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Opinion This was a World Cup of human rights horrors

German players cover their mouths in a World Cup team photo Nov. 23 to protest human rights abuses in Qatar. (Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse)
3 min

As the 2022 World Cup wraps up, there is an overarching takeaway: Holding it in Qatar was a huge mistake. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, had numerous chances to take a stand for basic human dignities. It didn’t. The result has been a World Cup of human rights horrors.

Awarding this major event to Qatar in 2010 was suspect from the start given that homosexuality is illegal there, women have almost no rights and are subject to a “male guardianship law,” and the nation’s long record of human rights abuses. Even former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who presided over the selection, has admitted that “it was a bad choice.”

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The stadiums and surrounding infrastructure for the event were built with abusive labor practices and cost thousands of lives, according to the Guardian and Human Rights Watch. Qatar bribed soccer officials to get the World Cup and then bribed government officials to look the other way. As the games began, the Qatari government censored how people dressed. Fans who wore or carried gay pride symbols, women’s rights slogans or anything else the government didn’t like were detained or banned from entering. Foreign journalists were instructed to stick to sports in their reporting. And Qatar changed the rules at the last minute to ban alcohol from stadiums.

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None of this should diminish the performances of the players who gave the world spectacular sporting moments, including the triumphs along the way of underdogs Morocco and Croatia. Many made it clear how much they objected to the host nation’s egregious practices.

German players posed with their hands over their mouths for an official photo before a match. “It wasn’t about making a political statement — human rights are non-negotiable,” the team said. Captains of several teams planned to wear rainbow armbands to protest Qatar’s disregard for LGBTQ rights, but FIFA threatened them with yellow cards. (German, British and Belgian politicians wore the armbands in the stands instead.) Iranian players bravely refused to sing their national anthem before the start of their first game to stand in solidarity with anti-government protesters back home.

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No one should have been surprised by Qatar’s heavy-handedness. It has attempted to buy off governments around the world. A vice president of the European parliament has been arrested on charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from Qatar. In the United States, Qatar has spent more than $72 million on lobbying since 2015 — more than Apple and the National Rifle Association, according to OpenSecrets.

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FIFA had a final chance to salvage some grace from its shamefulness, but it turned down a request from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to share a message of peace before the final match. FIFA officials had also signaled openness to creating a fund to provide additional compensation to migrant workers. Now that does not appear to be happening.

Instead of owning up to mistakes, FIFA President Gianni Infantino used his news conference at the start of the tournament to accuse Western nations of “hypocrisy,” but he could not deflect from what was there for people around the planet to see. Indeed, the World Cup is that rare event that brings together much of the world — from Wall Street trading desks to the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh — to watch. That makes it all the more essential to not just put on epic games for 90 minutes, but to produce a shared experience that upholds human rights and dignity.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).