The World Cup Stinks, Long Live the World Cup
Contemplating the icky politics and irrepressible joy of the world’s biggest sporting event
The 2022 Qatar World Cup kicks off this morning, as the host nation faces off against Ecuador. Soccer fans who traveled to the gulf nation are still reeling at the thought of a dry tournament—Qatar announced an alcohol ban on Friday—but that’s arguably the least dispiriting thing about this year’s Cup. The following essay (which we’ve also reproduced on our website) appears in our upcoming issue, #32. You can get your copy by starting a subscription.
This year’s World Cup in Qatar is at the forefront of sustainable design. But its score on labor practices is dismal.
by Leijia Hanrahan
I love soccer. I am writing this on a relatively new laptop; my previous one died when I spilled wine into its unsuspecting circuitry, having knocked over my glass while gesticulating furiously in response to an unfair call against Colombia during the 2021 Copa América group stage. To add insult to injury, they went on to lose the match. (But they made it to the semi-finals anyway. Cheers to you, Luis Díaz.)
The Copa América, of course, is no World Cup. Every four years in the northern hemispheric summer, the ultimate tournament of international football—I will insist on the term—draws countless millions to television screens, bars, public squares, and sport arenas. The games unfold across stadiums and cities in whatever nation is lucky enough to score a hosting slot, as chosen by football’s Francophone governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA.
This year the tournament lands in the small but immensely wealthy gulf nation of Qatar, where average summer temperatures of 107 degrees Fahrenheit are so dangerous that, for the first time ever, the games won’t kick off until late November. Why was such an inhospitable environment selected for a major athletic event in the first place? The answer is pretty straightforward: they bought it. While the stench of impropriety has long clung to FIFA, the announcement of Qatar’s selection in December 2010 was seen as especially scandalous by those critical of the organization. It seemed clear to all that Qatar and Russia, which had grown cozy after reaching a deal for the former to invest in the development of the latter’s oil fields, had conspired to support each other’s World Cup bids. As would later be alleged, the two countries made numerous bribes to ensure the success of their respective campaigns. (Russia was given the 2018 tournament.) In 2020, the US Department of Justice brought charges against several individuals in connection with the scheme, naming both media executives and high-ranking football officials in the complaint. Even still, widespread calls to move the Cup elsewhere in light of these indictments went ignored.
Undeterred by accusations of naked corruption, Qatar embarked on a massive $8 billion buildout, involving the construction of new stadiums, lodgings, and the infrastructure needed to link them. Along the way, the Qataris have brushed aside damning allegations of egregious human rights violations, including an untold number of deaths of de-facto slave laborers, while loudly touting an eco-friendly agenda unprecedented in the tournament’s history. Not for the first time will football fans try and fail to reconcile the sordid reality of the business of the game with our uncompromising love for it. Some of us may have stopped bothering. Still, you might be wondering how a country as unprepared as Qatar circa 2010 goes about building the necessary infrastructure for the world’s biggest sporting event. Let’s look first at what it was starting with. Over 60 percent of the population lives in Doha, the nation’s capital with some 2.4 million residents, a number expected to balloon with 1.2 million football tourists. Doha is overwhelmingly car-centric, with only a minimal bus system in terms of public transit before it opened a new metro system in 2019. A look at the nation’s cultural infrastructure, however, reveals a different story. At the time of its World Cup bid, Qatar had already invested heavily in architecture. In addition to the city’s numerous flashy skyrises, its more idiosyncratic built landmarks tend to be a highly stylized blend of ultramodern and traditional Islamic architecture, often designed by big names and blue-chip firms: the National Museum of Qatar was authored by Ateliers Jean Nouvel; the Museum of Islamic Art given its cubic elegance by I.M. Pei; and the interiors of the Four Seasons Hotel Doha glammed up by Rockwell Group.
Further amping up Qatar’s design credentials are the eight stadiums designated for the World Cup. The most recognizable of the bunch is Al Janoub Stadium in the Doha satellite of Al Wakrah. According to Zaha Hadid Architects, the project’s flamboyant form was inspired by the sails of the country’s traditional dhow boats, but its yonic undertones has garnered much public comment. In Doha itself, there is Khalifa International Stadium, which already serves as the nation’s preeminent sports venue. The city also contains Stadium 974—its anonymous name actually derives from the number of shipping containers Spanish office Fenwick Iribarren Architects specified for its construction—and Al Thumama Stadium, designed by the Oman consultancy Ibrahim Al Jaidah to resemble a gahfiya, Middle Eastern headwear. Municipalities as far as the northern coastal city of Al Khor, where Dar Al-Handasah Consultants, a Beirut-based company, has built the Al Bayt Stadium, will get their hands on the Cup as well. Al Rayyan, a large city west of Doha, boasts two venues: the Al Khor Amad Bin Ali Stadium, by Danish engineering firm Ramboll, and Education City Stadium, also courtesy Fenwick Iribarren. The planned, as-of-yet unfinished city of Lusail will host the tournament’s final match. Lusail Iconic Stadium, a gilded bowl turned out by Foster + Partners, is already a national landmark, having hosted the Qatari Diar Triathlon in 2019 and the Qatar Grand Prix in 2021.
From the jump, Qatar aggressively marketed their commitment to “delivering the first carbon neutral FIFA World Cup.” In January of this year, Qatari stakeholders obtained ISO 20121 certification, an international sustainability standard never before conferred on the tournament. It’s clear that a lot of effort has been made to minimize the event’s ecological impact and maximize favorable publicity and international investment for its host. This ambition is inscribed in the design of Qatar’s new stadiums, which sport all manner of “green building” features. The naturally ventilated Stadium 974 in particular will be fully dismantled after the conclusion of the Cup and its building blocks donated to nations with lower GDPs for their own sporting events. Seventy percent of the lighting at Al Bayt Stadium is solar powered. At Al Janoub Stadium, water from air conditioners will be recycled for toilets. Amad Bin Ali Stadium was constructed from over 90 percent reused or recycled materials. The bulk of Al Thumama Stadium is covered in native vegetation. Some 55 percent of Education City Stadium’s building materials were procured locally. And at Lusail Iconic Stadium, sewage water from workers’ accommodations has been treated and repurposed for dust control. Foster + Partners’ website also happily notes that the project received a five-star rating from the Global Sustainability Assessment System.
Claims of a “carbon neutral” or “sustainable” World Cup, however, stand in stark contrast to the body count its buildout has racked up thus far. Not long after these projects got off the ground, reports of worker abuse and hyper-exploitation began appearing in Western news outlets. Qatari labor practice has long operated under the kafala sponsorship system, which legally binds migrant laborers to the individual companies that hold their work contracts. For World Cup–related construction, several companies recruited construction workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Ghana, Kenya, and other poorer nations, often making empty promises about benefits and demanding payment from potential employees upfront for the opportunity. Once in Qatar, workers had to hand over their passports and, until recently, could not quit their jobs or leave the country without the company’s permission, which they are predictably unwilling to grant. Under pressure from human rights advocacy groups, Qatar made some reforms to the kafala arrangement; beginning in 2018, the exit permit requirement was technically done away with, allowing workers to leave the country without their employer’s permission, and in 2020 a new minimum wage was implemented.
Enforcement of these provisions is reported to be spotty at best and has yet to qualitatively change the nature of construction work in the country. According to an October 2022 report published by Amnesty International, which has closely monitored the situation, “thousands of workers remain stuck in the familiar cycle of exploitation and abuse thanks to legal loopholes and inadequate enforcement.” Laborers are housed in packed camps in the desert, often working seven days a week even though Qatari law mandates one day off. The camps themselves are squalid, safety precautions on building sites are subpar, and the extreme heat is a constant health risk, even with the minimal regulations in place to prevent work outdoors during the three hottest hours of the day during the summer.
