FIFA’s Impossible, Corrupt Qatar Math: How FIFA Had to Have Known Forced Labor Was Needed for 2022’s Qatari World Cup

How did Qatar ever win the right to host the 2022 World Cup? Even by FIFA’s own math, corruption is the only answer.

05.31.15 10:45 AM ET

Sepp Blatter’s FIFA presidential campaign, at least in public, consisted of a single statement—that he would run on his record as a FIFA executive of over 40 years and his record as president over the past 17. To watch him spin his Friday re-election as a mandate for change—only days after a significant number of his executives had been arrested on criminal corruption charges—may seem both hypocritical and surreal to observers. But to football fans, it is nothing new. That’s FIFA.

But there was one moment where even we, the fans, were caught off-guard by the sheer absurdity of the body that was governing our sport. It was a decision that has since come to personify the greed, arrogance and corruption surrounding FIFA: the awarding of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup Finals to Qatar.

Qatar is a tiny wealthy state with a population of just over 2 million people protruding out of the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf. It is one of only a half-dozen remaining absolute monarchies in the world, ruled as a theocratic state under a very conservative Wahhabi form of Sharia Law. Lashings for crimes such as adultery or consuming alcohol are common, while for Muslims homosexuality is punishable by death. The rights of women have not progressed beyond the 19th century. There are no political parties, let alone an opposition movement. There are no unions or student organizations and—perhaps not surprisingly—no elections.

In the summer, when the World Cup is usually held, average temperatures in Doha, the capital, are over 40 degrees centigrade, or 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with highs in the 50s. It is impossible to play football in that weather, and local residents find it impossible to do anything in that weather—as nearly 10 percent of the local population leaves the nation during the summer for cooler weather elsewhere.

In 2008, when Doha submitted a bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, its bid didn’t even make the shortlist of candidate cities. The International Olympic Committee, itself no stranger to corruption in awarding hosting rights, scored Doha low in its evaluation report—a reflection of the high risks and monumental task required for the city and nation to be capable of hosting an international sporting tournament.

Yet, somehow, despite all of this, Qatar is scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup. That’s FIFA.

To host a World Cup tournament, FIFA has established a set of legally binding requirements that it requires host nations to meet and abide by. Some of these requirements have previously proven controversial—such as the tax waivers and legal waivers and indemnities that host governments must grant FIFA and its sponsors.

Other conditions are reasonable and thought-out logistical requirements, which have been expanded over time as the tournament has become more and more popular. These requirements are defined in a bid document that FIFA sets out and sends to each candidate host.

Examples of logistical requirements include that the host nation spread the games out over at least six host cities, that it provide adequate transportation infrastructure between and within those cities, that it is capable of receiving the over 1.5 million expected foreign visitors in airports capable of handling the passenger numbers, and that it can accommodate those visitors in at least 60,000 dedicated hotel rooms.

The 32 visiting national teams each require a home base with training facilities where they can be accommodated before and during the tournament. Each stadium requires at least three training fields, and a dedicated hotel for each team for the night prior to the game being played there and the evening of.

As for where the games will be played, the requirements state that bidding hosts should propose at least 16 stadiums from which the FIFA evaluation committee can narrow down the best candidates that meet its requirements for international games.

The requirements go on and on for hundreds of pages—from the major and more important (like stadium facilities and world-class hospitals within each city) to the relative minutia (like the capacity of Internet connectivity, availability of satellite coverage for foreign media, and the stability of the local government).

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FIFA even established a semi-independent internal committee whose task it is to evaluate each bid against these requirements, report on them and rank them as part of an internal report to the Executive Committee members who would be voting to decide on the host. Unlike many internal FIFA documents and reports, these bid evaluation reports are made available to the public.

In the case of the 2018 and 2022 bids (won by Russia and Qatar) they make for fascinating reading.

That’s because Qatar’s bid evaluation on technical and logistical grounds went about as well as many would expect: It failed to meet key requirements, and the report even highlights dangerous risks in awarding Qatar the hosting rights.

Almost the entire population and five of the seven candidate Host Cities are concentrated in a 25km radius of Doha. Only Al-Khor and Al-Shamal are further away.

The seven proposed host cities are not really cities in the sense that most people would think of one. Three of the host “cities” have populations of less than 50,000—not enough to fill the larger grounds where football matches are played. One of the “cities,” al-Shamal, has a population of 11,000 and is only 1,000 square kilometers.

