The most-watched event on the global sporting calendar — the FIFA World Cup — kicked off this Sunday, when host-country Qatar fell to Ecuador 2-0. Held every four years, the month-long soccer tournament brings together the national teams of 32 countries. This year’s tournament takes place in November and December — a change from the tournament’s usual timing in June and July to avoid the extreme heat during the summers in Qatar.
The tournament has drawn significant criticism due to Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ laws, widespread mistreatment of migrant workers tasked with constructing the tournament’s stadiums and alleged bribery involved in the host-selection process.
Amid this context, several soccer fans at the University spoke with The Herald about how their watching habits and emotional investment in the tournament are different this year, with many expressing uncertainty over how to balance their ethical concerns with their passion for soccer.
FIFA awarded Qatar, an oil-rich country smaller than Connecticut, the 2022 tournament in 2010. The U.S. Department of Justice later alleged that Qatari organizers bribed members of the FIFA Executive Committee.
“How on earth does a country that doesn’t have grass become the host of a World Cup?” said Professor of International and Public Affairs Mark Blyth, who called FIFA “a gigantically corrupt organization.”
“Once (FIFA) made that choice, you then have to ask how such a country which has no tradition of outdoor sports is going to do this,” Blyth said. “That means massive amounts of imported labor and the recycling of carbon wealth (will go) into global spectacle.”
Qatar has employed 30,000 foreign workers, most from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines, to build eight new stadiums as well as a new airport, roads and public transportation as part of the $300 billion project. Human rights organizations allege that workers have been exposed to horrific and sometimes fatal working conditions.
At least 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar between when the tournament was awarded and January 2021, The Guardian reported last year. Students at Harvard held a march and vigil Sunday to honor the Nepali migrant workers who died while working on World Cup projects.
“As a world community, we’ve decided the lives of thousands of migrants are not worth our time. That’s awful,” said Luka Willet ’24, who said he would have made plans to attend the tournament if it had been in another country.
Another significant concern, fans said, is Qatar’s repression of LGBTQ rights. The country outlaws consensual “same-sex sexual conduct,” and official Qatar World Cup Ambassador Khalid Salman said earlier this month that same-sex attraction is “damage in the mind.”
Additionally, some fans donning rainbows, a sign of LGBTQ support, have reported being denied entry into tournament games so far.
While the captains of seven European national teams planned to wear a rainbow armband in protest of Qatar’s LGBTQ record, FIFA threatened that those who do so will be given a yellow card. Instead, FIFA has proposed its own suggestions for more acceptable armbands with slogans like, “Football unites the world,” “Share the meal” and “Bring the moves.”
The teams released a joint statement Monday, saying they would comply with the ban on the rainbow armbands to avoid the competitive consequences.
That was the “breaking point” for T.K. Monford ’25, who has decided to boycott the tournament.
“There’s only so much influence that an individual person has on the organization of FIFA,” said Monford, who identifies as queer. “But (I want) to use the leverage that I (do) have.”
He said that means “not giving my money, not giving my viewership (and) not helping create revenue for an organization that is not doing enough to protect LGBTQ rights.”
“FIFA has a lot of power,” he said. “They should put more effort into making sure that football is an inclusive space for all people.”
In addition to concern about providing financial support to FIFA, some students and spectators are worried that watching the tournament will unfairly boost Qatar’s image.
Multiple commentators have labeled Qatar’s host role as an attempt at “sportswashing,” a term referring to the use of large sporting events to clean up a country’s image.
“Despite their human rights violations being put out there for the entire world to see, Qatar will have an increase in reputation. … More people will watch the beautiful, shiny stadiums on TV and not know the background, and say, ‘wow that looks like a good place to visit,’” Javier Nino-Sears ’25 said.
Nino-Sears, who started a World Cup bracket pool that encourages donations to human rights organizations, said that he was worried that more countries will use a similar sportswashing strategy if corruption among the FIFA governing body is not addressed. The bracket pool has raised more than $100 for human rights organizations, he said.
For many fans who spoke with The Herald, these ethical concerns have diminished their enthusiasm about a tournament they typically cherish.
Stuart Burrows, associate professor of English, said he remembers where he was for every tournament since the 1974 World Cup, which he first watched with his grandfather. “This is the first time that I've got next to no interest,” he said, citing concerns about Qatar’s human rights abuses, corruption and stance on LGBTQ rights. “That makes me really sad.”
Blyth said, “This is one you watch because it’s on the calendar and because you always watch it, you feel that you have to. There’s no sense of joy about this one.”
In Germany, concerns about corruption, human rights abuses and discrimination have prompted fans to call for a widespread boycott of the tournament. But other than Monford, all soccer fans who spoke with The Herald said they are still planning on watching at least some of the games.
Sekai Tully-Carr ’24, who co-hosts a soccer podcast called S/NC, said that the World Cup could end up having a positive impact by drawing attention to Qatar’s human rights abuses.
“Everybody's paying attention, players are speaking out and teams are speaking out and pundits are speaking out,” he said. “If the World Cup wasn't being hosted in Qatar, that might not have happened.”
That will not solve any of what Blyth called “massive violations of human rights” — but ignoring the tournament would not do that either, he noted.
“The best thing would be that we watch the spectacle and the spectacle is seen as farce,” he said.
Chris Henderson, assistant teaching professor of public relations/sports media communication at the University of Rhode Island, studies the way sports are used to form community and resistance among marginalized groups and supports watching the tournament.
“I don’t think me not watching is going to do very much. I would much rather watch, be critical, find the things that I find interesting within it,” he said. “That’s also true with organizing and activism. … You’re going to get a whole lot more done if you actively engage with the structures, the problems.”
Henderson pointed to the Iranian team’s silence during its own national anthem in a display of support for the ongoing protests back home against the nation’s government as evidence of the good that can come out of the tournament.
“FIFA are the custodians of soccer. But the (community-based) connections we make through the game — that happens despite them, not because of them. They want to take that and leverage that and they always do. (But) there is always room within that for us to disrupt, make connections and feel a part of communities,” Henderson said. “It’s not theirs, it’s ours.”
But for many, the decision to watch is simply a result of the irresistibility of seeing the best players of the world in their favorite sport play on their favorite national teams.
“It will be a hard moral quandary — I just love the sport so much,” Nino-Sears said. “I think there is a world in which I can draw attention to the atrocities that are happening there while also enjoying the (soccer) and the athletes.”
“I wish I could say that I will not watch it, but I will,” Blyth said. “I’ll be highly selective and if the teams I have an interest in are knocked out, then I’m done. Because at some point, you’ve got to go, ‘no,’” he said, adding that he is aware of the contradiction of boycotting just some of the games.
“Hypocrisy allows you to live (in) two different states of the world at the same time,” he said. “I think that’s what everybody who watches the World Cup is going to have to do — and own up to it.”
For Monford, watching the tournament would let FIFA off the hook for the lack of support they have shown to both LGBTQ people and migrant workers.
“There are things FIFA should be doing that they are not doing and I think we should hold them accountable,” he said. “If we are going to hold people to standards of (anti-discrimination), we have to do the same with organizations like FIFA who have the ability to create huge impact and do a lot with the resources they have.”