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The objections to Qatar hosting the World Cup reek of Eurocentrism

Calls for boycotting one of the world’s most beloved sporting tournaments are permeated with hypocrisy. 
Visitors at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 17, 2022, ahead of the World Cup.
Visitors at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday, ahead of the World Cup.Pablo Porciuncula / AFP - Getty Images

On Sunday the globe’s gaze will turn to the controversial hosts of this year’s soccer World Cup, Qatar. Since it was announced in 2010 that the Gulf country would host — overcoming a U.S. bid — FIFA (the international soccer governing body) has been scrutinized for awarding Qatar the privilege. Amid allegations that the country engaged in corruption and human rights abuses on its path to the World Cup, calls for boycotting one of the world’s most beloved sporting tournaments have persisted through to the opening kickoff. Such calls, however, are marred with hypocrisy. 

In condemning Qatar, we should remember that the population of this authoritarian monarchy has largely no role in its government’s schemes or human rights abuses. Furthermore, the Qatari people and the Middle East at large deserve to celebrate the global sport of football. It’s essential that the sport diversify and include the Arab world rather than condemning a global game to being Western-centric, especially as the 2022 World Cup tournament will be a rare opportunity to humanize the Middle East, a contrast to the constant headlines of war and Islamophobic narratives.

In condemning Qatar, we should remember that the population of this authoritarian monarchy largely has no role in its government’s schemes or human rights abuses.

Yet instead of welcoming the historic diversification of host countries, many in the West displayed shock at Qatar’s victory at becoming host. They have focused on Qatar’s alleged bribes to win votes. (The Qatar body responsible for putting on the  2022 World Cup has strongly denied these claims.)

Such allegations are hardly unique to Qatar, however. For starters, FIFA itself has been plagued with corruption scandals. A Swiss court determined that João Havelange, FIFA president from 1974 until 1998, accepted backhand deals for sponsorship contracts. And his successor, Sepp Blatter, was forced to resign over corruption allegations days after seven FIFA officials were arrested at the request of U.S. officials over corruption allegations totaling more than $150 million. Accusations of bribery have also haunted numerous World Cups, including the past three tournaments, held in Russia, Brazil and South Africa

And while Blatter said last week that “the choice of Qatar was a mistake,” he declared that the better outcome would have been Russia getting the 2018 World Cup and the U.S. getting it this year. But American Chuck Blazer, FIFA governing council member from 1996 to 2013, pleaded guilty in 2013 to money laundering, bribery and tax evasion in relation to FIFA duties. 

The human rights abuses in the lead-up to this year’s competition are certainly abhorrent. According to official Qatari figures, 38 migrant workers have died while working on official World Cup projects. An investigation by The Guardian, however, estimates up to 6,500 migrant worker deaths since the World Cup was awarded to the Gulf country, though it’s not clear what their exact relation to World Cup infrastructure was. 

We should never turn a blind eye to such exploitation, and the perpetrators must be held to account. But these abuses also need to be put in perspective. The U.S. has no problem ignoring Qatar’s behavior when it comes to benefiting from Qatar hosting the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. Incidentally, the base’s construction also led to the death of at least one worker.

Not to mention that the U.S. was seven years into an illegal war and occupation of Iraq that resulted in the violent deaths of 288,000 (and counting) Iraqis during the 2010 bid for World Cup hosting rights. The U.S. has its own record of police brutality against unarmed black men, slavery in prisons and attacks on women’s rights, yet no mass calls of boycotts erupted after it was picked to host a second World Cup in 2026. It will be the second time it hosts the tournament in my lifetime, even though many other nations have a far more intimate relationship with the global sport than the U.S. 

Russia, Blatter’s other preferred host, is another example. It was awarded the rights to host the World Cup only two years after it invaded Georgia, a sovereign nation, killing 228 civilians. Since then it’s launched a war against Ukraine rife with atrocities. (Russia has now been banned from competing in all FIFA competitions.) 

The use of sportswashing is not new to World Cup hosts. Argentina, when it was selected to host in 1978, is probably the worst example. The country had undergone a violent military coup, harbored Nazi war criminals and forcefully suppressed anyone who opposed the government, yet FIFA still granted the nation the tournament, legitimizing the regime on the world stage.  

The whole beauty of a tournament like the World Cup is that it welcomes everyone and provides inspiration to all, regardless of politics. LGBTQ fans have rightly voiced concerns over Qatar’s ban on homosexuality, which takes away from the competition being open to all. 

I have been in Iraq when Barcelona plays Real Madrid in Spain’s La Liga and seen firsthand the excitement the sport, even at club level, can bring to a war-torn nation. Iraq’s 2007 Asia Cup victory was credited with bringing an end to the country’s civil war by finally providing a collective identity to celebrate, void of sectarianism and politics.

As an Iraqi, I dream of seeing Iraq host the World Cup, bringing pride to this fractured nation. But given that it has struggled to host even local tournaments amid financial constraints and violence, I recognize that it’s unlikely to happen soon. The tournament needs to be held in a stable, wealthy and safe nation, and in the Middle East, that means a country like Qatar.

Yet one of the first criticisms of Qatar hosting was that the World Cup was compelled to be played in the winter months. Such a eurocentric critique would forever bar the Middle East from hosting a tournament and underscores the bias inherent in the world’s view of Qatar as a host nation. 

There’s no question that the 2022 World Cup will be tainted by the inhumane deaths of migrant workers, and institutions engaged in a form of modern-day slavery shouldn’t be rewarded. But the people of the Middle East shouldn’t be punished by having the World Cup tournament withdrawn for the failures of their governments. The Qatari government should face penalties for allowing the abuse of migrant workers, as should the Qatari officials who facilitate it. But so should the others who are complicit: the construction companies, many of which are Western, or other international businesses that profit from cheap labor, and FIFA itself, which included zero human rights clauses when awarding Qatar the World Cup and whose lack of regulation paved the way for the abuses we’re witnessing.