Was Qatar a good choice? The pros and cons of 2022’s World Cup host

There are serious concerns with waste and corruption, but the Middle East deserved a World Cup

Today's expression: At the last minute
January 12, 2023:

Qatar, the first World Cup host in the Middle East, faced criticism for its migrant labor system and human rights record. Critics questioned whether the country won the rights to host the tournament fairly. But it was time for the World Cup to go to the Middle East--and Qatar wasn't nearly as bad as some previous hosts.

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Qatar: the pros and cons of the World Cup’s most controversial host

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where JR and I help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson number 537, which means you can get the full lesson at PlainEnglish.com/537.

Coming up today: Qatar was the most controversial World Cup host in decades. Critics say it bribed its way into hosting the tournament and was using sports to cover up its reputation as an inhospitable and discriminatory place to live. Qataris say they won it fairly, and they deserved to show the world their culture and hospitality. There are arguments for and against Qatar—now that the tournament is over, we can look back on the pros and cons of the site of last year’s tournament.

The expression we’ll talk about today is “at the last minute” and we have a song of the week. Let’s get going.

Qatar: the pros and cons of 2022’s host

For Qatar, the road to host the tournament was rocky. In a technical report FIFA staff rated Qatar’s bid to host the tournament “medium to high risk.” They cited the country’s blazing summer heat, lack of infrastructure, and limited history of success in FIFA tournaments . Nevertheless , FIFA handed the tournament to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. Competing bidders said they assumed FIFA officials had been bribed. Qatar denies paying any bribes to win the tournament—more on that in a little bit.

The controversies only grew as the world started to pay closer attention to the appalling conditions of migrant labor. The stadiums, hotels, and trains that would accommodate visitors—they were all built by migrants from other countries, and they didn’t have the same rights as Qatari citizens.

Migrant workers come from places like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Many, but not all, make very, very low wages; they live in very difficult conditions in group quarters; and they needed their employers’ permission to change jobs or leave the country. Some workers’ passports were confiscated.

Safety standards are not what they are in, say , Europe. A lot of migrant workers died while building World Cup facilities. Death certificates are vague and good statistics are not compiled. Qatar once said only three migrant workers died while working on World Cup venues, an insulting estimate; one official later said maybe it was 400 to 500. But because records are so thin, there’s no way to know for sure. Human rights groups say it’s in the thousands . Two workers died during the tournament itself .

As the tournament grew closer , Qatar confused fans with a series of erratic decisions on alcohol, flags, and armbands. At the last minute , Qatar reversed its previous policy and refused to allow alcohol sales near stadiums; this was a problem for AB InBev, the owner of Budweiser, which is a major sponsor. Players could, and then couldn’t, wear armbands supporting sexual minorities. Iranian players could, and then couldn’t, express support for the protests in their country.

There was a large environmental cost. Qatar spent an eye-popping $220 billion over 12 years to host the tournament; they built seven modern stadiums. Where there were once just mounds of sand, there are now stadiums and roads.

The total stadium capacity in Qatar is over 400,000 seats—about 100,000 seats more than there are citizens in the whole country. It’s unclear what they are going to do with so much spare stadium capacity, or so many hotel rooms, all of which were built for a single monthlong tournament.

So those are the considerable arguments why Qatar was might not have been the best choice to host the tournament. But there are some arguments in Qatar’s favor.

First, on the question of human rights, they are no worse than Russia, which hosted in 2018, or China, which has hosted the Olympics twice. Qatar received quite a bit more criticism than either China or Russia received for their marquee sporting events. When Qataris say that criticism is tinged with anti-Muslim bias, they have a point. They were treated much worse in the international press than China or Russia ever were, and for much less.

Russia hosted the Olympics in 2014, and used the Olympics to distract the world from its upcoming takeover of Crimea, a region of Ukraine. FIFA then happily brought the World Cup to Russia in 2018, just a few years later. Say what you will about Qatar, but they didn’t do anything as bad as what Russia did.

Second, the Arab world deserved a World Cup. As a whole, the region is opening up and sports are becoming a middle-class leisure activity. There are millions of new and potential soccer fans in the Middle East and northern Africa. They deserved to see a tournament up close and in person. Putting the World Cup in the Middle East was a good business move for FIFA, as it looks to expand the game and stay relevant for the next generation of football fans.

But why Qatar? It seems like a strange choice because it’s so small and doesn’t have a strong soccer tradition. However, the other choices might have been Saudi Arabia or Iran, each of which would be highly problematic for other political reasons. Qatar did not have the infrastructure of, say, Egypt or Morocco, but it’s bursting with money, so they just built all the infrastructure they needed, brand new .

On the question of the rights of migrant workers: Qatar has at least relaxed some of the worst practices around its migrant labor system. Previously, workers needed their employers’ permission to switch jobs; now they can do so freely. Workers in Qatar make low wages, but it’s better than they make in their home countries. There is now a national minimum wage that applies even to migrant workers. Qatar is not now a shining example of human rights, but they have made progress. That is more than you can say for some previous hosts.

Finally, Qatar does not deserve all the blame for the stench of corruption around FIFA. FIFA has been corrupt for decades.

In 2015, Switzerland and the United States charged over a dozen FIFA officials with corruption, racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. Eight pleaded guilty. Many, many more were kicked out of FIFA for unethical behavior; the former president, Sepp Blatter, was given a 12-year ban from FIFA activities. A lot of the worst behavior was taking place right around the time Russia and Qatar won the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

My point with all this is that FIFA set up a dirty game, and Qatar played it masterfully. Qatar was never proven to have paid a bribe. But they figured out what they had to do to please the corrupt masters of the sport, and then they did it.

Just pick a few permanent hosts

The hosting of big international sporting events is a dirty, dirty business. And it is an extraordinary waste. The corruption exists at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. But you can trace it all the way down through the big construction contracts, and the city politicians, the national politicians, who all want a piece of a large pot of money. And that money comes from you and me, the viewers.

These sports tournaments should cycle among a small number of permanent hosts. This would cut down on the circus of choosing a host city, and all the waste and corruption around it. It would also eliminate the environmental waste of building huge stadiums for a single event.

This would require the people in charge of the IOC and FIFA to voluntarily give up the power of playing kingmaker and selecting a winning host. Don’t hold your breath. The IOC is at least nodding in that direction. We can hope.

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Expression: At the last minute