In early 2021, FIFA officially recognized thirty-seven deaths among migrant workers since the beginning of World Cup construction, a mere three of which were actually “work-related.” But other reports from that year, some compiled from Qatari government sources, indicate that at least 6,500 such laborers have died in that time (though this is surely an undercount). Hundreds of thousands more infrastructure workers have reported either receiving less than their promised pay or never having seen a cent of their meager wages after years of labor. In 2020, Qatar Meta Coats, the company spearheading construction on Al Bayt Stadium, was found by Amnesty International to be thousands of dollars—the equivalent of many months’ salaries—in debt to around a hundred employees whose residency permits they also failed to renew, leaving them at risk of detention or deportation.
In an exercise in the bleakest of next-next-level cynicism, the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy established an annual “Workers’ Cup,” in which laborers contracted to different companies for the World Cup buildout are selected to play on opposing teams in a full tournament. (The games are depicted in the excellent 2017 documentary The Workers Cup.) Victories, celebrated under the company’s banner, are used by recruiters to advertise the excitement of working in Qatar to potential new employees in other countries. Ultimately, members of the winning team split the equivalent of a few thousand US dollars, while the company they played for rakes in unnamed profits off the backs of a new crop of laborers.
Of course, a full World Cup makeover requires more than death stadiums alone, which is why Qatar has energetically, perhaps even creatively, tackled the problem of a dire shortfall in hotel lodgings. The national tourism board hopes to cultivate “an authentic taste of Qatari camping” by making a thousand “Bedouin-style” tents in the desert available to football fans. The country has also tapped Finnish firm Sigge Architects to design sixteen solar-powered floating hotels to help relieve the strain. Currently stationed off Qetaifan Island North in Lusail, these facilities—containing 101 “eco” guest rooms in all—can later be relocated to any port in the world.
As bizarre as all of this sounds, when it comes to shameless World Cup hosts, Qatar is in good company. Like the Olympic Games, the World Cup has always been a magnet for corruption and controversy. In 2018, Russia’s hosting duties were contentious not only for the means by which they were acquired, but also for the institutional homophobia and ban on negative press characteristic of the nation’s political climate. (Homophobia is also a concern that has been raised forcefully and repeatedly regarding potential negative fan experiences in Qatar, although authorities insist that even gay fans will have a good time. And in a move only too telling of the arbitrary, geopolitically motivated politics of “human rights” enforcement, FIFA suspended Russia from this year’s Cup after the country began its invasion of Ukraine in February.) In 2014, riots erupted in Brazil ahead of the World Cup there, after public monies badly needed for social services were funneled into new sporting infrastructure. Homeless encampments in Rio were brutally evicted and their residents incarcerated. The same woeful tale marked the leadup to South Africa’s 2010 turn. And so on.
In Qatar, stadiums on the cutting edge of sustainable design do little to ameliorate the conditions of their construction, with the inevitable drone glamor shots only standing to further obfuscate this fact. But it’s a thin veneer, one many already find easy to see past. The World Cup is only so much about the game itself, and otherwise largely a ploy for investment. While they aren’t expected to do much on the pitch, in that latter, more insidious game, the Qataris have arguably won.
It’s tempting to dance some cheap interpretation of “no ethical consumption under capitalism” here, but that would be a cop-out. In truth, when we watch the World Cup, we are consuming its ethics in their entirety. Joy, beauty, excitement, conflict, finance, corruption, exploitation, murder. Compartmentalization isn’t really possible. Ultimately, the infrastructural project of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a case study in “green” design run amok, with deadly consequences. Sustainable, culturally inclusive architecture may be the way of the future, but at this rate, a whole lot of the people building that future won’t ever live to see it.⬤
New York Review of Architecture is a team effort. Our Editor is Samuel Medina, our Deputy Editor is Marianela D’Aprile, and our Editors-at-Large are Carolyn Bailey, Phillip Denny, and Alex Klimoski. Our Publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
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