For more than a decade, football fans, players, and national football associations have disputed the decision to assign the 2022 men’s football World Cup hosting rights to Qatar—a country with little to no football tradition and a lengthy record of human rights abuses.

FIFA—football’s highest governing body—has responded that the tournament’s spotlight has prompted the Qatari government to promote unprecedented welfare and labor reforms. This has triggered a debate on the role football can play to support liberal values internationally, on what drives football federations’ much-heralded efforts to promote more equal societies, and on the contradictions football faces when it tries to promote deep social changes.

With the World Cup kicking off next month, football’s international transformative power is being measured against FIFA’s and Qatar’s shortcomings and the astounding financial revenue generated from the tournament. And although fans’ ethical concerns are receiving unprecedented attention, football’s governance remains far from transparent or accountable, making it unclear whether any long-term change takes hold.

FIFA’s choice of Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host was made in 2010 amid widespread allegations of corruption. (That same year, FIFA also assigned the 2018 World Cup to Russia, another country with a questionable human rights record, to say the least.) Since then, FIFA has committed to deep governance reforms. The organization’s leadership was wiped away in a 2015 corruption scandal triggered by an FBI investigation on misappropriation of  TV rights, bribery, racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracies within the organization. FIFA’s new leadership has worked to rebuild football’s international credibility, unveiling human rights and climate policies and working with the United Nations and the Council of Europe to establish new guidelines for assigning major international tournaments.

Francesco Siccardi
Francesco Siccardi is a senior program manager and senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe.
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But three big items of contention loom over the Qatari World Cup. For one, the poor safety and welfare conditions of the workers building the World Cup infrastructure were almost immediately put under the spotlight. The tournament’s high environmental impact also received condemnation, with the idea of building air-conditioned stadiums to counter the scorching heat of the Gulf desert standing in stark contrast with growing global environmental awareness. The insufficient protection of women’s and LGBTQ rights has also been under the international spotlight.

On the first count, the level of protection of labor rights in the Gulf country has improved since 2010. The abusive kafala system that gave employers the power to deny migrant workers permission to leave the country or switch jobs was officially abolished in 2020. Since 2017, Qatar has worked closely with the International Labor Organization on the reform of its labor laws, which now set a minimum wage for all workers regardless of nationality.

But it took Qatar ten years to complete these reforms, and the kafala system was only abolished when almost all the World Cup infrastructure had been built—with cheap labor and at a high human cost. Plus, dismantling the kafala system on the ground will take years and substantial commitment and resources from Qatari authorities.

On the second count, FIFA and the Qatari government have presented the World Cup as one of the most sustainable international sports events ever organized. To neutralize the tournament’s carbon footprint, the organizers have used climate-neutral technologies to build seven new stadiums, which have been equipped with solar-powered air conditioning systems. One of the world’s largest nurseries has been built to provide the stadiums’ turfs as well as the grass, trees, and shrubs outside World Cup venues, which are connected by a brand-new electric public transport network.

Yet an independent report from Carbon Market Watch, a leading climate NGO, has concluded that the World Cup’s carbon neutrality claims are “not credible.” Several indicators used to calculate the tournament’s projected carbon footprint did not pass the independent fact-checking—from the wobbly legacy plans of the new stadiums to the integrity of the carbon credits scheme put in place to offset the tournament’s emissions. And even if crowds will be able to move within Qatar in a sustainable way, the small size of the host country will force fans to seek accommodation in neighboring countries and travel to Qatar with daily shuttle flights from Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE.

On the third count, European national teams have agreed to use the World Cup as a platform to give visibility to the issue of women’s and LGBTQ rights in Qatar, with team captains planning to wear rainbow armbands during the tournament—something FIFA has yet to confirm it will allow. From his end, the emir of Qatar has said that while all visitors are welcome to Qatar, he expects that the country’s conservative culture will be respected.

Under that culture, same-sex conduct is an offense punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment. Some consider it unethical to bring the World Cup to a country where basic rights are not respected, while others welcome the attention the tournament brings to these social issues and argue that cultural changes of this magnitude take generations to take root. Whether this extremely limited progress is enough to grant a country the worldwide prestige and multi-billion-dollar revenue the World Cup guarantees remains up for debate.

FIFA presents itself as one of the international actors with the biggest potential to promote dialogue and human rights. The argument has its merits: FIFA has more members than the United Nations. It is a forum where Kosovo and Serbia and China and Taiwan peacefully coexist. The World Cup is FIFA’s flagship event and is better known than any other international governmental forum, and it reaches a truly global audience: an estimated 5 billion people will tune in to watch.

Yet FIFA remains a private, business-driven, and self-regulated organization. The laws of Switzerland, where it is headquartered, shield it from other governments’ rules and regulations. After the 2015 scandal, which scared many sponsors away, FIFA moved to rebuild its international credibility on ethical principles—for financial reasons. Similarly, branding the Qatar World Cup as a fair, sustainable tournament has been a way to reassure sponsors and audiences that the product they are buying into is up to the highest ethical standards, but it may just be that: branding.

The limits of these decisions should not be underestimated either. Earlier this year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to cut ties with Russian teams and sponsors. This led many to wonder whether sports might be the latest front line in the confrontation between democracies and authoritarian regimes. But these changes will take years to grow and develop, and more compromises will be made along the way: the first football flagship event after the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League 2023 final, will be hosted by Turkey, which hardly has an acceptable human rights record.

Football fans have a role to play, but those who want more action on human rights struggle to make their voices heard. FIFA announced this week that more than 90 percent of seats have been sold, with the top buyers coming from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and England. So even if the majority of fans were in favor of boycotting the World Cup or of using tournament revenues to compensate workers who suffered human rights abuses, meaningful change would require coordinated action across the globe. This isn’t happening. Local initiatives, such as the decision of some European cities not to publicly broadcast World Cup matches, help to keep Qatar’s human rights shortcomings under the public spotlight. These symbolic acts remind fans that consuming entertainment products tainted by “sportswashing” has ethical implications, and that they are empowered to drive change. To what extent, it remains unclear: FIFA’s proposal to host the World Cup every two years signals that the power of money and football’s entertainment value is set to prevail over fans concerns—and players’ health—for the years to come.

While it might be unclear whether we are entering a new era of ethics in sports, the debate over sports, societal change, and human rights has rarely been more animated. For now, this remains the beautiful game’s most beautiful victory.