Amidst the global pageantry and energy surrounding the World Cup, darker allegations lurk. Specifically, suspicions are swirling of institutional corruption within football’s governing body, FIFA, and of labor violations in Qatar, which was selected to be the host of the 2022 games. The allegedly endemic corruption within the governing body of the world’s most popular sport is concerning to fans, and should concern supporters of human rights given the violations of labor rights that have occurred already in Qatar and which are likely to continue.

While there are allegations of corruption regarding FIFA’s selection of the 2018 World Cup (to be held in Russia) as well, the voting process behind the Qatar decision seems to have led to the most concrete evidence of corruption. To begin with, the choice of Qatar to host the Cup flabbergasted anyone who follows soccer – the nation has never fielded a team in the Cup, there wasn’t a single stadium in the whole country, and temperatures average more than 105 degrees in June and July. 

Since 2010, multiple allegations of corruption have surfaced, which could explain FIFA’s peculiar decision.

Amidst the global pageantry and energy surrounding the World Cup, darker allegations lurk. Specifically, suspicions are swirling of institutional corruption within football’s governing body, FIFA, and of labor violations in Qatar, which was selected to be the host of the 2022 games. The allegedly endemic corruption within the governing body of the world’s most popular sport is concerning to fans, and should concern supporters of human rights given the violations of labor rights that have occurred already in Qatar and which are likely to continue.

While there are allegations of corruption regarding FIFA’s selection of the 2018 World Cup (to be held in Russia) as well, the voting process behind the Qatar decision seems to have led to the most concrete evidence of corruption. To begin with, the choice of Qatar to host the Cup flabbergasted anyone who follows soccer – the nation has never fielded a team in the Cup, there wasn’t a single stadium in the whole country, and temperatures average more than 105 degrees in June and July. 

Since 2010, multiple allegations of corruption have surfaced, which could explain FIFA’s peculiar decision. The UK’s Telegraph and Guardian newspapers have released a series of investigative reports exploring the allegations. The most concrete of them regard an estimated $1.2 million supposedly being paid to Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice-president from Trinidad, by a Qatari company linked to former FIFA vice-president Mohammed Bin Hammam. Bin Hammam himself had been the President of the Asian Football Confederation but was removed for financial mismanagement.

Warner had a vote in the Qatar bid – and a history of corruption. As President of CONCACAF, the North American governing body of soccer, he was found to have sold over $1 million worth of black market tickets to the 2006 World Cup; however, after a paying a fine, he was allowed to remain in his position. He was ultimately suspended and later resigned in 2011, after the most recent scandal began to surface. 

Bin Hammam also reportedly bribed top African football officials with a $5 million slush fund in order to ensure their support for Qatar’s bid. According to the accusations, Qatar allegedly formed an alliance with Russia’s FIFA representatives in which the two countries committed to supporting each other’s bids – and Russia went on to receive the 2018 cup in the same vote.

The President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, responded by appointing Michael Garcia, a former prosecutor from the US, to investigate the charges against Bin Hammam. As information has leaked out of his investigation, there have been rumors that the Cup may be taken from Qatar should wrongdoing be proven. Blatter’s term has seen a series of corruption scandals since it began in 1998, although he himself has successfully staved off the imposition of term limits. Many FIFA officials, especially in Europe, oppose Blatter’s leadership, but he maintains enough support in Africa and Asia that it is likely he will keep his job. 

The concerns about abuses of foreign workers in Qatar are even more serious. According to the Qatari government’s own statistics, 964 migrant workers from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh have died on construction projects between 2012 and 2013. The majority of these workers died in suspicious circumstances of “sudden cardiac arrests.” 

The UN has repeatedly called on Qatar to reform its migrant worker program by abolishing the “kafala” system. The kafala system ties migrant workers to their employers, leaving them open to abuse. The system is used throughout the Gulf, and has been called a form of “modern slavery” by Human Rights Watch because once migrants reach the Gulf states they relinquish some of their most basic rights: passports are often confiscated, workers are not allowed to leave the country, they usually are not paid the originally agreed upon wages, and they are forced to live in miserable conditions. It is estimated that 94 percent of Qatar’s labor force – some 1.2 million people – consists of such workers.  

After Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the International Labor Organization (ILO) appointed a special panel to study migrant workers there. The panel subsequently called on the Qatari government to impose serious sanctions on construction contractors which abuse their workers.  FIFA later called on them to do so as well. 

Qatar did introduce a new set of workers standards which commits to reforming the system. The government argues that key reforms include restricting recruitment agencies fees, preventing passport confiscation, and providing decent housing for migrant workers. Yet unfortunately all of these laws were already on the books, and already poorly enforced. 

Human rights groups point out that though these are important steps, more needs to be done, given that workers still lack the right to leave the country and change employers. As Human Rights Watch says, “Qatar’s labor system needs a major overhaul, not a minor makeover,” and should impact all of the migrant workers in the country, instead of only the construction workers for the World Cup projects. 

Although FIFA may yet take the Cup away from Qatar (in which case it has been rumored that they may give it to the US) there is also the hope that if it stays there it will shine a much-needed light on the plight of migrant workers in the nation. Regardless, it is clear that FIFA needs more intensive due diligence when it chooses host nations. Opening the voting process, whereby every nation has one vote instead of by region, may help, but term limits and greater turnover in leadership could help as well to clean out entrenched corruption.