This week, domestic soccer leagues have seen a break in their action to allow players to compete for their countries in international matches with an eye toward qualifying for the 2022 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup in Qatar. The World Cup is one of the most special events in all of sports. A tournament held every four years in a location selected by FIFA through a bidding process, the 2018 World Cup was held in Russia, and its final match was watched in all corners of the globe by approximately 1.12 billion viewers, according to FIFA. In contrast, the Super Bowl, held in February 2021 and largely agreed to be America’s premier sporting event had 96.4 million viewers according to joint reporting from the National Football League and the Associated Press. Matches are currently taking place in multiple FIFA zones encompassing Europe, North and Central American, and the Caribbean. In recent matches, the audiences that tuned in to view these qualifying matches saw protests by the teams involved in the matches. These protests are over large-scale human rights abuses in Qatar concerning their use of migrant workers in readying the country for the 2022 World Cup. Reaching a fever pitch last month, The Guardian reported that “more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. . .”
To bring further awareness to this issue, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, the Norweigian National Soccer Team before their World Cup Qualifying match wore t-shirts which stated “Human Rights on and off the pitch [the soccer field].” The twitter account for the men’s and women’s Norweigian soccer teams tweeted photos of the players wearing the t-shirts. Worn in protest against the conditions migrant workers have faced in Qatar to build the necessary infrastructure to host the 2022 World Cup, the shirts were designed to raise awareness of the plight of these workers. Other National Soccer Teams have followed Norway in similar demonstrations. The German National Team, before their match against Iceland, stood arm in arm wearing t-shirts which each had a letter spelling out “HUMANRIGHTS.” As the president of the DFB (Germany’s soccer association), Fritz Keller, stated, “[w]e must stand up for our values which are written in our statutes, and let our voices be heard at all times.” Next, the KNVB (Holland’s soccer association) launched what it has termed the “Football Supports Change” campaign to oppose human rights violations in the build up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In a statement, the KNVB expressed hope that the campaign would put pressure on the Qatari government to improve on human rights issues, particularly those related to the migrant workers readying the country to host the World Cup. Other soccer federations and associations have signaled their intent to follow these nations in attempting to draw attention to the conditions suffered by migrant workers in Qatar. However, none of these nations have expressed a willingness to forgo an appearance in the World Cup over the abuses. FIFA, meanwhile, has indicated that Norway would not be punished for their on field protest and expressed broad support for free speech and “. . .the power of football as a force for good,” as reported by Reuters.
FIFA will likely continue to face pressure from its member nations to improve conditions for migrant workers in Qatar, and its member nations are not the only voices being raised at FIFA on the issue. On March 15, 2021, Amnesty International wrote a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino acknowledging improvements in Qatar from when infrastructure build up first began for the 2022 World Cup but in no uncertain terms stated “FIFA has a responsibility to ensure human rights are respected in the context of preparing for and carrying out the tournament.” The letter also expressed concern about the Qatari government’s consideration of limiting worker’s rights raised as discussed at a meeting of the Shura Council. These limitations could include controlling the number of migrant workers changing jobs and travelling without permission from their employers as reported in Qatar’s Daily Newspaper: The Peninsula. While ostensibly having a functioning legislature and judicial system, power in Qatar rests almost exclusively with the Amir of the State of Qatar. Currently, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani is the Amir and according to the Qatari government “[t]he Amir is the Head of State. His person shall be inviolable and he must be respected by all.” With only a year and a half until the beginning of the 2022 World Cup, it is difficult to imagine FIFA and Infantino suddenly changing course and taking a hard-line stance against the Amir or threatening to move the World Cup from the country unless Qatar remains committed to continually improving migrant worker rights.
Issues with migrant workers and rights for individuals that are not citizens of the State of Qatar are, arguably, born out of the difficulty in becoming a citizen of the state. Individuals can only become citizens if they are born of a father who is a citizen or through a naturalization process after between 15 and 20 years of time in the country, according to CIA World Factbook. As a result Qatar’s total population in 2017 of approximately 2.6 million contained only 313,000 citizens according to UN data. This extreme nativism coupled with an absolute monarchy having only the facade of constitutional governance make for a hostile environment for Qatar’s approximately 2 million migrant workers as estimated by Human Rights Watch, and surely convalesce to make for an uphill climb for FIFA to make in bettering migrant worker conditions even if it were so inclined. For now, it appears that FIFA will continue its approach of non-intervention into the host nation’s affairs other than to pay lip service to complaints of its member nations.
Christopher Becker is a civil litigator practicing in New York. Christopher graduated from the University of Alabama’s School of Law in 2016. There, he was a Senior Editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review.