Football’s unwelcome dirty truths

Dave Lister on the scandalous background to the Qatar World Cup

In 2010, the bizarre decision was made to award the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar, one of the hottest countries in the world. Many people believed that there was considerable corruption involved in this decision, as with the previous award to Russia. Corruption in football at an international level is rife, and the acquittal of leading figures Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini following their recent trial in Switzerland was perhaps unexpected.

New stadiums had to be constructed in Qatar, and the World Cup finals were moved to November to avoid the worst of the heat, disrupting the football season in many countries. Pete Pattison, in the Guardian among others, has focused on the harsh conditions faced by those building the new stadiums and by other migrant workers there. Qatar and other Gulf states operate the kafala system, which gives employers control over migrant workers’ jobs and residential conditions. Workers have long hours – up to 12 a day in searing heat – and there have been more than 6,500 deaths since 2010. Pattison has pointed out that Qatar has failed to investigate many of these deaths, which are attributed to ‘natural causes’, cardiac or respiratory failure. For Amnesty International’s Steve Cockburn, “When relatively young and healthy men die suddenly after working long hours in extreme heat, it raises serious questions about the safety of working conditions in Qatar.” Failure to properly investigate deaths means that cases are not identified as work-related, allowing companies to avoid paying compensation to workers’ families.

Living conditions for migrant workers are atrocious; they are provided with cramped dormitories. Pattison quotes one saying that mattresses are infested with bed bugs and there is little water or toilet provision. Another said: “We had no electricity or air conditioning and were not allowed to leave the compound.” The workers, mainly from South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, are escaping unemployment or even lower wages and often take on debts to enable them to move to Qatar, resulting in their being trapped in this employment, unable to change job or leave the country. Their families are often dependent on their earnings, and in the event of their death, can be left without financial support and may be harassed to meet the debt that the deceased breadwinner has incurred.

Following international pressure, some reforms were implemented. A minimum wage was introduced – but only the equivalent of £1 an hour plus food and lodging – and exit permit requirements, which prevented workers from leaving the country, were waived. But Human Rights Watch reported that these measures have rarely been enforced. To add insult to injury, in September thousands of migrant workers were forced to return home, many facing joblessness, unable to support their families, and with huge debts.

There are also issues for gay football fans. The England gay supporters group, Three Lions Pride, has stated that its members are currently unwilling to attend the World Cup finals. Qatar has said that gay and transgender supporters are welcome but they will need to adhere to local customs. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with up to seven years imprisonment for those convicted of charges in relation to it. Sepp Blatter said in 2010 that gay supporters could attend but should refrain from sex. Other challenges are the high cost of accommodation and uncertainty over the consumption of alcohol, an essential requirement for many football supporters.

Money issues in football range even wider. Top clubs, particularly in England, have been bought up by Arab, American and Russian owners (Man City, Chelsea, Newcastle, Liverpool, Arsenal, Paris St Germain) or by offshore finance (Spurs). Only last season, a plan to create a ‘Super League’ for which top clubs did not need to qualify by finishing high in their domestic league was only scuppered by a heartening display of fan power in England. (The same thing did not happen in Spain or Italy.) Nobody seems to question the idea that players, however highly paid, are bought and sold, unlike in most other sports. So far, women’s football, which appears to be taking off here after England’s European Championship success, has avoided many of the faults of the men’s game. It also must be said that despite its structural issues, the men’s game is producing some high-quality football.

My final word on the premier league season is COYS (Come on You Spurs)!

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