The World Cup should be a celebration, but off the field, it has instead been a disgrace.
In this Oct. 19, 2022, file photo, Pakistani migrant laborers pose for a photograph, as they take a break, on the corniche, overlooking the skyline of Doha, Qatar. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty / AP

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They call soccer “the beautiful game.” But off the field, the road that led to the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been marred by ugliness. 

For several reasons, this tournament never should have been held in Qatar. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was in charge of the organization when it awarded Qatar the bid in 2010, delivered an all-time understatement recently when he said that holding the event in the small Middle Eastern country was a “mistake.”

Getting your lobster from Canada is a mistake. Wearing white after Labor Day is (supposedly) a mistake. This tournament has been something more. It has been a logistical and moral failure on a massive, institutional scale.

First, the logistics. Look no further than the fact that this tournament, typically a summer affair, is happening in late November and December. That is because FIFA chose a host nation where it is  too hot to play or watch soccer during the summer months. That alone should have disqualified Qatar as a potential host country.

Sadly, this several month heat delay is just a small part of the problem. It highlights the ridiculousness of this World Cup’s location, but the issues go deeper than scheduling. More importantly, there also has been a human cost to this tournament.

When calling this World Cup location a mistake, Blatter highlighted Qatar’s small size. But that is an incomplete analysis. Yes, Qatar is a small country of less than 3 million people. In 2010, they didn’t have the infrastructure to host a tournament of this scope, or the people to build it. So they turned to migrant labor. Of those 3 million people, less than 400,000 are Qatari nationals; the rest are foreigners, particularly low-wage workers.

As many media sources have reported over several years, the conditions for those workers have been atrocious. Like other countries in the region, Qatar has employed what is known as the kafala system, essentially a system of forced labor that has prevented migrant workers from changing employers or leaving the country. Qatar has made labor reforms in recent years, but not before damage has been done.

The stadiums and other infrastructure needed for this tournament have been paid for not only in billions of dollars, but in lives.

According to a the Guardian, 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country won its World Cup bid. Qatari officials have been pushing back against this and other reports about the poor working and living conditions, insisting that the number of deaths for World Cup workers was around 40. But this week, a top official there seemed to revise that suspiciously low number up to “between 400 and 500.” Other officials later tried to walk this back, but it raises further questions about the already questionable way Qatar and FIFA have been trying to deflect deserved criticism.  

This shameful treatment of workers over the past decade, and the shameless attempts to downplay it, should define this World Cup. The situation also demands a meaningful response from FIFA. Calls for a fund to compensate workers and their families are absolutely justified, and tournament organizers should listen to them.

“FIFA and Qatar still have a lot of questions to answer, not least where, when, and how did these men die and did their families receive compensation,” Nicholas McGeehan, who works with a group in London that advocates for workers in the Middle East, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, Qatar is not the first host nation to win a bid despite serious human rights concerns. The 2018 tournament was in Russia, whose government, like Qatar’s, has a terrible record in areas such as LGBTQ rights and stifling dissent. And it’s not just FIFA; this year’s Winter Olympics were held in China as U.S. officials said that the Chinese government had committed acts of genocide against the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority group. 

“Ultimately, it’s not the players who are responsible for this mess, it’s FIFA,” John Oliver said recently in a comprehensive World Cup critique on his HBO show. “They put the World Cup in Qatar and everything that’s happened since then has been a complete disgrace.”

Oliver may be a comedian, but he was seriously on target with this deserved takedown. The World Cup should be a celebration, but off the field, it has instead been a disgrace.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...