'Untouchable' FIFA, president Sepp Blatter need to answer for atrocities in Qatar
His name was Kali. He was 27 years old and from a section of Kathmandu, Nepal, so impossibly poor that there is nothing remotely comparable in the United States. He had a wife. He had two children. He had a willingness and a work ethic to do virtually anything to provide for them.
That included taking out a loan to pay a recruitment company to place him with a job in Qatar, which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It's also a country so wealthy that it has almost no citizens who would ever do the necessary construction work that men from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere will.
Once in Qatar the workers are placed with a construction company. They have to live where they are told. They can't drive a car. Their passports are taken from them, effectively forcing them to remain on the job until their boss says they are done. They can't quit even if they could pay their recruitment loan off. It's called the kafala system.
It's essentially forced labor. In 2014. For a soccer tournament.
The men then often toil in extreme heat, unsafe circumstances and awful conditions. They sleep in filthy, low-budget camps, mostly just squalor stacked on squalor.
The combination is brutal, both physically and mentally. Inhumane.
Kali was one of them, and he became like too many others, a desperate family man from the poorest of the world's poor who went to build unnecessarily opulent stadiums for the richest of the world's rich ... only to return two months later in a cheap coffin.
The official cause of death for a previously strong, healthy man: cardiac arrest.
Kali's story is one of many. It was featured this week on ESPN's E:60, in a powerful, incredibly important investigation into the labor practices of the Qatar World Cup bid from reporter Jeremy Schaap and producer Beein Gim. It featured the filming of Kali's funeral, complete with the sobbing wife, the stunned, now fatherless children, the devastated community and finally the traditional burning of the corpse.
Death by heart attack is common in the Qatar labor camps. So too are fatal construction accidents and falls. Some just go to sleep and never awake. Others, the Qatari authorities claim, have committed suicide – which is a pass-the-buck way of claiming no responsibility for what was probably something else but, if true, is actually worse.
What would it say about a place when otherwise driven young men, desperate to send a couple bucks back home, instead quickly decide their current fate was so hopeless they kill themselves?
Workers' rights groups and Amnesty International have been shouting about this for a couple years, but Qatar often dismissed the claims, saying things weren't that bad and advocacy groups were overplaying things. Still under international media pressure, led by the relentless Guardian newspaper in London, the government hired a law firm to conduct its own investigation.
It concluded this week that there have been 964 deaths of migrant workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013 alone.
And that's Qatar's own study. That's the minimum. And that's just so far. There are eight years to go until the World Cup is even staged, with much construction still to come.
So we're on pace for ... 5,000 dead?
For a soccer tournament.
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So here was Sepp Blatter this week, the FIFA president and the absolute worst of the worst in global sports, talking to a Swiss television station.
Blatter is 78 and has been president of his FIFA fiefdom since 1998. He oversaw the vote that awarded the World Cup to Qatar, one that shocked even longtime observers who understandably believe the voting process is rigged with corruption and bribery. Only as bad as everyone assumed it would be, it's turned out worse. Money is one thing. Nepali peasant funerals are another.
So, Sepp, should Qatar have earned the bid?
"It was a mistake," Blatter acknowledged.
The quote swept across the world because Blatter isn't one to acknowledge mistakes of any kind. Perhaps, for once, FIFA, which operates with no external oversight, was showing the slightest flashes of a conscience, an ounce of concern for anything other than whatever luxury hotel it gets to stay at.
Would this be the start of powerful people – presidents, businessmen, sponsors, athletes – finally saying enough is enough in Qatar and, in turn, that this entire ethically bankrupt soccer organization has to change?
Of course not.
FIFA quickly stepped in. The mistake Blatter was referring to, it wanted to make clear in a press release, was thinking it was a good idea to host a summer soccer tournament in a country where the average temperature in July is 107 degrees and highs routinely push into the 120s. Apparently Blatter was previously unaware that it gets hot in the Middle East during July. They should probably hold it in the winter, he was saying.
"As explained in his answer to the journalist, the FIFA President reiterated that the decision to organize the World Cup in summer was an ‘error' based on the technical assessment report of the bid, which had highlighted the extremely hot temperatures in summer in Qatar," FIFA said in a statement. "At no stage did he question Qatar as hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup."
So Sepp Blatter is worried about getting a sunburn. Or maybe that the air conditioning in his motorcade won't be powerful enough. Or, well, who the hell knows what he's concerned about?
He certainly isn't publicly challenging the Qatar government to go beyond the labor reforms it says it will now employ following the release of its internal study, ones that outside groups still believe are too little to truly matter.
And he certainly isn't standing up and expressing remorse, sympathy or even an apology to the thousand[s] of families who lost their fathers, sons or brothers trying to fulfill a grandiose construction bid designed to wow the materialistic core of the Sepp Blatters of the world.
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Blatter expects people to not care. He expects fans to just watch the games. He expects the media reports to drift off, well aware there will always be more reaction to something like a television station showing two men kissing than a migrant worker's sad, sorrowful funeral. Same with the protests and issues in Brazil, where the World Cup starts next month. Same with the ones in Russia, which hosts the 2018 Cup.
He knows he and FIFA are untouchable.
He knows the corporations will fall in line because they want to market to the billions of people who will watch. He knows other groups will be fearful of offending the wealthy government of Qatar.
He expects politicians, even in the United States, to remain mum because this is soccer and this is off somewhere else and, well, someone raising a fight about some distant atrocity is quickly going to get slammed by a radio host or primary opponent for not focusing on the American people's business. Or something like that.
This is your World Cup, though. This is your FIFA. This is your sport. Understandably, fans just want to watch the action, enjoy the excitement, marvel in the spectacle of a competition that brings an entire globe together. They feel powerless. Perhaps they are.
Still, Third World funerals are part of this event, too. Unnecessarily expensive construction projects. Corrupt bids. Labor practices that should have ended centuries ago. Working conditions with no regard to life. A culture that empowers Sepp Blatter and his minions. The basic concept of the rich abusing the poor.
In 2014. For a soccer tournament.
Yes, this is the FIFA World Cup you're expected to follow next month, run by an organization with a president so terrible that he wants the world to know that he is, indeed, aware that Qatar was a mistake because, after all, it might get so terribly hot, he could actually, possibly break a sweat.