On Human Rights and Sports Writing in View of the FIFA World Cup

I originally drafted this on April 16 when I was in a very bad mood and never got around to publishing it because I was in a better mood the next day. So uh… enjoy this rant, you guys and gals.


Swindled, injured, indebted, and dead Asian and African laborers in Qatar act merely as an excuse for American soccer fans to bash on a former rival World Cup bid. Claims that Emirati human rights’ blemishes delegitimate NYC FC’s expansion plans into MLS similarly don’t come from a source of social justice. Soccer writers cheaply use human rights’ record of NYC FC’s ownership group to mask their disdain for a foreign ownership group starting another franchise in the New York City metropolitan area while MLS has ignored large swaths of the country.

There are few clear examples of natural crossover between sports and politics in which the narrative is not pushed by someone with only passing knowledge in one or the other arena. FIFA’s World Cup provides ample fodder for these articles as the suffering of human beings on the periphery of the festivities is ubiquitous even if overlooked.

The Republic of South Africa spent an estimated $5bn on the 2010 World Cup while FIFA, enjoying tax-exempt status, netted profit exceeding $3bn on the event. What was heralded as a watershed moment for the continent, Africa’s first World Cup rather replayed the same storyline of a European venture exploiting the Global South while sticking the host nation with an overwhelming infrastructure bill.

Whether FIFA was malicious in its attempts to strap South Africa, a country with crippling unemployment and widespread underdevelopment in the face of epidemics, the footballing organization wanted to make a political statement by awarding the 2010 games. FIFA told the world, and the host nation specifically, that an African country was ready to host the World Cup tournament. Sadly for the people of South Africa, that was not the case. South African cities are still dealing with the costs of long-since idle hotels and stadia.

One might think that things are going well in the cultural home of football, this year’s host nation of Brazil. There have been widely reported violent cleansing of neighborhoods surrounding the designated tourist locations around World Cup stadia. National and regional police forces that were already known for violent conduct doubled down in the two years leading up to kick-off, adding extra soldiers to patrol and conduct evictions in multiple major cities in Brazil. Brazil’s government has decided to revise its existing counter-insurgency training tactics, but rather than improving its public face, these changes have been geared towards increasing the brutality and gratuitous exhibitions of violence in efforts to quell the sentiments of resistance among the native population.

By awarding the 2014 World Cup to Brazil, FIFA again was making a statement to the world that Brazil was ready to host the globe’s most prestigious sporting event. While Brazil may seem like a no-brainer in terms of soccer fanaticism, cities are already stretched to breaking points with faulty or deficient public transportation, a lack of financial commitment to higher education, and inadequate programs to deal with unemployment.

Brazil is country very much in flux from the depths of undemocratic darkness to the glorious enlightenment of representative democracy. Former President Ignacio “Lula” da Silva made grand strides to address income inequality worse than any country in the region and among the worst in the world. Even the relative success of Bolsa Familia and other social programs have made but a dent in the massive wall of ills facing Brazil’s poor families.

Rather than investing in the people of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s government has made international sporting events the national priority to show through a festive World Cup this year and Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 that Brazil is an acceptable destination for foreign investment. Little of the funds from these investments will ever trickle down to ameliorate the squalid conditions in which poor Brazilians must survive (or not).

FIFA is set to rake in many billions of dollars from this year’s World Cup while Brazilian tax money props up the organization’s profit centers and tourist destinations.


The point of this piece is not to discourage individuals from becoming active in social justice causes but one has to seriously question the motivation of those joining in the current chorus that Qatar’s human rights record is shaming FIFA. Surely the conduct of the global governing body itself is disparaging the image of the sport we love, but is that really what matters here?

Should the story not be about how Qatar doesn’t deserve to host the World Cup and instead be about the systematic process of human trafficking and modern slavery that is pervasive in Arabian Gulf States? Are you blind to the human story?

Is this really the first time that “soccer journalists” and American soccer fans have heard of human rights abuses? What does it say about the American soccer fandom that we don’t care about the unspeakable suffering of others until the sport in this country can potentially benefit from it?

The deaths of World Cup laborers in Qatar has become a footnote to the chorus heard around the soccer landscape in this country: “Qatar bought votes to win the bid, summer temperatures are dangerous and a winter WC is stupid, the country has an abysmal human rights record*, and alcohol is illegal over there.”


It is rather amusing to see American soccer fans and journalists/bloggers daily cite the human rights and labor conditions in Qatar and the Emirati interests behind Manchester City and NYC FC to complain about their respective soccer entities. Where are these same people when America’s drone program murders children in Pakistan and Yemen? Where are these same people when conservatives actively repeal the power of organized labor in this country?

Are you upset that Gulf States repress women? What are you doing about unequal/unfair pay, shameful sex education curricula, state laws that criminalize miscarriages, acts of terrorism against medical professionals who provide access to reproductive health?

You’re up in arms about the second-class status of South Asian and African migrant laborers in the Gulf? Law enforcement in this country rounds up immigrants (and folks who may happen to look like immigrants) in order to fill quotas in both public and private (for-profit) prisons. If you’re worried about minority rights, what are you doing to address stop and frisk policies and the culture of racialized violence by American police forces? Should you not also care about the piecemeal destruction of the Voting Rights Act and increasing attempts at the state level across the country to reinstate Jim Crow style legal discrimination?

If you feel so strongly that FIFA is dragging the sport you follow through the mud because of rampant corruption, why do you not feel similarly that the elimination of barriers to widespread corruption in American electoral politics is dragging our country through the mud?

