Today is the first day of the 2022 World Cup, held in Qatar. Yesterday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended his organization’s decision to award Qatar the right to host this event. Responding to critics who point out that Qatar is a repressive authoritarian state, Infantino avowed that “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled.” His assurances of solidarity with gay people might be more credible if FIFA hadn’t awarded its premier event to a state where gay sex is a crime, punishable by a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Qatar also severely restricts freedom of speech and expression, including enforcing “chilling” restrictions on foreign media organizations covering the Cup.
The issue of migrant workers’ rights is, I think, more complicated than sometimes depicted. Nonetheless, it is clearly unjust that the government makes it difficult or impossible for workers to quit their jobs and switch employers (albeit it has to be admitted that similar flaws also exist in some US work-visa programs).
The best that can be said for Qatar’s human rights record is that it it probably isn’t as bad as that of the host of the last World Cup: Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Like the world’s other great international sports event—the Olympics—the World Cup is all too often a propaganda showcase for repressive regimes, and also a cause of human rights violations of its own, such as the forcible displacement of large numbers of people to build stadiums. And, as with the Olympics, the World Cup often ends up with awful authoritarian host countries because of corruption in the international body that makes hosting decisions (in this case FIFA). That’s what happened in the cases of both Russia and Qatar.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, in the wake of the awful Beijing winter games, I outlined a series of reform proposals for the Olympics. Most are applicable—with minor modifications—to the World Cup, as well. Here they are, with a few modifications, relevant to the World Cup.
1. No public subsidies. Let the games be funded purely by private organizations and sponsors, as was largely the case for the successful 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That way, no one has to pay for the games, except those who profit from them and the audience that voluntarily chooses to watch.
2. No forcible displacement of residents, private businesses, or civil society organizations. We can and should hold sports events without kicking innocent people out of their homes.
3. No hosting rights for authoritarian human rights violators. There are plenty of possible Olympic venues that aren’t controlled by likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, or the Emir of Qatar. Denying these types of rulers hosting rights won’t fundamentally alter their regimes. But it will at least damage their image and deny them propaganda victories.
4. There must be full freedom of speech at all competition venues and in all interactions between competitors, media, and the local population. At the very least, athletes, journalists, and spectators should be entirely free to criticize the host government and its policies (or any other government for that matter).
5. There must be no “public health” measures blocking normal human interaction between athletes, members of the media, and residents of the host city. Such measures defeat the whole point of having the competition in a particular country in the first place. If the Games or the Cup are to be held in a “bubble,” that can be done almost anywhere. Moreover, scientific evidence increasingly shows that lockdowns and other similar restrictions on freedom of movement do little to stop the spread of Covid, while causing enormous harm. But if a city really is somehow too disease-ridden to allow normal human interaction, it is also too disease-ridden to host major international sports events. In fairness, this point was largely inspired by the draconian Covid restrictions in China, and may have relatively little relevance to other countries.
It is blatantly obvious that a deeply corrupt organization like FIFA will never accept such constraints of its own accord. The same goes for the International Olympic Committee. But they can be pressured into doing the right thing. The strategy I outlined for how to do this with the Olympics is also applicable for the World Cup:
[T]he United States and other liberal democracies can easily force through these reforms simply by making them a condition of future participation in the games. Without the participation of the US and its allies, IOC revenue would plummet, as the value of broadcast rights massively declines.
The question is whether the US and other Western governments have the political will to do what needs to be done….
The US and other democracies can make these demands more credible by threatening to host alternative Winter and Summer games of their own. This would undermine the objection that boycotts unfairly deprive athletes of the opportunity to compete at the highest level. I suggested a similar strategy to force the IOC to move the 2022 games out of Beijing.
Due to the relatively low popularity of soccer here, the US is a far less important source of TV revenue for the World Cup than the Olympic. But liberal democracies nonetheless still account for the lion’s share of FIFA’s income from the event. They also have a large majority of the world’s top national teams. And, as with the Olympics, western nations can credibly threaten to hold an alternative competition should FIFA refuse to comply.
In sum, liberal democracies have all the leverage they need to permanently do away with the dark side of the World Cup, as well as that of the Olympics. All we need is the political will to use it.
I am far from optimistic that it will be generated anytime soon. But, over time, widespread condemnation of travesties like the Beijing Olympics and the last three World Cups (Russia, Qatar, and the 2014 Cup in Brazil, which featured forcible displacement of thousands of people) might generate momentum for reform.