“This is not Disneyland,” one of the interrogators snapped, according to a first-person account from the BBC’s Mark Lobel. “You can’t stick your camera anywhere.”
The arrest and interrogation of the British journalists has caused international outrage. Although definitely not Disneyland — the Taliban has an office in Doha, after all — Qatar is still a shimmering playground of sorts. Measured in GDP per capita, it is one of the richest countries on Earth: home to mega malls, stylish art museums, a soaring skyline and, soon, the World Cup.
The BBC team was in Qatar to report on preparations for the 2022 sporting competition. Since it received the rights to the tournament in 2010, Qatar has been dogged by allegations ranging from corruption to mistreatment of migrant workers. To its critics, imprisoning the journalists seemed like proof positive of the country’s serious internal problems.
But many of Qatar’s struggles are symptoms of something bigger: international soccer itself.
When it comes to the World Cup, a pattern has emerged. First, FIFA — soccer’s international governing body — awards the tournament to a country ill-prepared to host it. Then that country spends billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums, often at the expense of public housing or other social programs. Finally, after a flourish of football and tourism, those stadiums lie fallow.
This pattern, plus swirling allegations of corruption within FIFA and concerns over Qatar, raises a once unthinkable questions: Is the World Cup really worth all this? Soccer may be the sport of the masses, but when do the human costs outweigh the value of the spectacle? And at what point is the tournament simply too tarnished to support?
The growing chorus of World Cup criticism stems from a wide array of scandals — some of them recent, others decades in the making.
Since its inauguration in Uruguay in 1930, the World Cup has usually alternated between Europe and the Americas. But in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the tournament, FIFA announced that it was awarding the 2002 tournament to Japan and South Korea. The decision was a recognition of the game’s international appeal in an age of ever increasing globalization. The tournament was a success, and since then FIFA has tried to repeat it in other far-flung corners of the globe. A 2006 tournament in Germany was followed by a 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the first time the tournament was hosted in Africa. Last year, the event returned to Brazil, 64 years after the country first hosted the event.
For both South Africa and Brazil, the World Cup was supposed to mark their emergence as economic and cultural powerhouses. But in both cases, the World Cup celebrations left crippling hangovers.
South Africa spent nearly $4 billion on the tournament, only to become the first host country to get knocked out in the opening round. The real disaster was off the field, however. Poor people were driven from their homes in the lead-up to the tournament. Economic growth actually slowed during the event. Meanwhile, the shiny new stadiums have since become symbols of the tournament’s extravagance and targets of popular resentment.
“Despite a relatively good infrastructure, South Africa chose to make significant renovations to one stadium and construct five new ones for nearly $1.8 billion. Although it has been quite difficult to confirm the funding for the stadiums, all stadiums are public-owned, which implies that the public sector was the main funder for the construction costs and renovations,” said a 2012 report entitled “World Stadium Index — Stadiums built for major sporting events – bright future or future burden?”
The international crowds are gone, but South Africa is still paying the bills. Stadiums built to hold 55,000 now entertain domestic crowds of just a few thousand. Cape Town’s glorious $600 million stadium loses $6 million to $10 million per year, according to the Globe & Mail.
“It was a success for FIFA and the corporate sponsors made a lot of money, but it left local businesses and the state floundering,” researcher Dale McKinley told the BBC about the stadiums. “The infrastructure is good, but why was the money not used properly at the World Cup [so that we wouldn’t be] left with these debts, and are now paying two or three times over again; and the prices of those services are beyond the means of a large percentage of our population which can’t afford them,” McKinley also said about transportation infrastructure built to support the 2010 tournament.
The story so far in Brazil is much the same. The country dropped around $15 billion ahead of last summer’s tournament, only to get trounced by Germany and finish fourth. Again, however, as painful as the playoffs were back then, time has only compounded the country’s World Cup wounds.
Like South Africa, Brazil’s multi-billion-dollar stadiums are already widely underused. Earlier this month, NPR reported that the most expensive stadium — built in the capital, Brasilia, for $550 million — is now being used as a parking lot for buses. Another stadium, in the city of Cuiaba (price tag $215 million) was closed after the World Cup because of faulty construction. Homeless people ended up squatting in its locker rooms.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy has slumped severely, stoking anger over government spending on the sporting event. In January, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke returned to Brazil and brushed off concerns over the World Cup’s questionable legacy in the country.
“You can always criticize the fact that some of the stadiums are not used permanently, but they have all been used,” he said. “The majority of people who came to Brazil the first time say they will come back. I am talking about tourism. Brazil got huge recognition following this World Cup.”
But as James Young pointed out in Sports Illustrated, Valcke’s comments came just as Brazil’s infrastructure entered crisis mode. Brasilia had just announced that its public health system was broke. “Due to a lack of human resources, only patients at risk of death will be seen,” read a sign outside a hospital where unpaid doctors went on strike.
Russia will host the next World Cup in 2018, leading some critics to worry it will be an expensive showcase for President Vladimir Putin.
Qatar’s turn to host the tournament is still seven years away, but already under scrutiny. Flush with oil and natural gas revenue, the tiny nation promised to build 12 high-tech stadiums complete with cooling systems to allow athletes to survive 105-degree summers. But the country has repeatedly come under attack for its work conditions. According to a 2014 report, almost 1,000 migrant construction workers died in Qatar from 2012-13. On soccer stadium sites, a worker dies every other day on average, the Guardian recently reported.
The BBC crew was trying to investigate conditions for workers when they were arrested. The same day the BBC published Lobel’s account, several workers’ rights groups slammed the Qatari government and World Cup sponsors for the allegedly squalid, dangerous conditions in many work camps.
“Sponsors know that Qatar is a slave state,” said Sharan Burrow of International Trade Union Confederation during a news conference. “This is the richest country in the world and they don’t have to work this way. … Fans don’t want the game to be shamed this way.” The Qatari government has called the reports exaggerated but also pledged to improve “errors and problems” in the country.
But the most shameful side of the sport might actually be its ruling body: FIFA. Over the past four years, the organization has been rocked by several corruption scandals. In May of 2011, Mohamed bin Hammam was accused of offering Caribbean soccer representatives envelopes full of cash in exchange for helping to elect him as FIFA’s president. Bin Hammam denied wrongdoing, suggesting that his opponent, FIFA’s long reigning President Sepp Blatter, knew of the payments.
Shortly afterward, Chuck Blazer, one of America’s top FIFA officials, was also accused of corruption (neither he nor bin Hammam has been charged with a crime). According to the New York Daily News, Blazer has turned into confidential informant for the FBI, leading to speculation that the ongoing investigation could claim bigger scalps. Even Blatter has recently had to deny that he is a target of the probe.
These scandals have led to accusations that World Cup locations are decided by graft, not for the good of the game. Last year, a report in the Sunday Times claimed bin Hammam, a Qatari citizen, paid $5 million in bribes to bring the sporting event to his country. FIFA has banned bin Hammam for life.
“The only possible explanation for Qatar winning that World Cup bid, in my view, is because there was some funny business going on, and with that being the case and there being no other explanation, this story is not going to go away,” said Les Murray, a former member of FIFA’s ethics committee, in December.
On Monday, FIFA promised to investigate the arrest of the BBC journalists. But faith in FIFA — and the tournament it organizes every four years — has waned.
“Yes, it was a mistake of course,” Blatter said last year of the decision to award Qatar the World Cup. “But one makes lots of mistakes in life.”