Fútbol es Vida and Football is Death: Qatar 2022
By David Sanchez
I want you to keep a number in mind as I pen this reflection, that number is 7,000. That is the estimated number of work related deaths projected in preparation for the 2022 World Cup to be hosted in Qatar. 7,000. Let that number sink in. Meditate on it. 7,000 migrant workers-mostly from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh-will be sacrificed to put on a two-week sporting event viewed enthusiastically by a worldwide audience. And let us not forget the scores of women and children who will be trafficked to satisfy the sexual appetites of many of the football enthusiasts who will make the pilgrimage to Qatar in 2022. A human tragedy on a worldwide scale of epic proportions and most troubling, accomplished in full view of anyone who cares to look beyond the spectacle of the event itself.
I want you to know that it pains me to write this brief essay. Primarily because of the human tragedy that will occur in the staging of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but also because I am an aficionado of international fútbol. The World Cup is my two week Super Bowl as well as the majority of the world's. As a child I have precious memories of watching international and Mexican fútbol with my grandfather and dad. They socialized me into the culture that is la vida de fútbol. It was a familial rite of passage. The Mexican National team and las Chivas de Guadalajara were iconic in our homes and their players were revered like the many Catholic saints that adorned our walls. Fútbol was and continues to be vida in our family. But how do I will myself to support an athletic event that exacts such an unfathomable human toll? What price are we prepared to pay to overlook the tragedy inflicted in the building of the cathedrals dedicated to fútbol and the infrastructure related to the conclaves held at those sites? My ambivalence is altogether palpable.
In 2010, the Fédération Internationale de Football (FIFA), the governing body of international fútbol and the World Cup came under tremendous worldwide scrutiny for awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar, respectively. The Russian award is another deserving investigative essay in itself. But the Qatar award was even more perplexing. Let's look at a few problematic issues related to this verdict. First, Qatar's FIFA Executive Council Member, Mohamed bin Hamman, was suspended for his role in the bribery of several African Executive Council members to shift their votes in the direction of Qatar. Qatar had also been accused (and continues to be accused) by several of its Arabian peninsula neighbors as being a primary sponsor of extremist terrorists groups. In Qatar, homosexuality is considered a crime. This fact prompted the then-president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, to proclaim homosexuals should refrain from sex during the 2022 World Cup. It should also be noted that average temperatures in Qatar during the tournament months of June and July average 107 degrees Fahrenheit with temperatures often reaching into the 120s. As a result, the 2022 World Cup will be the first World Cup in history to shift the tournament dates to the winter month of December! Qatar was also woefully unprepared from an infrastructure perspective to host such a large-scale international sporting event. Part of their agreement with FIFA was to build 9 new fútbol stadiums with the complete renovation of 3 others. Other large infrastructure projects would be undertaken before 2022 to accommodate the tremendous influx of fans including an expanded airport, a new commuter rail system, new hotels, and congregation areas with majestic gardens just to name a few projects. Qatar, no doubt has the financial resources to accomplish these lofty building goals. They are, the world's wealthiest country per capita boasting rich oil resources. The problem, however, is that this tiny country lacks the human resources to take on such a large-scale building project. There is an acute lack of manual laborers to get the job done, hence, the need and rise of human trafficked laborers to fill the void-almost two million will be necessary. It is from these two million trafficked workers that our 7,000 labor-related deaths will emerge.
Fútbol is death. It is death to those migrant workers who have been deemed capable of working 10-15 hour days in summer months with average temperatures consistently rising over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Lured by aggressive recruiters in their home countries with promises of making more money than they ever dreamed possible. The recruitors tout a "simple" process of paying a recruitment fee and relocating to Qatar for a negotiated amount of time to do construction work on 2022 fútbol venues. Recruitment photos are shown to potential workers of respectable living conditions, sanitary toilet facilities, and fully equipped communal kitchens. The reality in Qatar, however, is just the opposite. Yet out of their abject poverty and desperation they take the bait even after hearing the horror stories from friends who have received their loved ones back in the red caskets that the Qatari government uses for human remains transport. Many of those families are still required to pay off the initial recruitment fee after the death of their loved ones.
