PARIS (AP) — It certainly took a while, longer than it should, for the penny to drop at FIFA that deserts get hot in summer. Having belatedly adjusted for that fact, moving the 2022 World Cup to cooler months, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and the entire sport he oversees must now shift gears and fully focus on the real problem that threatens to sour the tournament in Qatar.
Deaths and the well-documented abuses of migrant laborers in the Gulf emirate’s rush to ready itself for 2022 should be a far more uncomfortable prospect for football than heat ever was. Having a hand in successfully persuading Qatar to better treat the guest workers it relies upon for muscle would be a victory for the sport. That should be priority No.1 for those who administer, play and love football over the next seven years.
Such lobbying might not work, of course. But football must, at least, try harder than it has been to leverage its considerable influence. Either that or risk becoming complicit in misery, exploitation and tragedy.
There are ingredients in Qatar for a meaningful and enjoyable World Cup. The first tournament in the Middle East, the visitor influx to a region that feels and often is misunderstood, the world communing there in the shared brother/sisterhood of football, could help open minds between cultures and peoples. After the video horrors of beheadings, atrocities and war to the north in Syria and Iraq, positive images of World Cup joy from the Middle East could do everyone some good, except those using hate and terror to keep people apart.
The hi-tech stadiums from marquee architects promise to be wondrous. Easy to get to, too, because they’ll be concentrated in and around the capital, Doha. The shift to November-December in 2022, before players have been exhausted and injured by long seasons, plus pleasant temperatures at that time of year in Doha and the lack of tiring travel between games could be more conducive to energetic, flowing football than the Brazil edition last year.
But the positives won’t resonate as loudly as they could outside of Qatar just so long as its fiercest critics can continue to call it a modern slave state. Football isn’t directly responsible for the archaic laws and traditions that have long allowed labor abuses to thrive in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf. It isn’t football’s fault that the well-educated and fabulously wealthy leaders of Qatar are moving so slowly on promises of improvements and reform. But football, with the bright World Cup spotlight, helped expose these problems. And that, even though this was never FIFA or Qatar’s intention, does put a responsibility on football to now push extraordinarily hard for solutions, too.
Pulling the World Cup out of Qatar isn’t the answer. That, “in the short term … would be a disaster for the migrant workers. They’d be left abandoned. The spotlight would be gone,” says Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch.
And, more to the point, that will never happen. Blatter’s executive committee signing off Thursday on the unprecedented winter timeframe for 2022, with a Dec. 18 final, showed how deeply invested FIFA is in its deeply controversial choice of Qatar. Departing so radically from the World Cup’s traditional June-July slot is the football equivalent of moving a mountain, a major disruption to the sport’s calendar that will require players, leagues, teams, administrators, sponsors, broadcasters and fans across planet football to adjust.
All this to avoid heat. That makes one wonder what mountains football might also be able to move with a similarly concerted push in favor of Qatar’s million-plus migrant workers.
This isn’t solely an issue for FIFA. Of course, trips like the one Blatter made last week to Qatar, where he called for “uniformly fair working conditions for all,” must become regular and frequent. Because of the World Cup, FIFA has the ear of Qatar’s ruling emir. It must press him at every opportunity to use his power and Qatar’s riches to execute faster, more comprehensive change. Just as it did for the morally less important issue of the timing of the 2022 tournament, FIFA could establish a task force dedicated to worker rights in Qatar. Invite Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to join, because they have carefully documented abuses and suggested remedies.
But teams, leagues, players and non-FIFA administrators can and should speak up, too. When they travel to Qatar for warm-weather training, for matches, for the umpteenth sports conference, for tournaments at Doha’s youth training academy or for treatment at its sports hospital. Or, in Europe, when they come up against Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain. The same roots Qatar is sinking into sports can — if sportspeople have the willpower — also be used to transmit the message back up the line to the Qatari leadership that no laborer from India, Nepal, or elsewhere should be exploited, mistreated or go home in a coffin.
This, then, is the big test not just for Qatar but also for football. On this, the heat for both is inescapable.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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