Let’s face it, the only truly global sport is football. Nothing even comes close, and this has been the case pretty much since the 1950s. No wonder then that the president of football’s international governing body, FIFA, can use the office to grandstand as a statesman. Current president Gianni Infantino certainly thinks he is one.
On 15 November, he addressed G2O leaders in Bali, Indonesia, and issued a plea for ceasefire in Ukraine…for the duration of the World Cup. “You are the world leaders, you have the ability to influence the course of history. Football and the World Cup are offering you and the world a unique platform of unity and peace all over the world.”
Infantino’s immense sense of self-importance is touching, and quite ironic. This is the man who helped burnish Russian president Vladimir Putin’s reputation at the previous World Cup, which was held in Russia. “Since a couple of years I was saying that this will be the best World Cup ever. Today I can say it even more, with more conviction…. It is the best World Cup ever,” he had gushed in 2018.
He is also the man who is overseeing a deeply problematic and contentious World Cup in Qatar. Last month, as football federations, footballers, fans and human rights groups sharpened their focus on Qatar for the country’s lack of rights for women and LGBTQ+ people, as well as for the appalling treatment of migrant workers, Infantino was gushing again. “We have always said that Qatar will deliver the best-ever edition of the FIFA World Cup—and, as you look around the country today, at the state-of-the-art stadiums, the training pitches, the metro, the wider infrastructure, everything is ready and everyone is welcome,” he said at a press conference in Doha.
Clearly, Infantino’s quest for the “best-ever” World Cup continues. It is only correct to expand the world’s biggest sporting spectacle to new regions and new countries. However, right from 2010, when FIFA surprised everyone by awarding the World Cup to Qatar, the decision has reeked of corruption. Qatar has never had a football culture, and each of its eight spanking new stadiums had to be built from scratch. Together, they seat 380,000 people. As of 2017, the number of Qatari citizens was 313,000. No one is clear what they will be used for after the tournament.
As a result, allegations that FIFA had been bribed by Qatar in 2010 refuse to go away. Indeed, of the 24 FIFA elected officials that awarded the World Cup, many are now banned from football, some facing criminal prosecution. Some of the intransigencies pertained to the bidding process. And yet, money continues to speak. David Beckham, in 2010, was also present at the bidding process and professed to be “disgusted” at the way the Qatar bid was passed through. Today, he is an ambassador for the Qatar World Cup, being paid £150 million (around ₹1,400 crore) for his efforts.
At this point in time, almost anyone with even a passing interest in the World Cup knows all about the controversies surrounding the tournament. And yet, FIFA is hoping—no, desperately praying—that when the matches begin on Sunday, people will stop caring about the workers who died building the shiny, soulless new stadiums over the past 10 years. All that matters is that Qatar spent reportedly $200 billion ( ₹16.2 trillion) in preparing for the World Cup (Russia had spent $11 billion). As far as fair compensation for workers goes, Qatar introduced a minimum wage for them in 2018, a princely $274 a month.
According to Qatar (and Infantino), only three migrant workers died during the construction project. Now three would be bad enough, but a Guardian investigation last year found that over 6,500 migrant workers may have died between 2011-20 due to atrocious work conditions. Of these, 2,711 were from India. Some of those who died worked for 14-18 hours a day in terrible heat and died in the evening, after work. Such deaths, and others, were recorded as being of “natural causes”.
Amnesty International claims that a minimum of 100,000 migrant workers were exploited in the past 12 years in Qatar, victims of non-existent labour laws and next to no access to justice. Add to that the repressive and conservative society of Qatar and what you get is a picture that is so grim that spending a month there celebrating global football seems perverse. Just last week, one of Qatar’s World Cup ambassadors, former national footballer Khalid Salman, described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”.
Predictably, all the criticism has seen a pushback in recent months, both from Qatari officials and FIFA. While Qatar has been attacking the “arrogant West” at every opportunity and indulging in whataboutery about Europe’s own terrible record on migrants, Infantino wrote to football federations of the 32 participating teams on 3 November, urging them to abandon activist stances and “let football take centre stage”.
The thing is, the pushback is actually working. Many European nations are giving up on the idea of symbolic protests, either in the form of rainbow captain’s armbands or training jerseys calling for better social conditions in Qatar. Asian and South American countries have mostly kept their own counsel and got on with preparing for the tournament.
Qatar has, meanwhile, recruited a mini army of social media influencers to spread goodwill about the World Cup. According to reports, these paid “fans”—many of them from European countries—have also been asked to report other fans if they air any critical comments. FIFA is still refusing to entertain demands by human rights and labour organisations to create a compensation fund for workers worth $440m (equal to the prize money for the World Cup). In all likelihood, after the World Cup is over, Western indignation will blow away as well. Ultimately, Europe is relying on Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG)—of which the state produces 77 million tonnes a year—in the middle of a crippling energy crisis.
The thing is, even if Qatar genuinely uses the opportunity to set in motion a system of reforms of its labour laws and social norms, it will still not be enough to wash away the stain on FIFA’s reputation. The cynical, money-first approach to international football governance needs to stop. FIFA needs to be held accountable, but, instead of accountability, we all know what is going to happen. In a month, we will hear from Infantino again, extolling how Qatar hosted the “best World Cup ever”.