Can Anyone Stop the World Cup in Qatar?

Workers have died by the hundreds constructing the emirate's soccer fantasy land, and still FIFA is intent on keeping the tournament there. Here’s a not-so-crazy alternative.


Let no one accuse FIFA of being afraid to take risks. Soccer’s global governing body was well aware of the potential problems of hosting a World Cup in Qatar: the summer heat, the lack of infrastructure, the reluctance of fans to travel to the Middle East — indeed, all of these were noted in FIFA’s risk assessments. But even though hundreds of workers had already died in the country’s construction boom before it was granted the tournament, Qatar 2022 has kicked the emirate’s construction-fueled killing machine into high gear. Can anyone stop it?

Migrant workers in Qatar, who live in dusty labor camps and have few rights, have been dying with alarming regularity for years. Even the Qatari government accepts this. There is some debate about how many have died building stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, but there’s no comparison between the deadliness of Qatar’s building effort and those of other recent sporting spectacles. Estimates early last year placed the death toll between 900 and 1,200 workers; compared with the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Qatar wins this ignominious honor by an order of magnitude or more.

Decades ago, the fatalities in Qatar might have been par for the course. Dozens of people likely died raising the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in the 1960s. But today, construction is a much safer profession, as long as contractors are willing to put in the time and money to adopt best practices. The safety record wasn’t spotless leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with eight building-related deaths, but Brazil also lacked Qatar’s apparently unlimited budget. The emirate can’t plead poverty when safety measures aren’t implemented.

The Qataris promised to clean up their act, but a BBC report in February suggested that unsafe practices remain a constant outside of the most visible venues. An earlier estimate by the International Trade Union Confederation suggested that these practices would leave a total of 4,000 workers dead from accidents, stress, and poor living conditions by 2022.

So if the Qataris won’t stop the killing, who will? Clearly not FIFA. It recently declared that the tournament would be moved to the winter, when temperatures in Qatar are not oven-like, but still balmy — nice for the fans, but disruptive for the players who will be in the middle of the European club soccer season. The public position of the organization, which distributes millions of dollars to its member associations every year, has always been that the World Cup has to go to places like Qatar in order to justify the tournament’s name and fulfill FIFA’s mission of promoting the game around the globe. In private, the reasons behind the country’s selection and the subsequent defense of Qatar may have been — and may continue to be — somewhat murkier. Regardless, FIFA is sticking with its decision to host the world’s biggest sporting event in a country that boasts fewer than 300,000 citizens and perhaps five times as many migrant workers — most of them too poor to buy a ticket — and expatriates.

What about the sponsors? Castrol, Continental, and Johnson & Johnson have already severed their ties with FIFA in advance of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a tournament with political and human rights problems all its own. But FIFA has retained its main sponsors, including American brands like Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and McDonald’s, which pay between $10 million and $25 million per tournament to plaster their logos all over the venues and publicity packages. This is no surprise; hundreds of millions of dollars in potential sales are in play for them. The same goes for the broadcasters, which pay hundreds of millions more for the rights to televise each tournament and expect even more in advertising revenue.

These companies will only take notice if fans threaten to boycott their brands and broadcasts. That’s hardly likely, though; the fans are a diffuse group of billions of people around the world, and marshaling them to take action collectively would be a herculean task — assuming they even cared. Despite Russia’s growing pariah status — stemming from its annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and a litany of human rights issues — there’s no popular movement spreading across the globe to strip the World Cup from it.

There is another group, however, that is concentrated and organized enough to make a difference: the players. Just 736 players from 32 teams go to each World Cup, and almost all of them are represented by a single union called FIFPro. The group has already asked that Qatar abolish its restrictive guest-worker system, which also affects soccer players there, but it has stopped short of threatening a boycott of the tournament. FIFPro has also condemned racism in Russian soccer but so far isn’t calling for any collective action on Russia 2018.

That’s not surprising, because few players become politically involved during their careers on the field. Yet it’s hard to imagine that these high-profile and highly paid athletes, most of whom are based in Europe, are thrilled about the prospect of going to Qatar in the middle of their club seasons. If an alternative with similar prestige were to arise, they might decide to skip Qatar 2022 on practical grounds, if not moral ones.

FIFA’s decision to move Qatar 2022 to the winter has opened the door to just such an alternative. The Northern Hemisphere’s summer — the traditional World Cup time when Europe’s leagues are on break — is now wide open. With seven years’ notice, an invitational tournament with the world’s top 16 or 32 teams could easily be launched in a country with facilities ready to go, such as World Cup also-rans England or the United States.

Crazy? Maybe not to the players. In this alternative tournament, the players would be paid directly by the tournament for appearing — perhaps $1 million each — with side payments to national soccer federations to keep everyone happy. Usually, the ones who come from poorer countries often have to contend with substandard facilities and compensation; that wouldn’t be the case here. With a critical mass of stars, the money from broadcasters and sponsors — especially from competitors of FIFA’s partners — would surely be forthcoming.

FIFA would be powerless to oppose the tournament, because players are free to participate in exhibition games as they please. And the national associations could still send teams to Qatar 2022 from their B teams or the under-23 squads that typically play in the Olympics, thus fulfilling their obligations as members of FIFA.

The players have no such obligations. They regularly opt in and out of their national teams, and no one — except perhaps in repressive countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — can force them to play. How many of them would turn down $1 million, luxury accommodations, and state-of-the-art training facilities to play in a monthlong tournament in a country where there’s actually other fun stuff to do?

How much would all this cost? Start with $736 million in appearance fees for the players, and give each of the 32 national associations $10 million, which is five times what the U.S. Soccer Federation’s budget was for Brazil 2014. Then, chuck in $500 million — that’s half a billion dollars — for marketing, logistics, and everything else, and the total cost of the tournament comes to around $1.6 billion. (Ticket sales would be more than enough to pay for renting the stadiums.) Now, consider that the broadcast rights alone to Brazil 2014 sold for $1.7 billion.

Add in sponsorships, and World Cup 2.0 would be a winner, perhaps a big one. Who could undertake such an investment? With such a hefty return on offer, Goldman Sachs might be among the interested parties. More likely, some of the world’s sportingly inclined billionaires might be happy to step up. Mark Cuban loves a high-profile investment just about as much as he loves sticking it to the establishment, and there’s probably some Russian oligarch living in London who was shut out of Russia 2018. Then there are all the American and English soccer club owners who actually own their stadiums too.

In fact, in the past decade or so, dozens of billionaires have brought cash from the United States, Russia, the Middle East, and East Asia to buy up some of the biggest clubs in Europe. Owning a single club can’t necessarily compare with the power and prestige of running the world’s best soccer tournament, though. So, Mark, see you at the opening ceremony in St. Louis?

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel