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11 December 2014

Human lives are too high a price for a World Cup in Qatar

What can we say about construction projects where possibly hundreds have died, but we don’t know how, who they were, or even where they were all from?

By Phil Hartup

Why hasn’t the English FA announced that it won’t compete in the 2022 World Cup if it is hosted by Qatar? Why hasn’t any other football association announced that it won’t compete? It seems like the sooner these announcements are made the sooner people can work towards figuring out an alternative arrangement. It’s just polite after all if you’re going to decline an invitation to a thing that you do so in good time and we English usually like to consider ourselves polite.

Maybe the letter got lost in the post. Maybe Greg Dyke’s got a new phone and he’s not figured out how to make calls on it yet, but it’s been three months since he got it and now he’s too self-conscious to ask how it works. Maybe emails from the English FA go straight into Sepp Blatter’s spam folder along with the adverts for off-brand Viagra and the updates from LinkedIn.

Or maybe, just maybe, the FA has not withdrawn from the World Cup in 2022 because they’re actually planning to compete in it. But surely that must be unthinkable.

There are a lot of reasons to not compete in sporting events. Your country might have a significant political grievance with the host nation which rules out a sporting competition, or there might be a humanitarian issue in that particular country that would make competing there an act of hypocrisy or bad faith. Lastly of the place might just be entirely unsuitable, perhaps because of the threat of crime or terrorist attack, or because of the climate. How exactly these reasons might manifest themselves in relation to a specific sporting event can lead to complex decisions having to be made and difficult questions having to be answered.

Of course that’s not the case with Qatar. When it comes to Qatar’s World Cup the answers are patently obvious. When it comes to the Qatar the very idea that anybody is even considering playing in that tournament is grotesque.

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We can talk about the fact that the climate of Qatar places it alongside the bottom of the Marianas Trench and the south face of K2 in the list of worst three places in the world to play football. We can talk about a government that doesn’t even pretend to be democratically accountable and that still maintains both flogging and death by stoning as punishments for crimes, crimes such as drinking alcohol, homosexuality and apostasy. We can talk about the fact that Qatar is not, nor has it ever been, a country with any notable love for football in any way shape or form and will have to construct the stadia for the tournament from scratch.

Any one of these reasons should mean that a major international sporting event shouldn’t be getting anywhere near Qatar. But it gets worse.

The conditions in which the infrastructure for the tournament is being constructed have come under fire a lot in recent months. This has led to Sepp Blatter coming forth to proclaim that it is not his, nor Fifa’s, responsibility that workers are dying during the construction of the World Cup facilities. This is of course a hollow defence. There is no excuse for not knowing what the Qatari situation was in relation to labour conditions when you’re about to sign off on their hosting a tournament which requires a massive building project.

Getting precise numbers for worker fatalities related to the construction efforts for the World Cup is difficult. It is hard to know who has died and in connection with which construction project, and this in itself speaks volumes. What can we say about construction projects where possibly hundreds have died, but we don’t know how, who they were, or even where they were all from?

However, it is wrong to get caught up in speculation over the numbers of worker fatalities for the simple reason that it is the principle, not the number, that matters. Qatar’s labour laws and track record for fatalities shows that the lives of workers there are not viewed as significant, and that this is a country that would rather bury labourers in their hundreds than invest any time and money into proper health and safety protocols. World Cup or not this is not a place with which anybody with a conscience ought to be doing business.

If England sends a team to the World Cup, or even attempts to qualify (which would in itself imply a desire to get there) it would be an endorsement of Qatar’s efforts as hosting nation. It would endorse their labour policies. It would be saying that it is okay to build a stadium atop the bodies of the workers, as long as its air conditioned.

For years football has been accused of selling its soul, but the Qatar World Cup would be its first serious foray into human sacrifice.

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