Author(s): Deepak Thapa
Year of Publication: 2014
Football season is finally over, at least for those of us whose participation in the game is limited to the comfort of our couches. It is quite certain that the 2014 World Cup will be remembered for Germany’s 7-1 drubbing of their Brazilian hosts. Long after the stunner of a winning goal by Mario Götze in the final fades from our memory; long after Suarez the Biter jokes stop carrying the same punch (including one showing the Apple logo with the caption: ‘Suarez was here’); and long after we have commiserated enough with the thoroughly dejected Messi at the awards ceremony. Whether one was rooting for Brazil or against, it was a sad spectacle to sit through the complete humiliation of a team much loved the world over.
On the sidelines
There were some sideshows to the World Cup, not least of which was the pre-games rioting in Brazil against what some saw as wasteful extravaganza. But among the memorable ones, the ignorant bile that came from right-wing American writer Ann Coulter stands out. Trying her best not to downplay the growing popularity of football in her country, she wrote: “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay... No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”
One can imagine the field day liberal (and some rightist) commentators had, but, as one of them pointed out, the whole drama ultimately did Coulter a whole lot of good in terms of increasing her ratings, which could have been her purpose to begin with (with even this columnist in a faraway land feeling compelled to mention it).
Alongside the World Cup went the continuing saga over alleged corruption during Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 edition. In a few days, FIFA’s independent ethics committee will rule on this account and there is the real possibility that Qatar will be stripped of its host privilege and a re-vote ordered.
International scrutiny over Qatar has two strands to it, both linked to the World Cup: corruption allegations and the shameful treatment of workers brought in to build the required infrastructure. So long as the focus was only on the latter, both Qatar and FIFA had been able to skirt the issue by fudging the issue or resorting to some window-dressing.
When most recently in May, Qatar declared that it would reform its labour laws, rights organisations were not all too impressed. Amnesty International’s James Lynch was dismissive: “The government has been announcing a law on domestic workers’ rights since 2008 but we still haven’t seen it.” Rima Kalush of Migrant-Rights.Org called it nothing more than “an announcement of an announcement”.
Calling the kettle black
The corruption scandal has erupted since then and the focus on Qatar has taken an entirely new dimension. Qatari officials have begun claiming that the charges against them were motivated by racism, a sentiment that has been echoed by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter. Charges of racism coming from a country that treats its migrant workers like slaves is a bit rich, particularly since every investigative report on the matter, by the media and human rights groups alike, has denounced Qatar for its failure to protect its guest workers, not to mention the inexplicable deaths of young men in their prime.
Efforts by Qatar to rebuild its image seem to be getting few desired results. For instance, Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Thani, head of the Qatar Football Association, wrote an op-ed in the British newspaper The Guardian entitled ‘Qatar had the strongest bid for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Here’s why’. The single reference he had to work conditions in Qatar was the plea that they had wanted “the World Cup to be a catalyst for positive change in our region. We have been as good as our word and have already taken steps, for instance, to modernise our labour laws.”
Comments by readers clearly showed that no one was taken in by the sheikh’s defence. “Funniest article I have seen in years. Even Dr Goebbels would not have dared publish such a flimsy tissue of rubbish as this,” said one. “Mr Hamad, not a word about...those slaves? [H]ow shameful!!!” went another. The comments section was littered with the newspaper’s intervention that went: “This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards.” Prompting another reader to add: “Why is the [Guardian] moderating this article so heavily? No one believes a word of it anyway.”
In Nepal’s interest
As one of the major contributors to the Qatari migrant labour workforce, Nepal stands in a peculiar position in the ongoing episode. Should by any chance the venue be shifted from Qatar—and it would happen not because of the abusive working conditions, which should have been the focus of another FIFA investigation—we would have to wonder what would happen to all the Nepalis labouring on the stadia for the World Cup. Qatar remains the second most popular destination for Nepali labour migrants (after Malaysia), with government data showing more than 900,000 having worked there since records started being kept in 1993/94. The government issued more than 100,000 labour permits for Qatar in the fiscal year 2012/2013 and a further 90,000 in the first nine months of 2013/14.
Much as we would like Qatar to be penalised if it had indeed resorted to foul means, especially since the rot of corruption is alleged to have spread to our own national football association as well, it is in our own national interest that it somehow retains the rights to the 2022 World Cup. Or else, it will lead to the shuttering of constructions sites and the return of tens of thousands of our compatriots with their dreams shattered. The best hope we have is that if Qatar manages to clear its name, it will have been chastened by the experience and will provide for some serious undertaking, followed by immediate action, to ensure better rights for its imported labour class. Otherwise, hanging over the football finals eight years hence will be the clouds of shame, bloodied by the deaths of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of the world’s underclass.
Published on: 17 July 2014
The Kathmandu Post