FIFA: The Gift that Keeps on Giving Controversy but not “OneLove”

By: Ann Turner Light

December 9, 2022

In 2010, before FIFA’s then President, Sepp Blatter, announced live that Qatar outplayed much worthier contenders for hosting World Cup 2022, Blatter verbally acknowledged the tension of that day; it was apparent from his body language, too. Between his awkwardness and our collective shock over the outcome was this message: the game of football is based on respect and gives hope to humanity. 

Blatter swam in an ocean of accusations of corruption, fraud, and sexual assault, in connection with his executive role at FIFA. Consequently, investigations, suspensions, fines, and lawsuits followed, not only for Blatter but for several members of the FIFA Executive Committee who voted for the winning bid. Documents show that Ricardo Texeira accepted $1 million dollars for his Qatar vote. A 2012 Swiss prosecutor’s report divulged bribes totaling $41 million dollars taken by Texeria and another. They were not the only ones. 

Articles by ESPN and The New York Times did a fantastic job explaining how the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and indicted fourteen defendants in 2015, which led to convictions. Eventually, some justice was served. Currently, Switzerland’s federal public prosecutor has a magnifying glass over the $8.6 million dollars Qatar paid FIFA a month before winning the 2022 bid. A small amount compared to the $880 million dollars Qatar allegedly handed to FIFA

But the purpose of this blog is not to discuss Blatter, the Budweiser beer ban, nor to untangle the fraud, corruption, allegations, or convictions surrounding the Qatar bid, which just last month Blatter admitted was a mistake. This blog focuses on FIFA’s decisions that spawned human rights violations and its persistence in keeping the World Cup in Qatar despite them. Also discussed is what to consider to determine whether FIFA’s ban on the “OneLove” armbands and sanctions crossed a serious line. 

Let’s lay out the puzzle pieces:  

  1. Homosexuality was illegal in Qatar in 2010 and still is today. Homosexual acts are punishable by fines and up to a three-year prison sentence. Under the religious law of Sharia, homosexuality was punishable by death in Qatar. Still, FIFA chose Qatar.
  1. Speaking of death, thousands of migrant workers died building FIFA 2022. Qatar only began steps toward labor reforms in 2018.Once Qatar was awarded the tournament in 2010, the non-existent hotels, stadiums, and infrastructure needed to be built. Workers experienced horrific working conditions, including dangerously high temperatures, lack of onsite safety measures to prevent accidents, overcrowded labor camps, unjustified decreases in pay, and sometimes, no pay with no recourse like union representation. The system placed workers in debt with obligatory recruitment fees, leaving them no choice but to stay until one of the following occurs: their debt is paid, the work is done, or their demise. FIFA knew this was happening as early as 2011, and the Building a Better World Cup report of 2012 explains it in detail. Ten years would have given another country ample time to take the baton from Qatar and be ready by 2022. Still, FIFA kept Qatar.
  1. As of 1966, the United Nations’ International Bill of Human Rights included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, two treaties named “the International Covenants” which list the rights of every human being, and later, optional protocols. The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) proclaims the right to just and favorable conditions at work, the right to strike, and the right to health. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) embraces freedom of expression, freedom from discrimination, and the right to liberty and security, and no human should be subjected to cruel treatment or enslaved. These lists are not exhaustive. 

Under the guarantees of Article 2 of both treaties, every person is entitled to every right. Qatar had yet to accept these conventions in 2010. That did not happen until 2018, albeit with reservations and its own interpretations. Again, FIFA still chose Qatar, knowing it did not acknowledge fundamental human rights. FIFA kept Qatar knowing very early in the process (2011) that human rights violations had occurred, violations directly associated with building FIFA 2022. It was not until 2017 that FIFA implemented its Human Rights Policy. Although better late than never, we must question FIFA’s delayed reactions and whether doing nothing for so long is a violation of human rights. 

  1. Qatar was elected as a Member State of the Human Rights Council in 2010its second consecutive term, by the General Assembly of the United Nations (headquartered in Switzerland, like FIFA). Members serve for three years and must uphold high standards regarding human rights. Marinate on that puzzle piece.  
  1. FIFA has several legal instruments readily accessible on its website, including its Legal Handbook and StatuesEquipment Regulations, regulations for the preliminary competitions, and those made explicitly for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.™The general provisions of the 2010 FIFA Statutes, Article 3, stated the following: “

Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language,religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” This language implies the provisions governed only FIFA stakeholders but not FIFA itself. 

Under Article 3 of the general provisions of 2022, FIFA expresses its commitment to respecting human rights recognized by the United Nations and promoting the protection of those rights. Furthermore, Article 4.1 details its strict non-tolerance of any discrimination, and applicable to this matter, will not allow discrimination against a group of people because of their sexuality. These are great for various reasons. However, remember the United Nations, specifically the ICCPR, embraces the following:

  • Freedom of expression: Freedom to wear “OneLove” armbands, perhaps? 
  • Freedom from discrimination: Shielding players from a country that not only discriminates based on sexuality but convicts and kills people over their sexuality?
  • How about the right to liberty and security for every person on this planet? 
  1. We get it. If you want to play, you must follow the rules. No one should be surprised by that. It is hard to find a game of any significance that does not require rule adherence, whether played on a coffee table, court, or field. FIFA Statutes make it clear in Article 8.3 of its general provisions that every football organization and player follow its statutes and regulations. 

Current FIFA Statutes and Regulations also govern the Qatar Games, per Article 5 of FIFA World Cup’s General Provisions. These binding instruments establish that no political/non-sporting expression is allowed on the field, including team kits (uniforms) or bodies. Again, these rules do not apply to FIFA, obvious from its “No Discrimination” armband fix that only sparked more controversy.

Article 24.1 under Team Equipment states the following:

“The participating member associations shall comply with the FIFA Equipment Regulations in force. The display of political, religious or personal messages or slogans in any language or form by players and officials on their playing or team kits, equipment (including kit bags, beverage containers, medical bags, etc.) or body is prohibited […]”

FIFA could argue that although it appeared to target a specific message when it banned the “OneLove” armbands, any message is grounds for sanctions according to the regulations. It has happened before on many occasions. 

  1. However, FIFA threatening the harsh sanction of giving a yellow card for breaking a team equipment rule was unprecedented. National Federations were ready to back their team captains by paying typical fines, but with the decent probability the captain could get a second yellow card from fouling, wasting time, handballs, for example, the risk was enormous. When a player receives two yellow cards, he/she is thrown out of the match. The federations and players were essentially – trapped.  Such a move could ruin careers, livelihoods, families, and the future of the federations. 

Is the game of football based on respect and humanity? Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives every person freedoms of opinion and expression. Should we allow a team equipment regulation swallow a human right? FIFA does have a Human Rights Grievance Mechanism as a way reporting any human rights violations related to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. There’s a start.  

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