FIFA World Cup: Capitalism is killing the Beautiful Game

By Stéphane Doucet 

The 2022 FIFA World Cup of soccer began on November 20, with the Canadian team making their first entry into the competition in 36 years. Many Canadian fans no doubt relished the opportunity to cheer on their home side, who boast an impressive slate of young talent.

Nearly every World Cup is subject to endless intrigue, on and off the pitch, but this year’s event, which takes place in the small oil-rich country of Qatar, is worth examining in more detail.

From the 2010 announcement of its winning bid to host the pre-eminent footballing contest, Qatar’s victory seemed to be both a cruel joke and a demonstration of how corrupt and greedy the leadership of the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) had become. Indeed, in the years since, many international scandals, including several arrests, have plagued the organization. It’s basically an open secret that Qatar paid to host the tournament, though it would be naive to assume that everyone else isn’t doing the same thing.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to analyze all the ways that big business has corrupted “the beautiful game,” it’s worth noting how much this struggle between finance and fans structures the debates within the game. Qatar’s example is simply another explosive moment in a long battle to win back the game from the oligarchy which rules it from within, and from the class hovering around it which uses it both as an “opium of the masses” as well as an investment opportunity.

The main controversies in Qatar revolve around its being “unfit” to host a World Cup: Islamic law forbids the sale and consumption of alcohol, a regular feature of football-watching; there is no real domestic appetite for football, compared with the vast majority of countries in the world; the climate is so inhospitable to sports that the tournament had to be moved to winter rather than the traditional summer schedule; and more.

The other controversy, most relevant to us, is Qatar’s abysmal human rights record. Simply on the matter of the World Cup and leaving aside the general domestic context (monarchy, oppression of women and LGBT community, etc.), much ink has been spilled on the treatment of the enormous migrant labour force hired to prepare the country to host the tournament. Most migrants are from the east coast of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, building stadiums, malls, hotels and the like.

A 2021 Guardian report estimated that 6500 migrant workers had died so far working on World Cup installations. While that figure has since been criticized by a range of experts and seems to be the product of sloppy journalism, other NGOs are coming up with more rigorously researched numbers which point in the same direction. Qatar’s economy generally rests on a transient, highly exploited majority of non-citizen workers, and this was exacerbated by the huge project underway. As the World Federation of Trade Unions stated: “workers from the African continent and Southeast Asia have been forced to accept slave contracts, known as the kafala system, where the employer retained their passport, imposed his working conditions enabling him to imprison or deport without compensation anyone who did not comply.”

In early November, the All Pakistan Federation of United Trade Unions decried the return of three more dead workers, in this case firefighters, to their home country. The general working and living conditions of the workers building the infrastructure are such that the number of workers dead and injured during the leadup to the tournament will never be known. Worse still, no one will be held responsible, and those who should be will be raking in profits on their bloody investment.

In a time of generalized imperialist aggression, worldwide economic downturn, inflation and unemployment, pandemic and hunger, it’s almost a cliché to denounce this sort of “orgy of consumption.” It can seem tired to harp on the way that capitalism has overtaken football, a sport which billions hold dear. However, it’s never wrong to point out injustice and to demand a better world. Football fans the world over are sick of the way their love for the game is exploited for profit, at the expense of fellow workers, at the expense of having an accessible game and at the expense of global solidarity. That spirit is one which can be galvanized against the football oligarchy as well as the class of monopolists who exploit us, destroy the planet and the game of football.

As the WFTU wrote in a statement on November 18: “Capitalism has turned sport, a dignified and praiseworthy human practice, into another ideological tool to achieve its interests, impregnating it with a competitive character in accordance with its philosophy, according to which whoever does not win is a loser. (…) Everything that capitalism touches is corrupted. Class-oriented unionism denounces this predatory and inhuman system that even in leisure and sports tries to instil its philosophy of life. We cannot be complicit in the blood and misfortune of millions of class comrades for the sake of the spectacle that will accompany us in the coming weeks.”

[Photo: Ebay … seriously!]

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