FIFA World Cup organizers want fans to concentrate on the sporting action during soccer’s marquee event—but many feel host nation Qatar’s human rights record has tainted the competition. Photo of Al Thumama stadium in Doha, Qatar, by Hector Vivas/FIFA/Getty Images
For football fans—the soccer kind—the World Cup means everything. The planet’s biggest sporting event has always been about more than a game. Entire countries shut down to watch their favorite teams compete—players becoming national heroes or villains with one timely goal or missed penalty kick. It’s nerve-jangling, joyous, unifying, magical.
But this year, the spectacle has been tainted for many fans. The 2022 World Cup, which kicks off November 20 and lasts until December 18, is being held in Qatar, a small oil- and gas-rich country in the Middle East with a dubious soccer record—and an even worse human rights one.
Instead of dreaming excitedly about the matches—who will win, who will be top scorer—supporters and the media are talking about the abuse of migrant workers, widespread human rights violations, and threats to LGBTQIA+ supporters.
Amnesty International has called this year’s event the “Qatar World Cup of Shame,” highlighting the mistreatment of the migrant workers and forced labor—largely from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal—building the tournament’s stadiums and infrastructure. Human Rights Watch has called out the country’s “serious human rights problems,” warning fans that security forces routinely arrest LGBTQIA+ people and “are detaining and abusing LGBT people simply for who they are.” Freedom House gives Qatar a “not free” thumbs down in its assessment of global political and civil liberties.
But soccer’s governing body, FIFA, which is promising a “World Cup like no other,” would rather ignore that discussion. Perhaps not surprising given that it raises billions of dollars from the World Cup and expects five billion viewers to tune in and watch. In a recent statement, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino pleaded with teams competing in the competition to “focus on the football!” Despite acknowledging that sport doesn’t happen in a vacuum, he asked that national associations “do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”
Many seem set on ignoring his pleas: eight European team captains could wear rainbow armbands during games; Denmark has produced an all-black protest jersey.
Qatar, which hopes the tournament boosts its international standing and helps diversify its economy, has responded to the furor by suggesting some of the criticism may be racially motivated. It also highlighted changes to its labor laws and said that while it won’t be changing laws that criminalize same-sex sexual activity, it would welcome LGBTQIA+ people.
So, where does all that leave everyday fans? Should they watch a tournament they love and celebrate the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East? Or does cheering on their team make them complicit in an act of “sportswashing,” helping a regime use soccer to launder its global reputation?
The Brink spoke with Henrik Selin, Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies associate dean for studies and an associate professor of international relations. A research expert on sustainable development and global governance and institutions, he’s also a big soccer fan.
Selin: Yes, I will. It’s a little bit strange to be watching it in November and December, as opposed to the middle of the summer. It is a slightly odd tournament for a number of reasons.
Selin: Yes, I definitely feel different about it. There is lots of evidence to suggest that Qatar winning the bid was riddled with financial irregularities. It has been tainted right from the time that it was awarded to the host nation.
Selin: My guess is probably not. This is as much about hosting the games as the legacy. In 4 years from now, 8 years from now, 12 years from now, people will know that Qatar was hosting the World Cup in football, but some of the surrounding conflicts leading up to the games might very well be forgotten, or at least not remembered as well.
Selin: I think that is somewhat doubtful. If we are looking at other, less democratic countries that have hosted the World Cup, or the Summer Olympics or the Winter Olympics, I don’t think that we see a lot of change before and after the games. There might be more cosmetic changes leading up to the games, but once the games are over, the floodlights are shut down, and everyone leaves, then it’s very likely that it will return to normal.
Selin: It is one of relatively few sports that have a worldwide audience. Major European clubs are now broadcast all over the world. You can watch the games in Canada, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Japan, or wherever. So, owning a major European football team is definitely a way of getting out there and trying to create a positive spin. To address this in international relations terms, it’s wielding soft power, it’s about building a brand.
But also, for some of the regimes hosting the World Cup, you are also doing it partly for domestic consumption. In recent times, Russia has hosted both the World Cup and the Winter Olympics, and I think that was one way for Vladimir Putin to cement his reputation in Russia as a strong and successful leader, at the same time as there was an international aspect to it in terms of being seen as important on the world stage.
There seems to be relatively little downside, besides having to spend lots and lots of money. But if you are not a democratically elected leader, and you’re not really held accountable, and you have the hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, then you can do it. Hosting these games—whether we’re talking about the Olympics or the World Cup—requires a lot of money. And that’s why, also, moving forward, we are starting to see more countries coming together in joint bids—the next World Cup will be in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
It’s a good question, and in some ways it comes down to individual responsibility. Neither you nor I had anything to do with the process where the World Cup ended up; it’s not that we could have acted differently, and it would have gone somewhere else. I’m not sure what you and I, as football fans, would actually gain from boycotting by not watching the games. If you and I don’t watch the games, I don’t think that’s going to help the people in Qatar.
I studied in Newcastle [in North East England] in ’93, ’94. They were some golden years for the team—they came really close to winning the Premier League—but it’s been 25 years of hurt since. So, there’s part of me that is very happy. It’s been fantastic to watch the team over the last year and it seems like they’re really building a team for the future. On the other hand, I know where the money has come from, so I’m definitely conflicted—and conflicted about where money has taken the sport overall.
I teach an undergrad level course on global governance and international organization. Given that there is no world government and there are relatively few enforcement mechanisms, perceptions are important in international politics. If you are perceived as a reliable partner, that is important. And if you’re perceived as an unreliable partner, then that’s a real negative image to have attached to a country. So, building these areas of soft power—which could be sports, movies, the arts—if that brandishes your reputation as an important country, as a reliable partner, that can be very important in international relations.
