The Qatar 2022 World Cup is riddled with controversy

The result of one of the most unholy alliances in football history.

Football is a global sport, and no other event represents that as best as the FIFA Men’s World Cup. Held every four years, the competition features the teams of 32 countries from across every continent, with billions of people watching matches in real time and generally following the outcome and advancement of the games. This year’s edition of the World Cup is being held in Qatar and it marks the first time that the event is being hosted in Arab territory, but what should be a landmark achievement has been wrapped in controversy since the host nation was announced over a decade ago.

In 2010, the World Cup was hosted for the first time ever in Africa, with South Africa serving as the host nation. In a vividly festive edition of the tournament, South Africa lived up to its billing as the rainbow nation, putting on a hosting showcase of pomp and vuvuzelas. Perhaps the only controversy attached to the games were the official balls—the Jabulani—which were mainly subject to criticism for their flight pattern. Besides that, that World Cup has been generally reviewed positively for bringing a distinctly African flavour to the global game.

Perhaps in the afterglow of the World Cup being held in previously uncharted territory, Football’s global governing body FIFA elected to award the hosting rights for the 2022 edition to Qatar. At the time of its announcement in early December 2010, the news was received a big shock. After its massive hosting success in 1994, and with a bid many considered to be the strongest, the U.S. was expected by many to be elected as host in a bidding pool that also included Japan, Australia and Korea.

Almost immediately, Qatar’s win to host the World Cup was met with a litany of criticisms, with the easiest critique being the country’s lack of a strong cultural connection to Football—Qatar is just playing in its first world cup and has never been a emergent or dominant force in Asian confederation footballing competitions. There were concerns about the country’s readiness to host a world cup, with its torrid weather conditions and a serious dearth of world class stadiums, even though the local organising committee and the Qatari government pledged to build an ample amount of stadiums fitting for the World Cup.

Away from just the pitch, there were issues with alleged discrimination against women and gender-based violence, as well as state-backed homophobia. That’s not even mentioning the complaints of an allegedly racist society. So, how would a country with human rights issues play host to players and fans from many countries of different races and sexual orientations? For those on the other side of the critics, there are cynics who deem these issues as first world concerns that seem extricable from the round leather game, which should be the main focus.

If you’ve been following the development of Qatar’s preparation to host this year’s world cup, it’s extremely easy to not only understand but also agree with the criticisms that were initially levelled against the country’s bid to host the world. One of the allegations that quickly surfaced after the 2010 announcement was that of corruption, that the Qatari bidding committee had done more than lobby, and flat out offered bribes to voting members of FIFA’s executive council, which is responsible for electing World Cup hosts. If you watch the recent Netflix documentary series, ‘FIFA Uncovered’, those allegations don’t just hold water, they seem very true.

Over the last decade, FIFA has been dealing with increased scrutiny into the dealings of the body, with allegations of corruption hovering around for decades. Part of ‘FIFA Uncovered’ includes substantial attention to the racketeering, wired fraud and money laundering charges brought against top level FIFA officials by the U.S. government, after extensive investigation by the FBI. The documentary highlights trails and collects anecdotes as evidence of deep rooted corruption in FIFA, which seemingly played a huge role in Qatar winning the hosting rights of the world cup.

In one of the anecdotes, former Qatari bidding committee member and FIFA whistleblower Phaedra Almajid recounts being in a meeting that involved paying off $1.5 million bribes to the three African members of the FIFA executive committee. The doc also draws alleged connections from multi-billion dollar deals between a few countries and Qatar as bribes for World Cup hosting votes, including a fighter jets deal with France that includes auspicious appearances from French football Legend and former UEFA president Michel Platini. Even as recently as a few days to Last Sunday’s opening match against Ecuador, there were allegations that Qatari officials had bribed their opponents to lose, a claim you’d probably take with a few pinches of salt if you saw the Netflix docuseries.

In that opening match, Ecuador won by two unanswered goals, handing Qatar a loss in their first ever world cup game and making them the first host in World Cup history to lose their opening match. During that match, Ecuadorian fans were heard chanting “we want beer,” in response to the Qatari government outrightly banning the sale of alcoholic beverages in and around stadiums during the world cup, an announcement that was made two days before the start of the world cup. Previously, it was expected that there would be alcohol zones in all the stadiums, but the host nation folded and fell back to its deeply conservative, Islam-based ideals despite playing host to a secular competition.

