Every four years, the best soccer teams in the world dominate national and international headlines. Today’s Argentina-Croatia match and tomorrow’s France-Morocco game have drawn particular attention as established stars and newcomers compete for the FIFA World Cup. The tournament is always anticipated with excitement, but this time around, there was also nervousness and fear.
Qatar is known for violating human rights, and its election as World Cup host came accompanied by unfulfilled promises and questionable acts. Qatar is a country that was unprepared to be a host when it was chosen, so stadiums had to be built. Workers were underpaid, and several died working due to the high temperatures of the country.
FIFA tried to convince fans that the World Cup in Qatar was not going to be a problem, but there has been controversy. And though the dramatic matches, and impelling soccer storylines, have risen above the location across the last three weeks, there are still issues at play.
Qatar is a country where homosexuality is illegal, women need permission from their male guardians to get married, study, work and travel. Qatar announced LGBTQ symbols are prohibited, premarital sexual relations are punishable for up to seven years (including for traveling fans). FIFA turned down Denmark’s request to wear a human rights-related slogan on their jerseys. Several captains will wear LGBTQ armbands, which could be an issue due to Qatar’s stance on homosexuality. FIFA had said alcohol would be available at stadiums, but just two days before the tournament, Qatar said it was banned.
Then, there are the sporting factors. The World Cup, which began Nov. 20 with Qatar losing to Ecuador, has always been played during the summer after the club season ends. Players finish their club duties and have some time to prepare with their teams. They compete in the World Cup and return to club season roughly a month after the final. This time, that was not possible. Qatar’s temperature in summer is unsustainable for players, so it had to be moved to fall. Players began their seasons with their clubs and stopped midway. They had a week to prepare in between, and they will have as little as two days before they return to their clubs after the final. For these reasons, spectators can anticipate sloppy starts for competing teams and players in bad form when they return to their clubs. Rest will be minimal for them, so the possibility of injuries also grows.
Sepp Blatter, FIFA ex-president, admitted before the tournament that the choice of host was wrong.
“Qatar is a mistake, football and the World Cup are too big for it,” Blatter said, adding that things have changed in FIFA, “since then. Social considerations and human rights are taken into account.”
Blatter led the organization from 1998 until 2015, when the infamous corruption scandal became news. Blatter is banned from all FIFA-related activity until 2027, as he had received an eight-year ban (later reduced to six) issued by the FIFA Ethics Committee, and later another six-year ban due to massive bonus payments he received. He was also charged with fraud and falsifying documents but was later cleared of the accusation.
Blatter was replaced in 2016 by Gianni Infantino, the current president of the organization. He completed the three years left of Blatter’s term. He is set to maintain his job as president until 2026, as he stands unopposed in this year’s election. After the 2015 corruption scandal, a FIFA reform dictated that presidency would be limited to 12 years (three terms of four years), but due to a loophole in the FIFA norms, Infantino could be in office until 2031 (15 years total), as his occupation of Blatter’s term is not accounted for.
While Infantino recognizes Qatar has made mistakes, he defends them and condemns the broad criticism, which he describes as bullying and insulting.
“In Qatar’s work, there are, of course, some things that need to be addressed, but this moral lesson-giving, it is just hypocrisy,” Infantino said in a FIFA press conference. “I wonder why nobody recognizes the progress that has been made.”
That is Infantino’s view, but to the public eye, Qatar is not the right place to host the tournament. In many ways, Qatar goes against FIFA’s supposed ideals.
An important aspect of every World Cup is entertainment. The opening match and the final are preceded by a performance from popular artists. This time, several have denied the offer to perform including pop sensation Dua Lipa, who has performed at a Champions League final.
“I will not be performing and nor have I ever been involved in any negotiation to perform,” Lipa stated. “I will be cheering England on from afar and I look forward to visiting Qatar when it has fulfilled all the human rights pledges it made when it won the right to host.”
While Qatar may be news in many wrong ways, the problems in the sport go beyond the host. FIFA can not fix a country’s problems, but it can decide not to work with those countries. Unfortunately, it happens often. The 2018 World Cup was hosted by Russia, a country with a criminal regime. Only recently, after the Invasion of Ukraine, FIFA decided Russia was banned from competitions. It is the right choice, but FIFA waited for Russia to be in war to make it, as if there was not enough precedent.
The issue is that FIFA is, in many circles, considered a corrupt organization. FIFA executives have accepted bribes from these countries for them to host the World Cup, which is a wonderful thing for any country. They host the biggest sporting event, and the world sympathizes with them, they clean their image. And while this time it may have gone further than before, FIFA walks out virtually unaffected.
Yet, given all of the off-the-field buzz, the tournament rolls on, complete with drama and superstars aplenty. Fans are attending in droves, others are tuning in. Despite a clogged sports calendar headed into the holidays, the pride and passion of soccer has shone through in an event that will end Dec. 18.
FIFA pledged to make amends with the way they decided the future world cups. Next up, in 2026, the United States, Mexico and Canada will host the prestigious tournament, while the host for 2030 will likely be a pair between Spain and Portugal or Uruguay and Argentina. Despite the questionable choice of Qatar, FIFA seems to have understood the issue of setting a host that does not deserve to be it. The next entries of this classic event will be secured by nations better suited to host such an international spectacle. And along with that, the safety of workers, the freedom of expression for fans and players, and even alcohol in the stands will be ever-present once again.