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Soccer

We Know Just How Much Qatar’s World Cup Dream Cost

A laborer walks on the field in one of the new stadiums Qatar has constructed for the 2022 World Cup.
Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images


If it is true that all sports can be filed under “guilty pleasure,” with some just guiltier than others—and it is true, so get over yourselves—the 2022 World Cup still ought to test your last nerve. Even if your nerve endings have already been filed down to the last neuron during the pandemic, there is guilt and then there is … this.

According to reporting in The Guardian, more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. They were the labor behind an expansive building scheme that includes seven soccer stadia, roads, a new airport, hotels, transportation systems and a new city that will host the World Cup Final. If your day was going well, a quick read of the Guardian story ought to put a stop to that.

But if you are a soccer fan, or if you are a World Cup fan merely for patriotic purposes (as in the U.S. Men’s National Team only), you’re probably going to watch anyway. At this point a multiple-choice question awaits you, to wit:

How much worker abuse, mistreatment and even death must you ignore before you turn away from the whole matter and say, “You know, sports isn’t worth this?”

A: We’ve already passed that threshold, and screw the World Cup.

B: Christ on a stick, it’s that many?

C: I love the sport, but this is horrifying.

D: 8,000 deaths.

E: 10,000 deaths.

F: This is horrifying, but I love the sport.

G: I wouldn’t, but I cover sports for a living and will be fully mindful and fairly ashamed while I’m doing it .

H: I’ve waited four years, I’ve gone through the whole COVID thing, the NFL did a whole season, the NHL and NBA and baseball and college sports all happened under the gun, and it’s all part of our new global unpleasantness.

I: It would never occur to me not to watch under any circumstances.

This isn’t one of those internet polls; your vote is your own business, and you won’t be exposed to anything but your own conscience after casting it. You’ll deal with the psychic consequences on your own as part of the Defector subscription price: We discover things that should scare your organs from you and pass the savings and emotional nightmares on to you. Plus, you could be eligible for a tote bag.

If you live in the U.S., you’ve seen how many worrisome accommodations we have made for sport, all because we honor schedules more than we do safety. America’s games did not kill 500,000 people, but in playing them we made it clear that we were willing to light-hand the danger in search of normalcy. Our priorities were placed directly where we sit, and even if there weren’t immediate deaths among our athletes and sports industry workers, their lungs and hearts have not yet had their play-in games.

Qatar, though, is a different charnel house entirely. It has thousands of countable deaths, where all we have are as-yet-not-fully-counted casualties, and it has stories of how those deaths accumulated in an entirely new city made up of ghosts. The atrocities committed upon those anonymous laborers are ones you won’t see from that new airport, or in the many pregame shows running up to first kick. This is the graveyard that should cast a shadow on games the way the Sierras did over the NHL rink at Lake Tahoe, and the Qatari sun is 80 degrees less forgiving than the Nevada one.

So let’s get back to the question. Is your response A, or a lower-case a and some other option through to I, or some combination of letters that has become a pretzel of justifications? Have we not found the response that fits your position, and is there perhaps some Answer J out there that completes this exercise for you? Again, this is just between you and you, and you can share your responses or tamp them down inside your guts. You can even yell at these words and tell them to get off their high horse under the All Sports Are Guilty Pleasures banner. That choice is yours too.

But one thing to be mindful of is that you cannot say you have not been told, and not just here, but by The Guardian and other publications and outlets who have been reporting on this from the start a decade ago. World Cup ’22 is the threshold sporting event of this generation, and we are now nearly at the front step—a massive bronze door of great weight and beauty, with a fresco of bloody handprints all over it.