Cancel Qatar

The money for the next men's World Cup would be better invested in the women's game.

Claude Paris / AP

This World Cup was a cracker—an exhibition of excellence, a noble step in the struggle for gender equity—so let’s cancel the next one. In three years’ time, the men are scheduled to have their big tournament in Qatar. The men’s World Cup will be the very opposite of the thrilling spectacle just completed. It will be an authoritarian regime’s vulgar vanity project, allegedly made possible by massive corruption. According to human-rights groups, the effort to build stadiums in the desert, and the struggle against nature that construction entails, has already killed more than a thousand migrant workers.

The world needs to pressure FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, to back away from the moral debacle that is the Qatar World Cup and find a better use for the funds. If it had any sense of justice, FIFA would redirect those resources into the global women’s game, compensating for decades of systematic underinvestment and blatant misogyny.

Even in the middle of this Women’s World Cup, it’s been impossible to ignore the rank malfeasance of the Qatari project. The story dominated the Parisian broadsheets, when French officials detained Michel Platini, arguably the country’s greatest male player of all time. Platini was also the top European soccer official at the time Qatar won its World Cup bid, and authorities are investigating the possibility that his vote was improperly influenced. Anti-corruption investigators are especially keen to ask Platini about a meeting he held with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Qatari officials. It’s alleged that Sarkozy wanted Platini to support the Gulf state’s bid in exchange for contracts for French companies.

That’s only the latest accusation of Qatari bribery. Soccer officials around the world seem to have found their bank accounts stuffed with millions. Whistle-blowers keep stepping forward to detail the schemes; investigative reporters keep churning out documentation to show the circuitous routes traveled by huge sums of money.

There were good reasons to be skeptical of a Qatari World Cup, aside from the screamingly illiberal nature of the host regime. (FIFA’s entanglements with authoritarianism are nothing new and worthy of a door-stopping history.) World Cups are played in the summer, and summers in Qatar are a pizza oven—with temperatures that spike at about 122 degrees, a physical hazard both for players and for the workers needed to build the stadiums.

To accommodate this unsparing climate, the tournament will likely be played in November and December, right in the middle of the European football season. As a fan, I can’t stand this disruption of the calendar and rubbishing of tradition. But those are trivial quibbles, compared with workers who aren’t given the same exemption from the brutal heat. To fill the labor demands, the Qataris have imported workers, largely from Asia.

Human-rights organizations have alleged that these workers have been scammed—paying a hefty fee to agents who bring them to Qatar, and then receiving lower wages than promised when they arrive. Nepal’s ambassador to Qatar has described the nation as an “open jail” for workers from her nation. The International Trade Union Confederation has described these workers as “basically slaves.” When the ITUC produced a report on Qatar, it predicted that four thousand laborers would die in the course of erecting the facilities for the tournament. A representative of the organization has grimly quipped, “If we were to hold a minute of silence for every estimated death of a migrant worker due to the constructions of the Qatar World Cup, the first 44 matches of the tournament would be played in silence.”

It’s instructive to contrast this glorious past month with what’s expected to unfold three years from now. Where this Women’s World Cup has turned lesbian players into legends, Qatar considers homosexuality a crime worthy of three years in prison or even punishable by death. When asked how this might affect gay fans, FIFA’s former head Sepp Blatter was characteristically unconcerned with matters of morality: “I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities.”

While the world spends extravagantly on the festival of corruption and death, it continues its woeful treatment of women’s soccer. The United States boasts the best-financed women’s soccer team in the world, yet its players are still paid a fraction of what male players earn. They are too often forced to play on artificial-turf fields that afflict players like Megan Rapinoe with pointless career-altering injuries.

For generations, the women’s game has been subjected to brutal sexism. Brazil’s military dictatorship legally prohibited women from playing the game. That country’s best player, Marta, was beaten by her brothers for daring to take her talents to the pitch. Even now, its teams face a problem familiar to all squads outside Europe: The teams barely have the finances to assemble to train or play friendly matches, so they arrive at tournaments woefully unprepared and without the camaraderie needed to play with cohesion. They never get the coaching that would allow them to compete on the level of, say, the United States. (The wildly disparate quality of goalkeeping at this tournament is the best proof of this gap.)

Or take the example of Afghanistan, where male coaches and federation officials sexually assaulted members of the national team. Of course, FIFA has promised to investigate. But FIFA is the core of soccer’s problem. Even though it just announced grand plans for growing the women’s game, it has shamefully few women in its top ranks. So when it promised to double the prize money offered at the Women’s World Cup, it was merely offering to grow the pot to $60 million. That’s still far short of the $440 million that will be given at the next men’s World Cup—and characteristic of how its melioristic approach is pathetically incrementalist.

Pouring money into women’s soccer will hardly solve these historic inequities. When cash is handed over to soccer officials in the world, it is invariably siphoned by dodgy officials. Still, the Qatari tournament represents everything rotten about global soccer. And with this World Cup we have had a perfect glimpse of all that women’s soccer could provide, if it can only manage to slip the constraints of the sexist kleptocrats who have kept it down.

Cancel Qatar. Pay the women.