Any country that puts itself in contention to host a major event like the World Cup necessarily puts itself in the spotlight, warts and all. As soon as a new host country is selected, journalists, activists and other interested parties immediately focus on that country and – inevitably – its flaws. The human rights record of the country is investigated thoroughly by the media, who then wonder whether the country should have been allowed to play host.
Germany, which won the World Cup tonight and hosted in 2006, faced criticism for racism and xenophobia as well as sex trafficking. The 2010 host, South Africa, was attacked for “relocating” homeless people during the event. This year’s host, Brazil, confronted angry protesters questioning why the billions spent to host a soccer tournament weren’t used instead to address the immediate needs of the impoverished. And the next two World Cup hosts, Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) are already coming under pressure from human rights groups for their anti-homosexuality and labor laws.
The selection of Qatar to host in 2022 has by far been the most controversial selection of late. As brought to light first by The Guardian and then by ESPN, kafala law in Qatar governs migrant workers and essentially ties them to their boss, who controls their immigration status. The migrant workers often live in sub-standard housing and are forced to work long hours in the blistering sun. So far, nearly one thousand migrant workers have died while working on World Cup-related projects.
Not surprisingly, FIFA, the governing body for international soccer, has come under intense criticism for its selection of Qatar. The president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, has stood by the decision, stating only that it was a mistake to select Qatar because temperatures can reach as high as 117°F (47° C) in the summer, when the World Cup is traditionally played. Yet FIFA is considering new bidding rules for host selection that would take into account a country’s human rights record. It is unclear, however, how exactly these new bidding rules would work, should they be approved.
Moreover, a vital question that must be considered is whether using human rights as a criterion for host selection is even a good idea. When a country is selected to host the World Cup and subsequently sees its dirty laundry aired, it may be motivated to confront its problems: Qatar is reportedly in the process of reforming its kafala laws due to international pressure. If FIFA had considered human rights when selecting the 2022 host, would it still have chosen Qatar? When a country is thrust into the spotlight, international pressure can catalyze change. If Qatar hadn’t been selected, the kafala reforms may never have been proposed. We simply need more information about these new bidding rules in order to be able to evaluate their potential value is. Unfortunately, with FIFA’s lack of transparency and secretive voting practices, we may never get this information.