Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Screen Shot 2022

Many feel that a World Cup responsible for thousands of deaths should not be celebrated. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Is FIFA World Cup Controversy Just One More Distraction?

If we could take just some of our energy and anger that we rightfully hold for the situation surrounding this World Cup and direct it instead to a system that has been exploiting workers and destroying ecosystems for thousands of years, then we could actually get somewhere.

Simon Whalley

After an awkward run up, the FIFA World Cup is finally underway in Qatar—a country mired in scandal and run by a deeply corrupt organisation. Usually in the weeks leading up to soccer's showcase tournament, excitement is on the faces of people in every country represented. This World Cup feels different. The excitement has been subdued by allegation after allegation—ranging from 6,500 migrant workers dying during a ten year construction boom to Ecuador players being offered $7.4 million to throw the opening match. Evidently the bribe wasn't accepted as Ecuador ran out clear winners in the first opening World Cup game ever to end in defeat for the host nation. Additionally, LGBTQ supporters fear for their safety in a country where homosexuality is a crime, and perhaps the biggest concern for many fans is that they will now be forced to stay sober for a full 90 minutes after Qatar banned alcohol sales inside stadiums just two days before the opening game. This has led many to push for a boycott of games and to calls from many footballers and politicians alike to put pressure on the hosts to carry out deep reforms. Qataris seem perplexed by all the controversy, and maybe they are right to be so.

Another extremely valid complaint is that homosexuality is considered a crime in Qatar. Maybe FIFA should have required a law change before handing the World Cup to the country in the first place?

Many feel that a World Cup responsible for thousands of deaths should not be celebrated. It is difficult to disagree. We cannot pretend, though, that football is somehow an anomaly. Take the world's bestselling product: the American iPhone, made in China. Dozens of subsidiary workers have thrown themselves to their deaths since Qatar was handed the World Cup in 2010. The same phone—and all other smartphones—rely on cobalt for the batteries we replace every two years or sooner. Cobalt is mined in atrocious conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and around 40,000 of those miners are children as young as seven. They have no protective equipment and risk their lives on a daily basis so we can all use our smartphones to complain about working conditions at the World Cup in Qatar. It is known that in 2019, fourteen children lost their lives but the true number could be much higher. These kids are breathing in cobalt dust, which leads to asthma and scarring of the lungs. Not a single smartphone maker can guarantee that child labour is not used in their products, because the supply chains are too opaque. On the Indonesian island of Bangka, at least one worker was killed every week in 2012 in order to mine tin used in smartphone production. Who calls for boycotting of the smartphone? Out of sight, out of mind.

Another extremely valid complaint is that homosexuality is considered a crime in Qatar. Maybe FIFA should have required a law change before handing the World Cup to the country in the first place? This would have been a great bargaining chip. Where are those calling for a boycott of the World Cup when their own nations are selling weapons and crowd control equipment to these repressive autocracies? The UK taxpayer benefits to the tune of billions of dollars every year by supplying regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. The same can be said of the US, who continue to supply Saudi Arabia with weapons—which they then use to bomb Yemen. American companies have been found to be supplying CCTV equipment to Iranian security forces, which they use to repress women. It seems the World Cup is an easier target.

For anyone who has seen the FIFA documentary on Netflix, corruption within FIFA is abundant, as it was between Qatar and the world governing body when they were awarded the world's biggest soccer tournament. A country of five million can never expect to host a World Cup by themselves, not least a country with no history of football. As a Welshman relishing the opening game against the USA and in a World Cup for the first time since 1958, the prospect of Wales actually hosting a World Cup by itself is absurd, despite Wales's larger population and long history of producing world-class players. The stadiums would become white elephants, as they will in Qatar. But is this corruption unusual in any way? Really? Consider that at COP27, a Saudi delegation stated, "We should not target sources of energy; we should focus on emissions. We should not mention fossil fuels." We shouldn't mention fossil fuels? The continued burning of fossil fuels is going to result in potentially billions of people losing their lives. And we shouldn't talk about them? In fact, in 30 years of COPs, no mention of leaving fossil fuels in the ground has ever been mentioned—not once. Could this be because the global fossil fuel industry has been reaping $1 trillion a year in pure profits for the past 50 years? If we can't talk about ending fossil fuel reliance even as it causes our planet to become uninhabitable in many parts, corruption in FIFA just doesn't seem such a bad thing, does it?

This article is not intended to excuse Qatar or FIFA from any wrongdoing. Qatar clearly has problems with human rights. They are clearly homophobic and they are clearly corrupt, as is FIFA. The aim here is to put things in perspective. If we could take just some of our energy and anger that we rightfully hold for the situation surrounding this World Cup and direct it instead to a system that has been exploiting workers and destroying ecosystems for thousands of years, then we could actually get somewhere. Football (soccer) fans are some of the most passionate people on the planet, and if they could become a little more interested in the real sources of power that continue to push us over a cliff face, we might be able to avoid climate and ecological collapse. As it is, just like Covid-19, just like the Ukraine war, the World Cup will just become another distraction from the real source of the planet's problems—a system built on never ending growth, whatever the cost.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

EPA Urged to 'Finish the Job' After Latest Move to Protect Bristol Bay From Pebble Mine

"Local residents, scientists, and the broader public all agree that this is quite simply a bad place for a mine, and it is past time for the EPA to take Pebble off the table permanently," said one activist in Alaska.

Jessica Corbett ·


'Zero Tolerance for Corruption': Grijalva, Porter Demand Answers on Alleged Trump Pardon Bribery Scheme

The Democrats believe a real estate developer donated to a Trump-aligned super PAC in exchange for the pardons of two other men.

Julia Conley ·


Millions of Americans Lack Adequate Health Coverage, But the Pentagon Has a New Nuclear Bomber to Flaunt

"This ominous death machine, with its price tag of $750 million a pop, brings huge profits to Northrop Grumman but takes our society one more step down the road of spiritual death," peace activist Medea Benjamin said of the new B-21 Raider.

Brett Wilkins ·


Betrayal of Railway Workers Ignites Working-Class Fury Toward Biden and Democrats

"Politicians are happy to voice platitudes and heap praise upon us for our heroism throughout the pandemic," said one rail leader. "Yet when the steel hits the rail, they back the powerful and wealthy Class 1 rail carriers every time."

Jessica Corbett ·


With GOP House Control Looming, Pascrell Calls for Swift Release of Trump Tax Records

"Donald Trump tried to hide his tax returns from our oversight but after 1,329 days we have finally obtained the documents," said the New Jersey Democrat. "We should review and release them."

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo