Una Mullally: Decent football fans must call out Qatar’s corruption

Beauty of sport coated in blood of migrant workers and tainted by broadcast rights

In 2013, I was in Nepal working on a piece about domestic slavery, and travelling to very remote parts of the country to meet young women who were telling me about their experiences. It was, as the messier side of humanity tends to be, equal parts distressing and life-affirming.

One meeting I had with a group of women there keeps returning to me of late. The topic of conversation wasn't slavery, it was about how women in a small village had taken control over the finances and trade of the place, and created a cooperative model. Prior to this innovation, the village was dealing with rolling financial scandals – small in scale but seismic for a place where it's hard to get by - due to corruption, theft and nepotism. As we chatted about what kind of conditions foster corruption, I asked them why there were so few young men around. They said that all of their sons and brothers were gone. To where? Qatar.

It took a second for the penny to drop, but when it did, the grimness of the situation crystallised. Their sons were working as labourers on the World Cup infrastructure for the farce of a tournament in 2022. I was looking at slavery in Nepal, but these young men were being exported to another kind of slavery somewhere else. There’s a lot of chatter about a joint Irish World Cup bid at the moment, but every time Qatar 2022 comes up, I’m still astonished that it got this far. In spite of everything we know, the tournament kept jimmying through the gaps, and will happen. It is an absolute failure of decency, and shows how tolerant the world of football is of corruption.

Like all art and culture, of which sport is a part, the thing itself tends to be beautiful, but the industry that coalesces around it tends to be its shadow; corrupt, unfair, ugly. By February 2021, about 6,500 migrant workers from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since they “won” the World Cup “bid”. This analysis, carried out by the Guardian, is thought to underestimate the total significantly. The stadiums, the new airport, the hotels and roads, are coated with the blood of poor young men who have toiled in intense heat to create fake places for fake heroes to play. Presumably some of those young men who died spent their childhoods dreaming of becoming professional footballers too. The Qatar World Cup organising committee says 38 workers have died on World Cup construction projects, which is obviously a nonsense.


Rotten tournament

Qatar hosting a world cup, and using it as a proxy to reinvent a country and spend about €260 billion on doing so, is an immense form of sport-washing. Everything about the tournament is rotten. From discrimination against fans, to the torrid working conditions of those who have built this new version of Qatar, to the metaphor for climate chaos the tournament will be, with intense heat and air-conditioned stadiums, to the oppression and human rights abuses.

Qatar hosting a world cup, and using it as a proxy to reinvent a country and spend about €260 billion on doing so, is an immense form of sport-washing

Countries are at where they’re at, everything has a context. The pious “western” stance on human rights is also totally hypocritical as it often does not include a context on how so much oppression around the world stems from brutal colonialism nor the vast array of contemporary abuses. But that doesn’t mean Qatar should be seen as some kind of beacon of progression or change because they’re getting a tournament over the line. How can people look past how this has happened?

Corruption in sport is awkward because sport is great. You can’t blame people for wanting to look the other way. We may not want to think about the bad bits of what is such a fun tournament generally, but successfully blocking out the noise to enjoy it is merely a declaration about how the issues it raises don’t affect you.

Human rights abuses

Every piece of journalism about Qatar 2022 should focus on the loss of life endured by those who built it, the corruption and allegations of bribery that led to it, and the human rights abuses that are characteristic of Qatari society, from the toil of migrant workers to the oppression of LGBT people and straight women. The idea that politics doesn’t or even shouldn’t come into football is a nonsense. You can’t fragment various parts of life and suspend them in separate bubbles. Yet that form of delusional compartmentalisation is what’s winning here.

The refusal of so many to connect with the fact that what they seek quick thrills from has a human cost elsewhere

So what will win out? Inevitably, money. Inevitably, broadcasting rights. Inevitably, the refusal of so many people to connect with the fact that what they seek quick thrills from has a human cost elsewhere. And inevitably, football's brand of patriarchy will win. Because if you're a straight woman or a queer person, Qatar is not your friend. "I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities," top lad Sepp Blatter remarked, regarding gay fans travelling to Qatar to watch football.

Selfishly and petulantly, I also hate that the 2022 World Cup is ruined for me. I understand that people might love football so much and care so little about what gets in the way of it that, come the time, there may be little room for those asking for a reality check, and that it’ll be seen as taking the good out of something. But it’s the organisations, individuals and corrupt systems who colluded in this rolling scandal that took the good out of it. It’s up to decent fans to keep calling that out.