Muffling Cries Behind The Cheers
“The first time he left, I was pregnant with my eldest son. I didn’t want him to go, but there was no choice.”
Left with no alternative, Dhan, a young man from Tokha (Nepal), went to the gulf. Leaving his unborn son in the safest womb, when he was leaving for Saudi Arabia, his family didn’t have the slightest of hints of what happened next. “He came back in a box. A white tin. Embalmed, covered, clothed. He was sent like that.” Dhan’s father’s heart melted with these words. He had lost his son in the golden deserts. The cheerful dancer was found writing in pain on the floor, succumbing to the unmerciful Qatar.
The gulf nation exhilarated as the Indian subcontinent sank in bereavement. While more than 6500 people like Dhan, who left their loved ones to feed them, themselves became a fuel for the boiling dunes, a lot more came back to be fed by their families. Many were even deprived of their last rites as their families never got the chance to see their beloved one last time. In what can be called an attempt to bury the reasons with the dead, no attempt to autopsies were made. Out of all the deaths of migrant workers only 37 were reported as deaths at world cup construction sites and only 3 while working, with more than 70% being shown as natural deaths.
“I used to work non-stop from 4 AM to 11 PM. If we asked for a break to have some food, the boss used to say - did you come here to eat or to work?”, says Bhupendra. “They would want me to lift stones between 50-60 kgs. I had to tie a towel around my head and put the weight on it and transport it upstairs and didn’t even get paid for it.”, mentioned Laxman Qamati, a migrant worker from Nepal who suffered chronic back injury.
These are the workers who pay over 4000$ to their sponsors in order to get their ticket and a job in the middle eastern nation. Already indebted, they leave their homes with a dream to come back in a well to do state. However, free men in their lands, like Africans in 18th century, they land on the blistering sands as slaves. Under the clutches of the Kafala system, migrants have to surrender to their employers, who become their virtual masters. Neither a migrant can change his job nor he can go back to his country until his employer allows him to do so. With the control of their passports and exit visas, they act as the sole masters.
The slaughtering practices of Kafala find its pillars in the non-existent labour-laws of the country. Qatari laws and practices don’t even treat migrants as humans. The basic labour laws like fixed working hours, minimum wages, humane working conditions etc. which are omnipresent, don’t even exist in Qatar. Migrants are forced to spend their nights like horses in a stable after working for more than half of the day in fatal conditions. As a result, while many land up being handicapped, some don’t even get a chance to have their final rest on the soil they were raised upon.
The consequences were not unknown to many when Sepp Blatter declared the 2022 world cup to be held in Qatar, a small desert peninsula with just one football stadium at their disposal. The oil rich nation was ready to burn over 200 billion dollars to set the tone. For the next decade, Qatar had planned to build 7 world class stadiums, a new city dedicated to host the finale, an airport and numerous hotels for their guests. The humongous task required massive human resources along with huge capital, which meant Qatar was hosting more than half of its population as migrants. Over 1.5 million workers from Asia and Africa worked in building these stadiums in what can be called Qatar’s attempt to do sports washing.
Qatar along with other middle-eastern countries have been historically unpopular for their stringent conservative laws and human rights violations. The country has been exploiting workers and acting inhumanely since the 1950s, when Kafala came into practice. Alongside, the gulf has been until recently criticised for its ridiculous laws and women within the walls policy. Therefore, an attempt to bluff the world and present a beautiful picture by hosting the world's greatest sports carnival was never a bad move. The little desert has been spending deep into their pockets to give the visiting soccer fans their best ever world cup experience. They have spent over 16 times of what was spent in the organisations of FIFA’s previous editions. But, can they successfully hide the true picture behind the glittering sports show.
Over a million fans plan to visit Qatar between 20th November and 18th December, but it remains a double-edged sword. The first of the many troubles start with the lodging facilities. Though Qatar has built as many hotels as possible, they have not been able to reach even half of the stay facilities required. Even if the lodgings are managed as Qatar is promoting camping in the deserts in the name of a local experience, contrasting cultures of the west and the gulf remain the bigger stone not unturned.
