An ugly scene for the beautiful game

A primer on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar—and why it is so controversial. 

soccer stadium
Written by
Matt Hooper, Director of Digital Communications

The 22nd edition of the World Cup—the quadrennial celebration of the world’s most popular sport—kicked off earlier this week in the small peninsular nation of Qatar. And while soccer’s immense appeal is strong enough to transcend cultural and political borders, this year’s World Cup is known as much (perhaps more) for controversy than it is for sport.

In 2010, when FIFA (soccer’s global governing body and itself a magnet for controversy) selected the oil-rich and rights-poor nation to host the 2022 event, criticism and allegations of wrongdoing quickly followed. Qatar seemed an odd choice to host an enormous sporting event historically held during the months of June and July. It’s smaller in land mass than Northern Ireland and burdened by summer temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).

Moreover, Qatar lacked World Cup-level infrastructure. The country had only one large soccer stadium, several pitches fewer than what is required to accommodate 32 teams playing 64 matches in less than a month. And on the topic of accommodations, Qatar has a total of only 31,000 hotel rooms, barely one one-hundredth of what is needed to shelter a typical World Cup crowd.

And so, in the 12 years between site selection and the start of the first match, Qatar built. And built. And built. In all, 7 new stadiums, 100 new hotels, a new international airport, a new rapid transit system, and several new roads and highways were constructed. From an engineering point of view, it is a stunning accomplishment. But questions surrounding how this impressive feat was accomplished, and by whom, hang like millstones—pulling the beautiful game into an ugly debate.

Those questions and more are asked and answered below.

Is Qatar a free country?

No. Qatar is listed as Not Free in Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World report. What the country has in wealth, it lacks in political rights, civil liberties, and economic opportunity and mobility. The lack of fundamental freedoms is cause for concern among visiting soccer fans, particularly those who are LGBT+. Same-sex sexual activity is a criminal offense in Qatar and is punishable by imprisonment.

How much money has Qatar spent preparing for the 2022 World Cup?

The Qatari government has not offered a definitive total for how much has been spent, but estimates range between $200-$220 billion, which is significantly more than has been spent on any other World Cup. By comparison, the most recent summer and winter Olympic Games (in Tokyo and Beijing, respectively), are estimated to have cost just over $50 billion combined.


Who worked on these construction projects? Where were they from?

About three million people live in Qatar, yet native Qataris make up just over one tenth of the population. Foreign workers were therefore necessary to staff the numerous construction projects begun and completed over the past decade.

Officially, the Qatari government claims that 30,000 laborers—mostly from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines—were employed to build World Cup venues. That number pales in comparison to those reported by various embassies, human rights organizations, and the media. Amnesty International put the total number of migrant workers at 1.7 million. Many migrants had paid substantial amounts of money to join the workforce in Qatar, forcing them into a kind of indentured servitude just to break even, much less make a profitable living.

What conditions did these migrant workers endure?

Conditions at construction sites—particularly in the early years of the project—were brutal. Hot weather, long hours, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions contributed to thousands of worker deaths. The Guardian news organization reported last year that as many as 6,500 migrant workers died during the decade-long runup to the World Cup—an average of 12 deaths per week.  

Workers often found themselves trapped in these conditions and unable to change jobs, much less leave the country. In 2017, the Qatari government began to enact some reforms aimed at safeguarding workers and improving their conditions. However, independent organizations claim that these reforms have not been fully implemented.

What’s being done because of this controversy? What resources, if any, are being offered to migrant workers’ families?

Participating soccer teams are leveraging their elevated visibility to draw attention to the plight of these migrant workers, and several soccer federations (along with many other organizations) are calling on FIFA to provide compensation and other resources to the workers and their families. FIFA has indicated that it is open to establishing such a fund.  

According to the International Labour Organization, Qatar has made it somewhat easier for migrant workers to change jobs (in response to claims of forced labor and indentured servitude) and has eased exit visa requirements.


Matt Hooper is the director of digital communications for Freedom House.