American school bus. Because I much prefer walking when working at events where I’m sedentary for much of the day, I shunned the official transport and walked to the Games’ hub from where I entered the credential zone and made my way to the tennis.

On that daily walk I saw a number of things that make it very easy to believe that the number of construction workers killed in building the eight stadiums that make up the 2022 world cup venues is way above the already horrendous estimates of 6000-7000 that international human rights groups are giving. These are migrant workers, brought in reportedly for very low wages, who never make it home. Others do make it home, but with injuries sustained in building ‘accidents’ that they may never recover from, and with little or no financial support in many eastern Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Last week, German television broadcast a documentary in which the former German international Thomas Hitzlsperger went to Nepal to speak with families who have lost relatives on the Qatari building sites, or are now looking after family members with horrific injuries. One of his motives in making the documentary was to drum up some money to pay for the support such people need to live out the rest of their days (in many cases another five decades) in some comfort and dignity.

Hitzlsperger is one of the few top-level footballers to come out as gay, and the only former Premier League footballer to have done so to date. That adds piquancy to the documentary, and emphasises that the common thread running through the various criticisms of the Qatar world cup (abuse of migrant workers, LGBT+, questionable aspects of the bidding process, and more) are all to do with human dignity, or the lack of it.

If we in the UK rename and remove icons in Bristol named after Edward Colston because much of his wealth was generated through slavery, if we have debates over where William Gladstone stands given his family’s connection with slavery, if we have heated discussions over whether Cecil Rhodes should be commemorated given his role in colonising Africa, how can we possibly sit and watch a leisure pursuit that attracts large sums of money in the developed world that is being played out in a state that doesn’t recognise the dignity of people loving each other and which abuses thousands of migrant workers? It feels like the height of first-world arrogance.

I have an image in my mind of a migrant worker back in eastern Asia, barely able to get out of bed, his family unable to feed him, all because he went to Qatar and worked in dangerous conditions on a football stadium building site. I know no sporting event is ever 100% clean, and as someone who works in sports journalism and broadcasting I have probably commentated from stadiums that have been controversial and possibly the subject of some corruption. But that image of the maimed worker means that, professional journalist or not, I cannot watch this world cup.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • George Thomas 20th Nov '22 - 12:49pm

    I think in this instance any action we take needs to be assessed by its lasting outcome for the most vulnerable people living in Qatar/working in Qatar.

    Peter Tatchell’s recent protest was brave but, apparently, he was asked not to take that step by LGBTQ+ Qatari citizens because they feared suffering retribution; David Beckham is adding to his enormous personal wealth by tying his image and name to this World Cup without any hint he’s raising valid concerns; others will have their actions judged in 12, 24, 36 months, but sadly this debate about what action is right isn’t anything new.

    I do somewhat understand FIFA raising Western hypocrisy as our governments continue to work with nations with shocking human rights records and allow for individuals seeking asylum to live in shocking conditions without the level of criticism directed at FIFA. Or how protestors were arrested for spilling fake blood onto London pavements in 2012, or how conversations about Colston and Gladstone have only become more mainstream within last 2 years and hasn’t always led to any action being taken, or how Saudi Arabia owns a premier league football club, or …

    Would there be questions being raised about human rights in Qatar without World Cup going there? Has there been enough change within past 12 years even as these conversations have ramped up? What lessons have been learnt for when Saudi Arabia or China inevitably gets awarded the next major tournament?

  • Martin Gray 20th Nov '22 - 1:07pm

    As we’ve seen with Virgin Atlantic & many prominent sports commentators – it’s virtue signalling only when it suits …We have values – but are flexible dependant on the price…
    The actions of the Chinese & Saudi governments will continue with the West’s muted condemnation…
    The stench of hypocrisy is almost overpowering…

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