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The hosting of the FIFA World Cup by Qatar has been embroiled in controversy since the tournament was awarded to the nation in 2010. Qatar had never previously qualified for a World Cup or achieved anything of note on the international soccer stage. Many suspected corruption, and deposed FIFA president Sepp Blatter even recently admitted that awarding the tournament to Qatar had been a mistake.

One of the fundamental challenges Qatar needed to tackle was its lack of actual infrastructure. Only one pre-existing stadium is currently in use at the World Cup, with the other seven having had to be built specifically for the tournament. While construction was successfully completed on all venues, stories emerged throughout the projects of horrendous treatment endured by the migrant workers building the stadium and the deaths of many.

Reports have indicated that migrants were lured to Qatar with the promise of work and money to be able to send home to their families. Many are reported to have subsequently had their passports taken from them and been forced to work long hours in high temperatures with little rest. The treatment of some workers has been characterized as modern slavery.

The actual death toll of migrant workers has been difficult to pin down, with different groups giving different figures. An article in the Guardian in February 2021 claimed that there had been 6,500 deaths among migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, although it stated that this didn’t include migrant workers from other nations, such as the Philippines and Kenya.

A report from Amnesty International, meanwhile, places the number at around 15,000. Qatar itself claims that there were only three work-related deaths during the preparations for the World Cup. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, and Qatar is rightly being pressed on the issue.

There was more controversy just two days before the start of the event when Qatar announced that the sale of alcohol would be prohibited at all venues throughout the tournament. The move received widespread condemnation given that throughout the entire build-up of the tournament Qatar had given assurances to the contrary.

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While alcohol is still being sold at designated fan zones and certain licensed premises, the move left event sponsor (to the tune of $75 million) Budweiser in the lurch, with the brand having already shipped a sizable quantity of its beers to the host nation. Budweiser has since announced that it will ship the unsold beers to the country that wins the tournament.

Despite the stadium ban, it was later revealed that alcohol could be purchased as part of hospitality packages at games, which start at $23,000. While many defended the initial decision to ban alcohol, given that Qatar is a strict Muslim country where alcohol is for the vast part not sold or consumed, the notion that the ban was enacted for religious reasons appears doubtful due to its availability as part of the hospitality packages.

Budweiser likely has legal grounds to sue FIFA, but industry insiders believe that the beer brand will show restraint so as not to damage its long-term relationship with FIFA. However, this could increase tensions in the relationship between the two going forward and affect future World Cup sponsorships.

Another point of significant controversy has been the ‘One Love’ armband, which many team captains were planning on wearing in protest of Qatar’s stringent anti-LGBTQ+ laws. While the England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and  Netherlands captains were planning to wear the armband in their opening games, their respective federations told the teams to stand down amid pressure from FIFA and concerns that the players would be issued a yellow card.

Some pundits have criticized the teams for backing down, arguing that human rights issues are surely more important than the risk of a yellow card. Others have even criticized the players for playing at the tournament in the first place, arguing that if they felt so strongly about these issues, they should have boycotted the tournament.

However, the ramifications for the German Football Association (DFB) have been more severe, with sponsor Rewe having announced that they have dropped their marketing campaign for the tournament in light of the DFB backing down to FIFA. While this is still a developing story, it will be interesting to see whether other sponsors act accordingly in the face of FIFA’s actions. For their part, in an apparent protest at the stance of FIFA and the DFB, the German players covered their mouths as they lined up for the team photo ahead of their opening match against Japan.

The FIFA World Cup is one of sport’s great events and is among the most anticipated every time it rolls around. However, the accusations of corruption, political stories, and human rights issues are continuing to keep much of the focus away from the pitch, creating a distraction from the spectacle that a World Cup delivers, and limiting Qatar’s opportunity for a showpiece event as host nation.

Image: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images