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Understanding the controversy around Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup


The FIFA World Cup kicks off tomorrow in Qatar. The choice of the Persian Gulf nation's been controversial from the start. Qatar's scalding summer heat forced the tournament to be held in November. And human rights groups roundly criticized conditions that migrant workers had to work under. But FIFA has defended its choice and sometimes forcefully. In a press conference today, FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, called the criticism of Qatar hypocrisy. He said Western countries should instead apologize for their historical wrongdoings. Ken Bensinger of The New York Times joins us. He's the author of "Red Card: How The U.S. Blew The Whistle On The World's Biggest Sports Scandal."

Thanks so much for being with us.

KEN BENSINGER: Thank you so much for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: Why was Qatar selected?

BENSINGER: Qatar was selected in 2010. At the time, it was a real head-scratcher as to why they would pick Qatar. FIFA's own technical committee rated it the worst of all bids. So everyone was confused. But in the years since then, we've learned a lot about how they got the votes of the key FIFA executives. It seems like a combination of influence peddling, soft and hard power and even, potentially, some bribes being paid out to the influential voters.

SIMON: Well, give us some specifics.

BENSINGER: So a good example of this would be that Qatar's influence was seen in France with the French representative to FIFA, a former player named Michel Platini, one of the great all-time players who was very influential in FIFA. And it came out later that he was summoned to the Champs-Elysees, where then-France President Sarkozy said he wanted to meet him. This was only a few weeks before the critical vote, and Platini walked into a dining room to find the president of France and the emir of Qatar sitting there. And they were - had negotiated a deal not only for Qatar to buy airliners from Airbus, but also to buy Sarkozy's favorite soccer team and also to buy the rights to France's soccer league on television in France. So Qatar had basically injected a ton of money into France. And the president of France made it very clear to Platini where he should be voting.

SIMON: The U.S. Department of Justice has conducted an investigation, haven't they?

BENSINGER: Yes. And it began in secret in 2010. And as many listeners may remember, in 2015, there were some sensational arrests in Zurich, when a bunch of FIFA officials were literally dragged out of their hotel after being indicted in Brooklyn federal court. An interesting development just on Thursday of this week was that one of the people in that indictment, a guy from Trinidad and Tobago named Jack Warner, had lost his big appeal against extradition to the U.S.

SIMON: I certainly want us to pay attention to the human rights questions because the entire labor force that built these World Cup venues are migrant workers. And according to Human Rights Watch, labor conditions are dangerous, aren't they?

BENSINGER: Yeah. And Qatar is a country that for many years used a system that many human rights groups worry exploited laborers and, in some cases, kept people's passports so they couldn't even leave the country and paid people wages that were substandard for the kind of work they're doing. Some reports have indicated that hundreds, if not thousands of workers died in the process of building the stadiums and other infrastructure for the Cup.

SIMON: Would it not have been possible for FIFA to simply say, Qatar, you want the games, you're going to have to have a clause that says you will obey international labor laws and basic human rights?

BENSINGER: I think that would have been possible. I think FIFA would have a lot of leverage. But FIFA did not appear to care to exercise that leverage. Qatar is a country with, by international standards, some pretty restrictive and repressive laws about all kinds of things. You know, adultery is punishable by prison. Homosexuality is illegal there. And FIFA has basically remained silent on this. FIFA, in fact, sent a letter to every national team competing in the tournament, asking them to not mention politics, to stay out of politics. FIFA's position on this has been to basically lay down and let Qatar dictate what is and what is not allowed.

SIMON: And what has Qatar said about this vast assortment of charges?

BENSINGER: Qatar has denied most of the charges and has said that it is a victim of racism and persecution against them by countries in the West that don't want a tournament to be held in a predominantly Arab country in a different region of the world. Generally, Qatar has been intransigent about any of the accusations, even in the face of things like Justice Department indictments. It's also worth mentioning that the president of FIFA, whose name is Gianni Infantino, has taken the extremely unusual, probably unprecedented step of moving to Doha, Qatar. And his children are in private school there. So the symbolism of that is hard to miss. And at least for now, FIFA has become what you might call a wholly paid subsidiary of Qatar.

SIMON: Ken Bensinger of The New York Times.

Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

BENSINGER: Thank you so much for taking interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.