The Price of Human Rights On and Off the Pitch

The World Cup is a missed opportunity to promote human rights

7 December 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Football is not just a game adored by billions of people, but a powerful soft tool, which can unite nations in times of uncertainty, and give hope that a better future for human rights is possible.

However, FIFA’s football diplomacy is not always used for social well-being, but instead pursues corrupt interests, huge revenues, and whitewashes autocratic regimes. The mega sporting event has allowed Qatar to boost its status in the international arena, which is aligned with the country’s National Vision 2030.

Sportwashing, greenwashing, Qatarisation: many phrases have been said about the games, with largely negative connotations. One of the most controversial World Cups continues to cause deep divisions among fans and nations with the flagrant human rights abuse (women’s, LGBTIQ+, migrant workers). FIFA’s ambiguous football diplomacy forces each person to make a tough decision: to visit autocratic Qatar or watch matches at home like nothing serious is happening, or voice out concerns and act out to defend human values.

Football offers a unique, out-of-the-box way of dealing with the most delicate political issues and can lead to political change, even in autocracies. In other words, “if politics can repair damage caused by wars, then sports can sometimes repair damage caused by politics”. So, does FIFA’s football diplomacy stand a chance to become a unifying tool for democracy and peace or fall victim to realpolitik? Will Qatar change its discriminatory policy towards minority groups at the backdrop of the grand football event?

The Real Price of the World Cup 2022

The world was impatiently waiting for the grand football event, hosted for the first time in the Arab World. As the kick-off of the most expensive World Cup approached ($ 300 bln), more accusations were thrown towards the desert autocracy.

Qatar outplayed the US, Australia, South Korea and Japan in their bids in 2010. However, there are accusations from the US Department of Justice that Qatar simply bribed their way to get this football carte-blanche as 16 members of the FIFA-2010 executive committee are already in jail or banned from football.

The background of the mega sporting event has gotten darker each day. The former president of FIFA Sepp Blatter stressed that “Qatar is a mistake!”. The German football star Philipp Lahm refused to go to Qatar, neither as a fan nor as a member of the official delegation.

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The “Boycott Qatar 2022” campaigns ramped up across the European stadiums, uniting clubs and fans in defence of human rights. In particular, former Finnish national team captain Tim Sparv continues to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp hinted that it is too late to voice out concerns when the corrupt deal is brokered: “Do you really think that we did enough in the first place? Now making a story of it, now when it’s happened, now coming out of a corner and getting now players under pressure?” The list is far from over.

According to Guardian data, “6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid”. The figure can be higher as it is unclear whether deaths are work-related or not.

Despite Qatar’s agreement with the International Labour Organisation in 2017 to improve labour rights, the Kafala practice (i.e, the modern form of slavery) is still ubiquitous.

A migrant worker cannot get his passport from the employer, switch jobs or simply leave the country. Workers have to work for a minimum wage in slums and die of simmering heat whilst their families get no compensation or reliable information about what happened. Whereas the grand stadiums and other sophisticated infrastructure are bringing huge revenues to Qatari authorities and FIFA.

The CEO of FIFA World Cup Qatar, Nasser-al-Khater promises that each and everyone will enjoy football in Qatar and all the criticism is simply unjustified as “icing on the cake” is on the horizon. Under heavy criticism, Qatar lifted their ban on selling beer to fans but with certain limits and high prices.

But has it really changed the Qatari policy towards minority groups much? Does FIFA genuinely care about human rights? To some extent, it does.

Fight for human rights

The FIFA World Cup Legacy Fund will support the education of children in developing countries and can be used to compensate migrant workers’ families. Moreover, FIFA plans to cooperate with the United Nations International Labour Organisation in Doha to monitor the observation of migrant workers’ rights and share the best practices with future hosting World Cup countries.

At present, the minorities in Qatar continue their own fight for justice, fearing to voice the issues out as there is no freedom of expression and fear to be imprisoned or worse. Their families outside Qatar share their stories with the media and human rights organisations. Some manage to leave the country in search of a safe life, champion human rights abroad (by launching NGOs, writing petitions, organising online campaigns etc.) to change Qatari narratives and turn the global attention to severe abuse of minority groups. Interestingly, despite human rights abuse, the UN supported the World Cup in Qatar in its resolution as it will “leave a lasting legacy for peace in the region”.

The LGBTIQ+ minority is the major victim in Qatar. Khalid Salman, a 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup Ambassador, described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”. Human Rights Watch regularly reports about detentions (up to the death penalty), physical abuse (flogging, stoning women) and ill-treatment of LGBTIQ+ representatives in underground jails, despite Qatar’s promises to change its policy in light of the World Cup.

On the flip side, FIFA president Gianni Infantino appeals to the participating national teams “not to allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

Going Beyond Football

The tried-and-true mantra “football is beyond politics” is used by FIFA/UEFA as a shield to discard accusations of appeasing dictators and doing “business as usual”.

On the one hand, FIFA calls not to mix football and politics, but on the other hand, it exploits football grand events to shape our perceptions on certain political issues and, indeed, with a huge impact.