Once in Qatar, migrant workers are subjected to a labor system known as kafala. Kafala is benignly defined as a labor sponsorship program. In practice, it is a form of modern-day slavery. Upon arrival in Qatar, sponsors confiscate workers' passports, must approve (and they never do) any change in employment, workers are not allowed to terminate their employment in which case a sponsor can rescind their worker visa which has its own significant legal consequences and are obstructed from leaving their host country without passport. Most workers are not paid in a timely fashion while others receive only a portion of their negotiated payroll and still others receive no payment at all for their work. All from the richest country in the world that has an estimated population of 2.25 million people. Astoundingly, 1.8 million of that population is composed of migrant workers (an estimated 80% of Qatar's overall population)! And 60% of that migrant labor force live in the squalor conditions of Qatari labor camps.
As I read the passage of Genesis 37, the story of Joseph being sold into Egyptian bondage by his brothers, I could not help but think of the trafficking of human bodies in modernity. There are no migrant worker leaders like Joseph in Qatar, no one will rise from Nepal or India to reign over the world's wealthiest country. There are no fairy tale endings to this human tragedy. In modern day Qatar, Joseph would have quite possibly returned to his native land in a red casket, in debt to his brothers who falsely recruited him. Joseph would die in this contemporary adaptation of the Genesis narrative and his brothers would financially prosper. The story ends tragically and the opportunistic antagonists win. Joseph dies anonymously in the hot summer sun of Qatar. Dead, like the other 7,000 human beings projected by 2022.
And where is God in all of this? How does Joseph's divine vindication measure up to those lived realities when God is silent? How do we endure at times when God is silent in our own lives and in the multiple historic events where evil surely has prevailed over justice? Why is Joseph vindicated when others like Job get the combative God of the whirlwind? I would like to embrace the tidy ending of Genesis 37, but I am always challenged by the remarks of God from the whirlwind in Job's human suffering where I hear God saying: 'Because I am in charge and I said so. Who are you to challenge?'
I do not know what I will do when the first ball is put into play on the blood fields of Qatar. Fútbol es vida! Right? Can I, can we, look away when the pageantry of the World Cup begins in 2022 even with the ongoing human tragedy unfolding before us daily? All we need to do is open our eyes. Yet, once the lights of center stage are upon the 2022 World Cup it will be all too easy to forget the lives lost in the games' preparation. Anonymous lives lost. 7,000.
David A. Sánchez is an Associate Professor of Early Christianity and ChristianOrigins at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and the Director of the LosAngeles based Cross-Cultural Leadership Program for the University of Notre Dame. He earned his doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2006. His first book, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths (Fortress Press, 2008) received the 2009 Book Award for the most influential work in the area of Latino/a Theology from the Hispanic Theological Initiative. He is the co-editor of the Fortress Commentary on the New Testament (Fortress Press, 2014), and is currently completing a textbook on apocalyptic Christianity. He has published extensively on the murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe in East Los Angeles and his current research project is an in-depth ethnographic study of the religious and political murals found in Derry and Belfast, Northern Ireland, produced during the conflict known as the Troubles (1969-1998). He is the former Book Review Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and the former President of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.
- Can you recall any other examples where sport's culture has prompted us to compromise our religious and theological standards?
2. How should we understand, as people of faith, when God is silent?
- In light of Qatar, how can we continue to ascribe to the postulation that God has a preferential option for the poor?
4.. What stand can faith communities make in light of such human tragedies? How should we individually and collectively act?
For Further Reading:
The Guardian (March 18, 2017) "We Must All Stand Up to the World's Largest Nation and Oppose Its Use of Modern Slavery," by Sharan Burrow
Jeffrey D. Sachs. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2006.
Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Second Vatican Council, 1965.
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