This week hundreds of thousands of football fans will make their way to the Middle East as Qatar prepares to host its first World Cup tournament.
It doesn’t quite feel like a World Cup week. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the overall cloud of doom that’s following people around at the moment, or maybe it’s the fact that the tournament itself, usually a cause for global celebration, is mired in controversy and concern over the host nation’s human rights record, its stance on same-sex relationships, and its appalling treatment of migrant workers.
Last year an investigation by the Guardian found more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup in 2010. The figures are shocking, but the report argues that the data, compiled by respective governments, only tells part of the story, as it does not take into account deaths from a number of other countries that also send large numbers of workers to Qatar, including the Philippines and Kenya.
As fireworks glitter over Qatar’s Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor at this weekend’s opening ceremony, thousands of grieving families won’t be celebrating. Many of them are still fighting for compensation for their loss of their main breadwinner – and clarity over how their loved ones died.
And how did they die? In 2019 a separate investigation by the Guardian found Qatar’s intense summer heat is likely to have played a significant factor in many deaths, with construction workers building flashy new stadiums toiling in temperatures of up to 45C for up to 10 hours a day.
Then there are the deaths that can’t be explained. Madhu Bollapally, 43, left his family in India to take up a job in Qatar in 2013. Six years later, Bollapally’s roommate found his body on their dorm floor. Like thousands of other sudden and unexplained deaths, Bollapally’s death was recorded as heart failure due to natural causes.
As players prepare to perform on the world stage, the elephant is looming large in the room. This particular elephant is one of exploitation, injustice and the heartache of thousands of families whose loved ones moved to Qatar in the hope of providing them with a better life – many of them believed to have been working on projects directly linked to the infrastructure for the World Cup at the time of their deaths.
Last week an ambassador for the World Cup described homosexuality as “a damage in the mind”, just two weeks after our own foreign minister James Cleverly advised LGBTQ fans travelling to the tournament to “show respect” to the host nation – another way of saying “get back in the closet”.
Peaceful protests have been planned by some players, while England’s Harry Kane and nine other captains of European teams will be wearing “One Love” armbands to promote diversity and inclusion. Denmark’s official kit manufacturer Hummel has designed “toned down” kits for the Danish national team as a mark of protest.
It’s all just a bit grim, isn’t it? The decision to allow a country with such a poor record on human rights to host a major world event shows just how loud money talks. No wonder World Cup fever hasn’t quite caught on.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy
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