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Qatar 2022: The ethical dilemma of watching the Fifa World Cup

Qatar 2022: The ethical dilemma of watching the Fifa World Cup

Hannah Rich on the ethical dilemma around watching the Qatar Fifa World Cup. 12/12/2022

The nights have drawn in, the weather truly begun to bite, my flatmate has been away for a fortnight and I’ve got a guilty secret. I’m not proud of it. I promised myself I wouldn’t. Yet somehow I find myself here with my resolve in bits. I’ve been watching the World Cup. On Friday, as two consecutive games went thrillingly to extra time and penalties, I couldn’t turn it off.  

It does feel dirty. There is a litany of reasons why the whole thing shouldn’t be happening – in Qatar, in November – and why we oughtn’t to be watching, from the country’s abysmal human rights record to its treatment of migrant workers and LGBT+ people.  

Yes, some have made similar arguments about previous locations, including the last World Cup in Russia. After all, somewhere in the supply chain of almost every major event is injustice, latent or otherwise. Almost half of top–flight clubs in English football are sponsored by gambling companies. Just last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published an exposé on the conditions of undocumented workers on construction sites ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.  

But this time, the twin evils of a clearly unsuitable host nation coupled with shady, even corrupt processes and governance behind the decision makes this seem worse. The sudden and tragic death over the weekend of Grant Wahl, an American journalist who had consistently decried the murkier side of the competition, cast a further shadow. Ethics aside, it is not a location that would ever have been chosen on footballing merit alone; the need to reschedule the event to winter to mitigate the high temperatures in June made that much clear.  

And so it brings us face to face with the realisation that most of the institutions we love are in some way morally compromised, and that enjoying them leaves us more than a little sullied. The argument that we should ‘focus on the football’ is hollow because to watch football in this incarnation of it is to be drawn into the murkiness around it. It is increasingly difficult, if possible at all, to separate the industry of football from the enjoyment of the action on the pitch. 

But there is a risk, however, of making sport into a mere morality play, as my colleague Paul Bickley has previously pointed out. We can argue all day about whether individual players and teams should engage in political acts; whether the threat of a yellow card should dissuade them from making political statements more readily than it dissuades bad tackles. But perhaps we want too much from sportspeople and their governing bodies, to the point of projecting our own moral responsibility onto them, and cannot blame them when they fall short. We are at risk of subsuming into the concept of ‘sportsmanship’ ideas and notions that go far beyond the pitch.  

Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s ‘today I feel…‘ speech, in which he suggested it was hypocritical for Western media to criticise Qatar’s human rights record, has been rightly mocked. Yet its bizarre rhetoric only highlighted further the implausibility of the whole charade. It tried in vain to invoke a common humanity which ought to be at the heart of sport and yet is glaringly missing from the ethos of this tournament.  

Beyond the relief that England weren’t awful, and the widespread agreement that Jude Bellingham is the future, it is hard to take much from this tournament but a general sense of conflictedness. Maybe the players could have been more forthright in their statements. Maybe armbands should have been worn. Maybe the system is so warped it wouldn’t have achieved much anyway. Maybe I’d have been better off not watching any of it. However glorious the on–pitch performances were, they would have been coloured by the circumstances and so maybe, just maybe, it’s for the best that we were spared having to celebrate football coming home this time.  


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Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 12 December 2022



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