10/04/2022, 11.42
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Qatar, a historic and controversial event: the two faces of the World Cup

by Dario Salvi

From 20 November to 18 December, the emirate hosts the top football competition.Female referees for teh first time in an Islamic nation. Controversy over the exploitation, and deaths, of migrant workers in the construction of facilities. Civil rights and environmental issues in focus. Bishop Hinder: a country that has developed in "competition" with others in the region. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - Qatar is preparing to host the world's premier football championship in a setting that some are calling historic, because it is being played for the first time in a Middle Eastern nation and at an atypical time of year compared to previous editions.

However, there is no shortage of criticism for past allegations of a bribe-based allocation, repeated human rights violations in the construction of the facilities that will host the matches, and a blood toll - in terms of work accidents - worthy of a war bulletin.

Last but not least, the environmental impact of an event that is only 'eco-friendly' on paper and the well-founded fears of arrests and repressions in the event of behaviour inconsistent with sharia, the Islamic law, such as the consumption of alcohol (in public) or claims related to the rights of homosexuals.

"Qatar is one of the countries in the Gulf that has developed a lot in competition with the others," Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic administrator of the See of Northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain), a profound connoisseur of the region, points out to AsiaNews.

"The question of workers' rights, especially migrants, is an issue that concerns all the Gulf nations, not just Doha," adds the prelate, "which, moreover, has greatly improved its legislation, although it is still not perfect. And to this one must also consider the enormous pressure they have been under to complete their plants and facilities'.

An absolute first

In the past, even in the case of allocation to nations from the southern hemisphere - see South Africa - the competition has traditionally been played between May and July. The risk of excessively high temperatures in summer prompted the organisers to postpone the start of the Qatar World Cup.

The opening match will be played on 20 November - with the hosts making their debut - while the final is scheduled for 18 December, a national holiday in Qatar. This is the second edition for the Asian continent after South Korea and Japan in 2002. Still on the subject of numbers, it will be the last with 32 teams because in 2026 the USA, Canada and Mexico will feature 48 teams. 

Among the absolute firsts of the event, with an added value due to the fact that it is being played in an Islamic nation where gender inequalities remain, albeit less evident in Doha than elsewhere in the region, is the presence of female referees and linesmen. They are France's Stephanie Frappart, Rwanda's Salima Mukansanga and Japan's Yoshimi Yamashita.

"This will send a strong signal," the French umpire emphasises, "to also have female representatives" on the playing fields. "I'm not a spokesperson for feminism," she adds, "but if these steps can encourage change, then they are welcome", also because in the past, sport opened the door to changes that were considered unthinkable.

After all, in Qatar women, although benefiting from spaces from education to the labour market, are subject to male guardianship (father, brother or husband) and often need permission for personal choices in terms of marriage, study or travel. 

The shadows on rights

The central issue that has accompanied the years of preparation, however, is that of human rights, in particular of migrant workers engaged in the construction of sports facilities and related infrastructure.

According to an investigation published by the Guardian, around 6,500 workers are reported to have died on the construction sites set up for the 2022 World Cup; of these, the vast majority are foreign immigrants - two million in total recruited from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines - forced to work in exploitative conditions.

On this issue there is also a report by Amnesty International experts, according to which migrants have been victims of 'forced labour' in environmental and working conditions described as 'very bad'.

In addition to having to pay some sort of bribe for their employment, they have been denied food and water, had their passports confiscated, and have not received the agreed remuneration for their work, ending up in some cases as veritable 'modern-day slaves'.

Finally, the NGO calls for the allocation of at least 450 million euros by the International Football Federation to at least partially compensate the hundreds of thousands of victims of exploitation since 2010, the year the event was awarded.

Among the more or less overt protests on the subject of rights is that of Denmark's technical sponsor, Hummel, which has decided to withdraw its logo from the official uniforms, while the third jersey will be black as a 'symbol of mourning'. Finally, many cities in France - including the capital Paris - have announced that they will not broadcast the World Cup matches on big screens, again protesting human rights violations are behind the boycott. However, while it is only right to report legitimate complaints, it should also be remembered that Doha in recent years - and more than other nations in the region - has adopted reforms in the labour market to improve conditions (also) for migrants, with an increase in the minimum wage and the removal of the so-called 'Kafala' system that guaranteed wide margins of discretion over workers' lives. 

Profits and environment

To encourage the influx of tourists, the authorities relaxed the Covid health regulations and the strict dictates of Islamic law. During matches - three hours before and one hour after the matches - it will be possible to consume beer (a famous brand is a sponsor of the tournament) near the facilities. And there will be no vaccination requirement on entry and subsequent quarantine, only a negative test and the download of a government tracking application. Masks are compulsory on public transport and in hospitals, but there are no restrictions in stadiums. 

The organisers expect to make nine billion euros in profits, as Qatar World Cup CEO Nasser Al-Khater pointed out. In an interview with al-Jazeera, he said that the cost of the event - lower than initial estimates - is around eight billion euros, less than what was spent on Brazil 2014 or Russia 2018. He added that the expected return in financial terms is around 17 billion euros.

Around 80 million fans have booked to buy one of the 3.1 million tickets available; of these, only 35 per cent have yet to be allocated, especially those for the second phase of the tournament.

Behind this flood of money there is also an environmental problem, a sensitive issue in a historical phase characterised by climate change and global warming, including in the Middle East. At the centre of criticism is the decision to promote a 'shuttle' service between Doha and Dubai, with at least 60 daily connections provided by the national carrier Qatar Airways.

The emirate does not have sufficient facilities to accommodate all the expected visitors, so it has to fall back by sending some of them to the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, while guaranteeing transport - expensive and polluting - to attend the matches. An element that seems to belie, once again, the initial promises for a 'carbon neutral' event. 



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