The abuses of Qatar and the moneyed interests of the United Arab Emirates are simple narratives. Americans generally know (next-to-)nothing about these countries which allows them to become “the others” in our collective consciousness as if global events were a cheap Mad Libs. Whether it is indeed from a place of genuine concern for the well-being of others or simply a way to spitefully differentiate ourselves from the unknown other (and in doing so argue to host the 2022 tournament), the human rights aspect of the story deserves a better discourse.

The deaths of South Asian laborers should not be a means to argue that Qatar shouldn’t have the World Cup (of course to the benefit of the United States of Soccer); these human rights issues should be discussed on their own merit. Using human tragedy and real life suffering to make a point about sports that benefits yourself is morally reprehensible and disrespectful to the victims.

Do better.

Be better.


10 thoughts on “On Human Rights and Sports Writing in View of the FIFA World Cup

  1. Some things are better left unsaid. Keep politics out of the equation. You revealed that you are way left-of-center in your ideology…and that’s putting it mildly. Apparently your college professors really served you some bad kool aid.

    From a practical standpoint (meaning ‘business’) I’d remove this post…that is, if you want to attract more readers. If not, then let it ride…and see what happens.

      • You actually had a valid argument until you started spewing left-wing venom about “drone attacks” and the American practice of “rounding up immigrants”. As we both know (although you won’t admit it) illegal immigration is a huge problem in this country.

        it’s simple. If you are here illegally, you are a criminal, period! Of course, the left in this country uses illegals as political pawns…it gives them a larger constituency. More votes.

        Now, I have no doubt that Qatar “bought” the 2022 World Cup. And the human rights issues you pointed out are probably true. Qatar should not be allowed to host the WC. For several reasons.

        But when you try to link or equate Qatar’s human rights record with alleged and unsubstantiated abuses, both domestically and abroad, you are showing your true colors. That of a socialist.

        What about the acts of terrorism on US citizens abroad? Our military personnel hamstrung with untenable rules of engagement? Where is your bleeding heart then?

        Stick with footy. You seem to have a lot more to offer in that regard.

        And, please don’t make assumptions about my altruism or lack thereof. It diminishes your credibility.

        • Well for the almost compliment at the end there.

          I have no problem with you insinuating or calling me socialist. If you’re the type of person who needs to put labels on things to understand the complicated mechanics of the world.

          If you ask the Qatari government about the institution of slavery in that country, it will deny any wrongdoing. If you ask the U.S. government about “alleged and unsubstantiated abuses,” it will deny any wrongdoing. That’s why journalism exists.

          I’m glad you can recognize the tragedy of human suffering when the victims are American servicemembers. Where we differ (if you’ll allow me to make this brief assumption about your degree of altruism) is that I also value the lives of Yemeni children and Pakistani children and undocumented resident children.

          The bit of the article you’re taking exception to is tangential to the main argument. Violations of human rights and human dignity, including terrorist attacks and military actions (in addition to economic warfare and U.S. supported political violence) are a tragedy. Forced evictions in Brazil despite legal residency in favelas should be discussed on their own merit. Indentured servitude of African and Asian migrant laborers in Qatar should be discussed on its own merit. The lack of any substantive labor protections in both Brazil and Qatar (probably Russia, as well) as organizers race to meet FIFA deadlines should be discussed on their own merit.

          I chose “alleged and unsubstantiated abuses” attributed to the United States because those are issues on which I have organized or participated. I could just have easily chosen whatever countries on left on the Axis of Evil but because I’m American and because this country (as the perpetrator of the two worst human rights attacks in history) needs to be held to a higher standard.

          I appreciate you reading the blog and making a conversation of this piece, honestly.

  2. I’m guessing you are a fairly young guy. I can appreciate your passion. I just don’t agree. As for journalism, there seems to be more interest in creating news than reporting it. And every article has an agenda. And it is rarely about reporting the facts. It’s either putting someone in a favorable light or discrediting an individual or idea based on the writer’s personal view.

    Pretty safe to say that the vast majority of articles now are essentially op-ed pieces.

    Americans, be they soldiers or civilians, do not go around blowing themselves up and killing innocent women and children. Nor do they decapitate captured combatants. Very few so-called peaceful Muslims rarely speak out against the actions of their extremist brothers.

    Yemen and Pakistan are fertile breeding grounds of Islamic terrorism. That’s a fact.

    Creating energy independence for the US will do more to solve this problem than sending more troops and planes to the Middle East.

    As for what is going on in Brazil, well, I admit I’m not as well versed. I have no doubt that Qatar has issues. Majority of the Middle East is in some sort of religious/political turmoil. .And I absolutely believe they bought the 2022 World Cup.

    The US has issues as well. The biggest problem has been the proliferation of large, expansive govt. that is not only inefficient, but is essentially enslaving the majority of its citizens by creating an even larger welfare state.

    It’s less about what is happening in the rest of the world but more importantly what is happening domestically. As we get older, our priorities change. Providing for our families. Educating our kids. Mundane details of life.

  3. I respect your passion devoted to your cause. However, I just don’t agree.

    Can you elaborate on the “two worst human rights attacks” by the US?

  4. Apparently, you just don’t get it. Obviously your mind has been poisoned. besides, bringing up something that happened 69 years ago doesn’t exactly strengthen your argument.

    Might as well go back to what the ancient Egyptians did. The Romans. The Persian empire, etc.

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