The World Cup. For many people around the globe, this is the largest celebration of physical accomplishment and human spirit. I fell in love with the World Cup twenty years ago, when my favorite team ended up making it to the semifinals. Ever since, I wait anxiously for the next tournament.
World Cup 2022 in Qatar, however, made even hardcore fans uncomfortable with watching the games. Long before the first match, media reports swirled that thousands of migrant workers lost their lives while building the stadiums and infrastructure under subhuman conditions. The Guardian wrote that more than 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal have died in Qatar. The causes of death remain obscure in Qatari reports, most listed as “natural causes.” External journalists have uncovered inhuman working conditions in extreme heat, electrocution, falling from unsafe construction sites, road accidents, and significantly, suicide. Reports also show that workers had to struggle to get paid even the astonishingly low salary—the family of one Indian worker who was discovered dead after working six years in Qatar, received just Ł 1,120 in compensation and unpaid salary. Other workers, who paid significant fees to agents to secure employment in Qatar, died from accident or suicide and passed on their debt to their families. There is no other words to describe this other than slavery.
Qatar, one of the world’s richest oil nations, is hosting this World Cup on the bodies of the migrant workers. Many people are rightly outraged and boycotting the tournament. While respecting such a decision, I made the choice to watch this World Cup—and I think there are good reasons.
This World Cup, more than any other, is becoming a chance for people around the world to speak up for human rights. Players in the Iranian national team are choosing repeatedly to not sing their national anthem, in solidarity with the protestors in their country. Iranian fans in the stands followed suit by singing the Persian national anthem instead. Two months ago, a young woman died after being arrested for not wearing a hijab. The country has been rising up for women’s rights ever since, and the World Cup is providing a rare opportunity for Iranians to take a stance in the eyes of the world. The players are doing this knowing that they can face grave consequences after the tournament—but the global attention will hopefully provide them with some level of protection.
Meanwhile, German players made a statement of their own by covering their mouths as a team before each game. This is in protest against Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws; when they were banned from wearing the One Love armband, they found this creative way of making their beliefs clear. While traditionally no one outside of Germany cheers for Germans, this earned them the respect that they deserve. The team from Wales was also arguing with the organizers over wearing the rainbow armband.
Attendees are also taking their stance: an Italian former soccer player and activist named Mario Ferri stormed the field during Portugal v. Uruguay, wearing a shirt that said “Save Ukraine” and “Respect Iranian Women” and waving a rainbow flag. The camera, and the world’s eyes, were on him for a few minutes before the security dragged him away; fans cheered from the stands.
No other World Cup has produced this much unity from the players and fans in speaking up for the wrongs around the world. And it has been heightened by the awareness of migrant worker abuse. It’s also becoming a stage for the teams from the Global South to earn their fair seat at the table. It means something that African countries like Ghana, Senegal, and Tunisia get to show off their talent and the spirit of their people so that they’re not brushed off as “Third World countries” but recognized as distinct nations deserving of our respect. And the World Cup is the place that can make this happen, more than any other.
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Photo: Rhett Lewis via Unsplash