“Well, this is awkward…”, a since-deleted tweet from the Budweiser Twitter account read when the no alcohol news was announced. It’s reported that Budweiser had paid $75 million to be the official beer of the world cup and to serve as the sponsor of the ‘Man of the Match’ award given out every match. With this strict alcohol policy – alcohol will only be sold in one location in Doha, Qatar and only corporate spectators who’ve paid about $19,000 for seats will be able to access alcohol in the stadiums—it shows the lack of malleability and tolerance that should be expected of countries hosting a global sports event.

Apart from the fact that beer and other alcoholic beverages are a big part of camaraderie in football, it highlights the seeming organisational power imbalance between Qatar and FIFA that, even though the latter received sponsorship money from a beer brand, the host is barely willing to compromise. It’s a cliche saying that the World Cup is meant to be a unifying event in an increasingly divisive world, but there’s really nothing unifying about a host country lording their ideals over travelling participants due to religious beliefs that many of these visitors don’t hold sacred.

It’s important to note that the religious beliefs of a community deserve to be respected, but in situations like these, it’s also important to create a conducive atmosphere for those that aren’t beholden to those inherent values. Boundaries should be set, like the expectations of alcohol zones in this case, which would foster a sense of accommodation to everyone, but that doesn’t seem like a priority to Qatar. I don’t think anyone would’ve said they didn’t see all of this coming, with the corruption allegations, the claims that migrant workers who helped build the stadiums worked under subpar condition and led to thousands of them dying, and even the schedule was changed from its usual summertime run over the course of a month-plus to a winter run in the span of just under a month, affecting footballers who already have a gruelling in-season schedule with their football clubs.

In all of this, the main accomplice is FIFA, as it continues to cater to these intolerant ideals and defend the decision of this World Cup’s host country. Current FIFA president Gianni Infantino has not only consistently reiterated his support for Qatar since being elected in 2018, he’s demanded that all criticisms be addressed towards him because this is a FIFA competition, even defending the strict alcohol rules.

The most controversial issue at this world cup so far is Qatar’s homophobic, anti-LGBTQ+ stance. It’s been a point of criticism since the country was elected host in 2010, but many hoped that the Islamic nation would be tolerant, at least, of queer people by 2022. Well, that hasn’t happened. Queer people in Qatar are not only marginalised, they are actively hunted and persecuted, with the backing of this state-sanctioned queerphobia being based on religious ideals. With far more liberal countries participating in the world cup, this discrimination has been amplified, especially since the world cup—and football in general—has often taken a unifying stance against any form of persecution, even if its picture-esque activism.

Vehemently rebuking the World Cup it’s hosting as a platform for outward LGBTQ+ support, Qatar has clamped down on any symbols that opposes its stance, and it’s doing so with the help of FIFA. Before the world cup kicked off, several countries were ready to pay sanction fees that came with their captains wearing armbands with rainbow-imprinted designs, which have the inscription “One Love” written on them. At global level footballing competitions, captains are only allowed to wear armbands with specific messages selected by FIFA, and a deviation attracts a sanction. At this world cup, though, countries won’t only be sanctioned for wearing armbands supporting the queer community, the captains would also be issued yellow cards at the start of the game, putting the ability of these players to play the entire 90 minutes of the match in grave danger.

The threat of the yellow card sanctions ultimately made these countries cool off on their planned decision, and even with FIFA allowing the armband with the “No Discrimination” tag to be worn throughout the competition as a compromise, it feels like a missed moment. It’s proved even more divisive because there’s a sect of football fans who aren’t supportive of mixing football with sociopolitical messaging and issues, with many of them being tacit and active supporters of Qatar’s queerphobic stance.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen tweets stating that the western countries participating in this World Cup, as well as critics in general, are trying to force their ideals down the throats of a sovereign nation. An operative word in all of this “culture”, with many claiming that Qatar’s stance is an act of cultural protection. Before I term it nonsensical, it bears noting that homophobia and queerphobia are human rights issues that supersede “culture”. Perhaps it would be much easier to grasp the bias behind this defence if queer people are nonexistent in Qatar, but they do exist and they’re being persecuted for who they are and who they love.

It’s beyond sad that, in 2022, queerphobia is still a thing. You could say it’s a reflection of respective societies and their “values”, but the fact that a global event is being held in a country that alienates a significant population of the world is downright abhorrent. Again, it’s a reflection of the entire mess that is this world cup, an abhorrent culmination of “values” that’s being propped up by one of the most unholy alliances in football history.