Time still on Fifa’s side to end Qatar fiasco and take another route

As Fifa had some sparkling World Cup news to impart Nepalese workers were dying

Migrant labourers work on a construction site  in Doha in Qatar.

Migrant labourers work on a construction site in Doha in Qatar.


Last June and a chirpy press release brought “news” of a fresh Fifa initiative: Fifa had agreed with the champagne producers, Taittinger, that its brand would be Fifa’s fizzy drink of choice for this year’s World Cup.

Taittinger positively sparkled. They proclaimed: “For the very first time in its history, a Champagne House is chosen by Fifa as the official champagne to be served to guests in Fifa’s VIP and VVIP areas.”

It gave the impression that those who populate VVIP areas must like their block capitals as well as their bubbles, as well as their bubble.

Great as it was for VIPs and Very VIPs, this “news” was delivered in the same month that another capital organisation, the International TUC – ITUC – brought some real stuff back from the building sites of Qatar. This was rather less sparkly. It was about death, inhuman conditions and trapped lives.

Last May, presumably as Fifa were talking to Taittinger about bubbles, ITUC said that 119 Nepalese workers had died on construction sites in Qatar in the previous nine months.

If that were the end of the story that would be enough: no sports event, regardless of whether or not it has Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane lending their personal credibility to it, is worth this level of human suffering.

We know, of course, that those Nepalese deaths were not the end of the story, there were young men from India too, and elsewhere.

Sensitive details
Much of this has been hard to document due to Qatari secrecy over such sensitive details but ITUC said that the numbers of Indian deaths in Qatar in the first five months of 2013 came from figures obtained of bodies being returned home. The number was 83. None was a VVIP in Fifaville.

Krishn Bahadur Sarki was one of these workers. Sarki died on May 3rd last year. ITUC know this because his body was returned to Nepal on May 22nd.

Sarki had been in Qatar since July 2011. He shared an eight-bed dormitory with other workers but did not wake up on May 3rd.

He would not be the first worker to suffer a cardiac arrest in his sleep having worked in daily temperatures that average in excess of 40 degrees during the summer months.

Along with traffic and construction accidents, cardiac arrests brought on by heat, and other unexplained deaths during sleep, are the second-biggest killer of migrant workers in Qatar. The third is suicide.

Some workers leaving Nepal and elsewhere pay a repatriation bond before departure in case of death – they know they’re not going to the Promised Land.

In Sarki’s case friends and family paid for half of the cost of his body’s return to Nepal. The company he worked for paid the other half.

Foreign workers
The population of Qatar is currently around 1.8 million, of which approximately 1.5 million are foreign workers.

The construction of infrastructure and stadia for World Cup 2022 is under way and a lot of money has been pledged and spent already, but the issue of Qatar as a venue continues to throw its suitability into question.

And the thing is: you can always turn back. No matter what road you’re on, in which country on whatever enterprise, you can always stop, realise an error, and turn around. Yet this seems to be beyond the decision-makers in Fifa even eight years before the thing begins.

Hence we had the general secretary, Jerome Valcke, this week discussing new, winter dates for the summer tournament.

It would appear that, due to the sort of temperatures that are responsible for the deaths of Asian migrant workers, the World Cup will be moved to begin in mid-November 2022.

According to Valcke it could end in mid-January. Which is 2023.

Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini have already stated their preference for the tournament to be in winter, so Valcke’s opinion is not original. But it confirms the confusion, it confirms the mistake of awarding the tournament to Qatar in the first place. This is not anti-Gulf or anti-Middles East – a 2022 tournament could be staged in May/June in Egypt for example, where the temperature is not so fierce and they have a football history and a population. Egypt would probably also welcome the investment.

Do what they want
It could yet be done because, to repeat, there is time to change course. Fifa may say that they would have to go through some process and there will doubtless be legal agreements with Qatar, but Fifa are a self-governing independent state. They do what they want and they can do so again.

Things being as they are in this world, a list of names of dead Nepalese young men may not alter actions at Fifa HQ; but cynics can understand bad news too.

Apparently there are television executives beginning to get twitchy – 8½ years before the event – and there may come a time when sponsors question Fifa’s choices.

Even champagne drinkers can think twice.

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