As for stadiums? Since it lacked any modern facility up to FIFA’s standard, Qatar would build nine new ones and renovate three existing stadiums to FIFA capacity requirements. Some of these would be in Doha, some would be in the new “Education City” and “Stadium City”—actual cities being built—while others would be in the smaller regional areas.

Because FIFA has sustainability requirements, the plan was that most of these new stadiums would be disassembled and donated to poorer nations around the world, where they would be reassembled at Qatar’s cost—a legacy of the 2022 World Cup that would allegedly spread goodwill to less fortunate footballing nations.

How about those hotel room requirements? For the teams, which require dedicated hotels, Qatar met two-thirds of the requirements. For the 60,000 required rooms for international guests, the bid team could commit to 40,000. The rest? That would all be constructed—140 new buildings for accommodation, with additional rooms being supplied by cruise ships anchored off some of the smaller venue cities.

In terms of the local laws, alcohol will be allowed in “fan zones,” although it is unclear what the rules will be around women’s dress and segregation or the rights of LGBT visitors and athletes. 

Transport links? The bid committee says that new train and highway links will be built between the cities that have yet to be constructed. Those will, in turn, host the stadia that are to be built. In Doha a $24 billion subway system will be built, one of the largest in the world.

Regional visitors will arrive in Qatar using one of the new high-speed regional rail links, which have yet to be built—or the new highway network linking to the island nation of Bahrain, which isn’t built, either.

International passengers will arrive at New Doha International Airport, whose first terminal opened last year—five years behind schedule—and where World Cup capacity isn’t yet achievable. Some of them will travel to their hotel rooms, most of which are yet to be built, through the new Doha Bay Crossing (now Sharq Crossing), a bridge—also yet to be built—that will cross the harbour and connect the new airport to the city center.

As FIFA’s report puts it, “It appears to be difficult to test a transport concept prior to the event under conditions comparable to the FIFA World Cup.”

But that wasn’t the largest obstacle to Qatar hosting the World Cup.

“Qatar mainly consists of a low, barren plain with mild winters and very hot, sunny and humid summers. It has a desert climate with long summers, and precipitation is scarce. Qatar would present very hot weather conditions,” says the report. “The fact that the competition is planned in June/July, the two hottest months of the year in this region, has to be considered as a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators, and requires precautions to be taken.”

Qatar’s solution to this problem? The stadiums would be air conditioned, of course. The bid from Qatar was mostly a collection of concept drawings from artists, backed by a promise to spend a lot of money combined with some pseudoscience around how entire stadiums can be cooled in a desert while still hosting a carbon neutral event.

So how did the evaluation committee summarise the bid from Qatar for the 22 members of FIFA’s executive committee who would decide on the host? Here is the summary graphic from the report:

On the assumption that Qatar would build everything they claimed: new hotels, new tunnels, new highways, a new subway system, a new airport, new (air-conditioned) stadiums and entire new cities, they finished last. In a comparison of the risks of each highlighted by the evaluation committee one bid stands out as being exceptionally risky:

In a separate McKinsey report, which scored each bid - Qatar finished second last:

  1. USA 100
  2. Japan 73
  3. S Korea 71
  4. Qatar 70
  5. Australia 68

In the time since the bid was awarded to Qatar, FIFA has modified their requirements a number of times. The number of host cities has been reduced from seven to three. Qatar will now be building eight stadiums as opposed to 12. Those stadiums will no longer be modular and will not be donated to poorer nations.

As for that air conditioning plan? Abandoned. The tournament has been moved to the winter—right into the middle of the regular club football season for the most popular and lucrative leagues, causing havoc with scheduling and broadcast revenue.

As for all of that construction, it turns out Qatar and FIFA’s plan was for the country to import low-cost foreign labor from poorer nations such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and India and to have them work on construction sites with some of the poorest safety standards in the world. The workers would temporarily become residents under Qatar’s existing guest worker system known as kafala—which, due to its exploitative practices, Human Rights Watch has equated to forced labor. They live in camps, have no rights as local citizens, and are bound to their employer in a system that requires a visa to exit the country.

Of Qatar’s population of 2.2 million, some 90 percent are foreign workers—the highest proportion of any nation in the world. They carry out the tasks that the local citizenry of 250,000 would not otherwise be capable of fulfilling (or would not want to). It is estimated by the ITUC that more than 4,000 such workers will die on construction projects leading up to the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

How does such an unlikely host for a World Cup tournament get selected despite being unable to meet most requirements? How does it happen, even against the advice of its own internal committee report and despite requiring forced labor and the deaths of so many workers? That’s FIFA.