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Slave Labor? Mass Prisons? FIFA Mangles the World Cup and the Beautiful Game


Is it possible to be sickened by everything that goes into staging the World Cup while also loving the tournament itself? For eighty-three years the answer to that has been a resounding yes. The thinking, from FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, down to fans, has been that if a few eggs must be broken, then that’s the price we must pay for a brilliant global frittata. But, with two stories that broke this week, FIFA is truly testing the limits of what people will swallow.

The first exposé was by Sam Borden in The New York Times about the efforts to build the first-ever “World Cup quality stadium” in the middle of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest for next year’s tournament. The Amazon is often described as the “lungs of the world,” producing 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen, so people who are pro-breathing might be angered over what is being done in the name of just four World Cup matches. Brazil will be spending $325 million, almost $40 million more than the original estimates, while uprooting acres of the most ecologically delicate region on the planet. Romário, a former Brazilian national team star who is now a member of the Brazilian Congress, called the project “absurd”, saying, “There will be a couple games there, and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money.”

One option being discussed—and only barely mentioned by the Times—is turning the entire stadium into a prison. Sabino Marques, president of the Amazonas custodial system’s monitoring and control group, endorsed this idea, saying, “After the World Cup, I believe there will be entirely idle spaces. Every day we have arrests in Amazonas and where are we going to put them?” Using soccer stadiums as prisons has a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those throughout the country protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.

As horrific as this scenario seems, FIFA and Qatar, site of the 2022 World Cup, has a construction operation that makes Brazil’s look positively benign. Guardian reporter Pete Pattison, doing the kind of journalism that sometimes feels extinct, has written a series about Qatar’s stadium-building policies that have already resulted in the deaths of dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers. Unlike other Olympic-sized projects with a body count—see Greece in 2004—the deaths are not primarily a result of workplace accidents, but heart failure: young healthy men having heart attacks.

As Pattinson writes, “This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.”

The charge of “slavery” that many Nepalese workers are bringing forth results from the fact that their pay is being withheld to keep them from fleeing the labor camps in the night. Food and water have also been rationed as a way to compel the Nepalese to work for free. After a day in the scorching sun, they sleep in filth, twelve to a room.

Pattinson quotes one Nepalese migrant employed at the Lusail City development, a $45 billion city constructed from the ground up, which will include the 90,000-seat stadium for the World Cup final. “We’d like to leave, but the company won’t let us,” he says. “I’m angry about how this company is treating us, but we’re helpless. I regret coming here, but what to do? We were compelled to come just to make a living, but we’ve had no luck.”

In normal times, over 90 percent of workers in Qatar are immigrants, with 40 percent coming from Nepal. But these are not normal times. There has been a massive push for migrant workers, as Qatar aims to spend over $100 billion on stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, part of a broader effort to remake and “modernize” the emirate. A hundred thousand workers have already come from Nepal, one of the poorest nations on earth, and as many as 1.5 million will need to be recruited to get the job done.Thousands more will die if action is not taken.

I spoke with Jules Boykoff, author of Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games and a former professional soccer player. He said, “Sports mega-events like the World Cup are upbeat shakedowns with appalling human costs. This is trickle-up economics that magnifies the widening chasm between the happy-faced promises of mega-event boosters and on-the-ground reality for the rest of us.”

The issue is clearly not soccer. It is clearly not even having a global tournament like The World Cup. It is the way these mega-events are linked to massive development projects used as neoliberal Trojan Horses to push through policies that would stun the most hardened of cynics. The people of Brazil, demanding “FIFA quality hospitals and schools,” have shown a way to envision how we can emerge from this brutal cycle. The Nepalese migrant workers, just by having the courage to come forward, are doing the same. 

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