FIFA Are Happy For The Row Over A Winter World Cup To Rumble On

FIFA and the Qatari authorities are happy for the row over a winter World Cup to rumble on, as long as it distracts the world’s gaze from the sorry state of workers’ rights in the region

As Sep Blatter and his media machine splutter and stall their way through a very public stand-off with Europe’s elite leagues over the timing of the 2022 World Cup, a disbelieving press is slowly running out of fresh copy with which to vent its disdain. The tournament is nine years ahead of us yet still this particular soft spot has been bodged, battered and bruised from every angle; by paymasters who fear the seasonal cycles that their profit-making machines are wired into will be irreparably knocked out of rhythm by a major international tournament taking place in the winter, by fans who fear the assent of new money is gaining hegemony over the game’s traditional power-brokers, and by those who simply subscribe to the aphorism that a FIFA idea is necessarily a bad idea. Sooner or later the discontented voices are going to run out of puff – although not if the governing body were to have its way. 

It’s easy to forget that in the immediate aftermath of the announcement in 2010 that football’s premier competition would be heading to the Middle East for the first time all the talk was of corruption and foul-play in the bidding process – accusations that ultimately led to the removal of two of FIFA’s most influential figures. Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hamman may be fading memories now for those who observe the internal workings of FIFA, but for many the approaching World Cup in Qatar represents part of a legacy of mis-management and self-interest that still defines the way things are done in Zurich. By the time these speculations were followed up with a concrete investigation by France Football magazine in January of this year, however, talk had already began to shift to the problem of a summer World Cup in the region and what the solution might be.

As the back and forth between Blatter and domestic European football, for whom Richard Scudamore has become de facto lead spokesperson, becomes tired and repetitive, the men whose interests are most tightly bound to 2022 become more secure in the reality that damning questions about the fine print of the Qatari bid are going unasked. FF’s report pointed the finger afresh at delegates who are suspected of taking payment in exchange for votes from Qatari bid officials – the anonymous source who voiced those accusations back in 2010 withdrew them shortly after without explanation – but of more long-term concern is the evidence that an alliance is forming between the Qatari project to cement its brand in Western markets and European business interests that could foment a conflict of interests.

Football has provided a conspicuous shared platform for Qatar and Europe ever since Qatar Investment Authority – the commercial face of the royal family – invested a fortune in the purchase and revival of Paris St Germain and reports suggest that up to €6billion of Qatari money has been ploughed into leading French corporations in the last 5 years, with a host of high-profile names from the worlds of football and business courted intimately to lend credentials to the Qatari brand. In a week where other major European clubs, namely Manchester City and Malaga, have come under scrutiny for allowing themselves to be used as potential sanitizers for regimes in the region that fail to safeguard basic humanitarian interests the football community has never had more cause to question its role as a global ambassador for fair-play.  

Back in 2011 The Telegraph leaked documents that suggested over $7million was spent on securing brand ambassadors for the 2022 bid – Zinedine Zidane amongst the most high profile – and there are strong accusations being made that PSG are being allowed to bend the rules on ‘indirect sponsorship’ (that sees money being invested by the owners under the guise of commercial sponsorship using secondary companies as a vehicle, thereby side-stepping the regulations laid down by Financial Fair Play) in exchange for Qatari investment in under-developed suburbs of Paris. Whatever the realities of the criss-crossing relationships between the Qataris and world football’s decision makers there is a conspicuous lack of transparency to some high-stakes decisions, and the danger of compromised responsibilities lingers.

The outlook for the workers who will pull the whole thing together at its foundations is scarcely any more of a cause for optimism. In May 8 International Trade Union representatives were arrested at the FIFA conference in Mauritius for protesting against Qatar’s role in the World Cup, following a report by the ITU Confederation that basic humanitarian conditions for migrant workers are failing to be met in the country. The report highlighted a lack of sanitation and refuse provisions in the workplace and accommodation, together with cramped living conditions and negligible right of leave. Calls both internally and from abroad for the Qatari government to legalise the right of association amongst labourers are being led by the ITUC and form the lynchpin of an increasingly activist campaign to improve working conditions, of which the Mauritius demonstration has been the most conspicuous demonstration.

The fear now is that exploited migrant workers will be used as the foundation of the colossal construction projects due to get underway as Qatar continues its countdown to 2022, and the expectation is on FIFA to use its role as a partner of the Qatari government to exert pressure for change. So far those expectations have gone unmet. But for much of Europe unrest at the FIFA conference is always likely to lose out in competition for media space as long as it is up against the issue of the World Cup being shunted into the winter months, and this gives the governing body the kind of breathing space that is likely to see the matter of migrant rights go unreported in the mainstream press. Whether the ITUC and their sympathisers can kick up enough of a stink to force their way into the public consciousness could be the make or break factor in holding FIFA and the Qatari organising committee to account over their conduct.

Robert Connor