Amid the warm welcomes by Qatar officials, the background actions of locals have become the bone of contention. Few weeks before the commencement, a Qatar based organisation (#Reflect_Your_Respect) has circulated its welcome letter via various social media platforms, which comes with the Qatari regulations that need to be kept in mind by the fans during their stay. Although it's not official, the way it has manifested its discontent with common western practices has cultivated thoughts over the freedom of fans. The widespread poster includes ban on drinking alcohol and homosexual practises among others like dating and loud music. A world cup ambassador from Qatar, while speaking to the German media, remarked homosexuality as a mental illness. These developments restricting the freedom and celebrations have reignited the fury over FIFA’s decision of giving Qatar the hosting rights.
Ever since Sepp Blatter, then president of FIFA, announced Qatar as the host of the 2022 edition, the association has been condemned for its decision. As the tournament approaches, the consequences of FIFA’s worst decision in the recent past is becoming clearer. Apart from the rising toll of migrant deaths, human rights violations and a curb on freedom of fans, hosting the world cup in Qatar has disturbed the balance of world football.
Football lives through various national leagues which go round the year. Most of them culminate by May and restart in August, leaving the summer months free. Thus, as a tradition, FIFA used to organise its event during these months in order to accommodate the leagues. However, with Qatar’s summer heat taking the mercury over 50 degrees Celsius, it was impossible to play. Qatar’s heat forced FIFA to organise its first ever winter world cup. As a result, league schedules got tighter with over 3 matches per week, resulting in player injuries. Footballers who were going to get their national call ups after years of consistent performance found their dreams shattered with injuries. For some, it was their last opportunity, which was snatched by FIFA.
While FIFA can say that Qatar had promised better treatment of workers or a safe world cup for the fans, they can’t get away with the hot weather of Qatar. Didn’t it cross their minds that it would disrupt the well-balanced world football cycle. But as the vision of the officials was focused on making money, they couldn’t focus on these important aspects. An investigation report suggests that the climate of Qatar was never discussed in the association’s meetings.
The 2010 event was followed by numerous probes. While 2 executives out of 24, already charged of receiving money in exchange of their votes had been removed, it is startling to know, 16 out of 22 voting members of FIFA committee were alleged of corruption in some or the other forms. A few executives have been permanently banned from footballing activities and some face temporary bans and other charges. The way executives voted for the 2022 marquee event suggests the presence of tactical voting. Looking at the various rounds of voting which shows Qatar receiving fewer votes in the 2nd round of voting than in 1st raises a question mark over the fairness of the decision.
Then FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter, who was impeached after his resignation in 2015 has recently remarked that the choice of Qatar was a bad move. While revealing that he had voted for the United States, he said hosting the 2022 World Cup in the US after the 2018th edition in Russia was the best option available. He also mentioned that this way FIFA could have balanced the geopolitics of the world. However, the committee chose the gulf nation and despite all the corruption reports, Qatar got away with it.
Nevertheless, football lives in the hearts of its players and supporters and they didn’t let everything go unnoticed. While many fan organisations have held protests against FIFA, entering into the world cup, many participating teams raised their voice against human rights violations and the freedom curbing norms of Qatar. While the German football team lined up with human rights on their jerseys at the start of their world cup qualifiers match, Denmark is going into the world cup with their jersey’s shadowed as a support to the victims of human rights violations during the construction of various stadiums. The Australian national team has released a video showing their support for the victims and raising concerns regarding insecurities of fans. Human rights organisations around the world have appealed to FIFA to announce a relief fund for the affected migrant workers equal to the prize money of the world cup i.e., $440 million.
Going into the world cup and cheering for their favourite teams, every fan should have a corner in their hearts reserved for what people have gone through while building those. There are families still lamenting for their lost loved ones. Thus, while enjoying the greatest sports carnival on the planet, let’s do our bit and keep them alive in our memories. For the glittering show has not come cheap.
By Kumar Rajneekant