At the G-20 Summit in Bali, Infantino’s appeals to broker a temporary peace deal in Ukraine for a month caused mixed feelings, especially after Russia launched almost 100 missiles. FIFA pleads not to turn football into a political instrument but offers the World Cup as a “unique platform” to deal with politically sensitive issues. Thus, in light of the looming contradictory World Cup-2022 in Qatar amid the invasion times, FIFA’s ambiguous football diplomacy as a unifying tool (or not) comes into the spotlight again.

For, FIFA seems to repeat a vicious circle of mistakes, turning a blind eye to flagrant abuse of human, LGBTIQ+ and migrants’ rights in Qatar. At the same time, this grand sports organisation stands for equality, tolerance, antiracism and anti-discrimination. It adopted its own Human Rights Policy in 2016, “pledging to go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights and positively contribute to their enjoyment”.

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It is worth mentioning that despite the illegal annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and doping scandals, the 2018 World Cup was held in Russia. FIFA chose to bite its tongue and whitewashed Putin’s image in the international arena and strengthening Russia’s international standing.

Against the backdrop of the invasion, “an Order of Friendship that was given to Infantino by Putin turned into a symbol of hypocrisy”. Now, the Russian national team is banned from World Cup 2022, but FIFA’s reputation is undermined severely.

Despite FIFA’s slow U-turn to defend democratic values amid Putin’s war and furious reactions from various international actors, the World Cup is taking place in an autocratic state again.

Moreover, Qatar itself exploits football (and generally sports) diplomacy to upgrade its position on the international arena, win more hearts and minds and become the first country in the region to host the event of such a global scale. Billions of euros are funnelled to the French FC PSG. The transfer of Neymar cost 220 mil euros alone. Qatar sports diplomacy projection aims to win sympathy from the EU fans, but will such a steep price of investments overwhelm human rights abuse on the ground?

National Football Associations: Goodbye FIFA?

National football associations did not boycott the Qatar World Cup. The grand sports show is in full swing. But, the hope is still at the end of the tunnel.

The German FA furiously rejected Infantino’s letter to focus on football and silence human rights abuse. German football association (DFB) president Bernd Neuendorf stated that they will not support Infantino’s reelection. Some European FA cooperated on the issue of their captains wearing an armband with a rainbow in Qatar. But no “OneLove” armbands as FIFA threatened with sporting sanctions. In response, the German national team symbolically espoused the fight for human values before the kick-off in a team photo: players covered their mouths with their right hands. A non-political tournament by FIFA’s definition continues to turn into a platform of strong political gestures: the Iranian national team refused to sing their national anthem in light of the severe repressive regime in their country. President Macron hailed the French victory over Denmark and supported Qatar, anticipating “tangible changes underway”. And it is not the final yet. It is rumoured that the Danish FA consider leaving FIFA. If it happens and others follow suit, this will cause a football revolution or the desired change of FIFA’s double standard policy.

FIFA’s Football Diplomacy: For Democracy or Autocracy?

The sportwashing trend may spill over further as Saudi Arabia and Egypt together with Greece are going to test their luck in the bid to host the 2030 World Cup. Putin’s invasion bridges the gap between the West and the Gulf states, mainly for energy reasons. It shouldn’t be a shocker if their bid succeeds.

Football is IN politics. These two things should not be divorced. That must be finally voiced out by FIFA rather than walking on a tightrope and denying this truth.

Hence, it can become a unifying tool if it is stripped of “business as usual” logic. Grand sports events, such as the Euros or the World Cup can become unique platforms where certain messages are channelled and problems of global concern are voiced out.

From the “soft diplomacy” theory, football can unite people and make governments act in the interests of nations and democratic values. For instance, the Qatar World Cup can become a platform to call for peace in Ukraine (but not on Putin’s terms) and ramp up support for Ukrainians among participating nations. It can change the Qatari authoritative laws if both parties (Qatar and FIFA) are willing to cooperate for people’s well-being. The World Cup is a window of opportunity to make a U-turn to democratic values and change the abusive laws in regards to the rights of women, LGBTIQ+, migrants etc. As claims about positive labour legislative changes are just a smoke screen, the creation of the transparent FIFA/Qatari legacy fund to fairly compensate families (equivalent to the sum the winner of the World Cup gets –  $440 mil ) can be a positive moment.

Or, the world is divided in two: one part supports human rights, and the other does not care much. Hence, Qatarisation goes on: with one hand we support human rights, but with the other we continue to do business with autocracies, without following the democratic rules of the game.

A culture that kills and humiliates humans cannot be respected and tolerated. Hence, real changes are hard to expect in the foreseeable future as both actors prefer realpolitik logic or a balancing act on sensitive political issues.

By and large, in times of tectonic political shifts and severe fallouts in all spheres from Putin’s unjustified invasion, football can become a unifying soft tool for all nations or fall victim to “business as usual” and realpolitik logic where all is forgiven. It is up to FIFA and Qatar to decide: Pick up the democratic side or continue to count banknotes.



Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image: used Fifa world cup org, collage and filter by VI Team, CC BY-SA 2.5 


Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.


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