Traditionally, it’s been that when the World Cup is in Europe, a European team wins, and when it’s in the Americas, a team from the Americas wins. There’s only been two times when it hasn’t been held in Europe or the Americas. I still think that a European team will win—the question is, which European team? Never underestimate the Germans, but if I’m going for an upset, since it’s in a very small country, maybe a small country will win, and maybe that’s Belgium. They have a really good squad.
Should You Watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup despite Host Qatar’s “Serious Human Rights Problems”?
Andrew Thurston is originally from England, but has grown to appreciate the serial comma and the Red Sox, while keeping his accent (mostly) and love of West Ham United. He joined BU in 2007, and is the editor of the University’s research news site, The Brink; he was formerly director of alumni publications. Before joining BU, he edited consumer and business magazines, including for corporations, nonprofits, and the UK government. His work has won awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the In-House Agency Forum, Folio:, and the British Association of Communicators in Business. Andrew has a bachelor’s degree in English and related literature from the University of York. Profile
Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English. Statistics or facts must include a citation or a link to the citation.
I believe the best way to address this topic is to gather international students from Qatar and all the related country.
Like a conference or a seminar
For those not inclined to click all the links, over 15,000 non-Qataris died between 2015 and 2019 during the early construction phase. Workers were docked two days pay for every sick day taken, mostly due to the effects of working outside in extreme heat.
Being conflicted isn’t enough. Boycott the games if you believe in human rights.
Let’s just hope we see this same energy when the U.S. hosts. If we really are only discussing human rights here.
Would love to see the same journalism spirit when WC is hosted in US
Great article and review.
As a massive and long-time fan of soccer/football, the EPL, and WC, I would normally be beyond excited to watch the WC. Due to the controversy, timing, and other aspects, however, it is hard to get in to it.
It seems – at least from social media and blogs – that the defenders of Qatar hosting the WC are unwilling and unable to criticize Qatar or acknowledge the facts (and scandal) behind the situation. Instead they resort to whataboutism and blind support for Qatar hosting.
Yes, while “their country their rules” and “you should respect Qatar’s / Qatari culture” holds water, if it does not align with FIFA’s overt culture and statements of diversity, inclusion, equity, equality, etc. then their is a problem. Yes, the US has it’s issues and problems with regards to human rights and equity, but to compare the US GOV or US society to the behavior and culture of Qatar is absurd. If there were last minute broken promises or broken contracts, there is a problem.
No point restating all the issues and controversy surrounding Qatar. We all know about the human rights violations; mistreatment of worker; prejudice and opposition to women, lgbqt, and others; corruption and financial irregularities on the bid, and lack of suitable accommodations.
In end, we all know that Qatar should have never received the honor and responsibility of hosting one of the greatest sporting events in world.
No one should have showed up: fans and teams. At some point we have to make a stand. Until we do, nothing will ever change
The labor controversies surrounding this year’s World Cup in Qatar are no mystery anymore. Tens of thousands of workers have been hired throughout the last decade, and at least 6,500 have died. Qatar has also apparently hired workers to act as fake fans to build atmosphere, working for $10 and three meals a day during the tournament. While there are countless issues surrounding the World Cup, this interview and Selin’s comments made me think about how much worse it is made by the gross mistreatment of laborers.
He explains that despite the injustices against many groups including laborers, after “the floodlights are shut down” the world will move on as if nothing happened. This is the biggest problem and the biggest failure to the thousands of migrant workers who are underpaid (if paid at all), underrepresented (if a medium even exists), and often work in highly unsafe conditions. The problems surrounding the decision to hold it in Qatar are behind us and we must not let such a corrupt decision happen again. By not taking advantage of the international attention of billions and letting our focus slip away, we are letting these workers down massively.
The topic of attention turning away is not new. The stadiums used in the 2014 World Cup now sit abandoned as multi-million dollar parking lots, and the 2018 edition in Russia had many of the same issues around human rights and corruption. But this is much worse.
Thousands of workers travel country-lengths away from their homes and families, hoping to find a better life. When they arrive, they have worked in horrendously hot conditions for very little pay, if that. They have no power of unionization, and many have their critical documents like passports taken by employers which effectively traps them in the job as modern slaves. This is significantly worse than letting stadiums fall out of use, as turning our attention away will allow the continued exploitation of these workers.
I’m taking a class on domestic labor that has made me think about these workers and why their abuse in Qatar is an issue that is so much larger than typical mistreatment by employers and risks the laborer’s lives. The chance to address these issues and leave the worker’s rights situation better than when the tournament started has nearly been missed. I feel very little has been done to prevent another similar decision, and this atrocity is a level beyond the underappreciated work of house cleaners and grounds crew that we talk about in my class. I appreciate the comments made by Selin in this interview as they push readers to understand that as much celebration as the World Cup brings and as much attention as the actual soccer happening on the pitch should and will attract, it will leave behind horrible conditions if we do not make changes. Allowing it to slide this time will set the stage for future tournaments held in countries with underdeveloped infrastructure that employ workers in these conditions to feverishly catch up.
More focus must be given to this issue that is only briefly mentioned in the interview, but it is valuable to share nevertheless. Selin reflects that he doesn’t believe there is historically much change before and after a tournament. This is where efforts must be focused. He brings up an important topic, and it is the most critical thing that the international community focuses on afterwards. It is easy to forget about problems in the celebrations of sport and move on as he mentions, but this is incredibly detrimental. We must hope that as more people realize the underlying truths of abuse Selin mentions, the problems will be addressed and such a decision will not happen again.
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