Human rights concerns cause some fans to turn away
Bijendra Bikran Rana loves soccer. He plays regularly with other Nepali men near Chicago’s Foster Beach, sharing in his home country’s favorite sport, and he’d usually be thrilled to watch the World Cup.
But this year is different. Thousands of migrant workers, many of them Nepali, faced dangerous labor conditions and died during stadium and tournament infrastructure construction for host country Qatar’s tournament, human rights groups allege. He expects he’ll only watch a game or two.
“I want to see it, but I’m not too crazy, not too excited,” Bikran Rana said Friday.
The first 2022 World Cup game took place Sunday, with Qatar losing to Ecuador 2-0. And while there was plenty of pageantry for the opener, there has been plenty of controversy in the days leading up to it.
Qatar has faced widespread scrutiny and criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, the gay community, environmental sustainability, corruption and other issues since it won hosting rights for the tournament over a decade ago.
Across the world, boycotts and protests against the World Cup have emerged in response to those concerns. Chicagoans too are grappling with the thorny issues plaguing the usually joyful event.
But Qatar has repeatedly pushed back against the criticism, labeling it as racism against the first Arab nation to host the tournament and claiming construction conditions have improved.
As representatives of FIFA and Qatar double down in the host country’s defense, issues continue to loom over the tournament. A Qatari tournament ambassador publicly denounced homosexuality last week. On Friday, FIFA suddenly announced that beer sales had been banned at the eight stadiums where games will be played after discussions with Qatari authorities. Then, FIFA President Gianni Infantino delivered a one-hour tirade to reporters Saturday, decrying criticism of Qatar and the World Cup as hypocritical.
Many of the Nepali Chicagoans Bikran Rana has spoken with feel like he does: turned off from the tournament because thousands of their countrymen have died while building stadiums in reportedly dangerous conditions, he said.
Life is also often hard for Nepali workers in Chicago, because they have little support and limited access to well-paying jobs, added Birkan Rana, secretary-general of the Chicagoland Nepali Friendship Society, a local Nepali community group.
Santiago Muñoz of Portage Park learned more about what he called “shocking human rights abuses” surrounding the tournament when he wrote a World Cup-focused paper for a college class. After reading about the treatment of migrant workers, anti-LGBTQ+ stances and corruption, he decided he won’t be watching.
The longtime lover of the sport said he would have been excited to watch the tournament if another country with a better human rights record were hosting it, but he senses a “general consensus” that fellow soccer fans are not very excited for this World Cup.
“You have people that are paid millions of dollars to promote the World Cup, even though it feels fake and weird,” Muñoz said Friday. “It just makes you really not want to watch.”
He would have liked to see FIFA hold Qatar accountable. Countries need to be held to a certain set of standards, he added.
“I think by not holding Qatar to those standards, it’s just disrespectful to everyone. For the people involved, to the fans, and especially to the migrant workers that have died building the stage for this tournament,” Muñoz said.
The Chicago Fire plans to host a Navy Pier watch party for Team USA’s pivotal Friday match against England. A club spokesperson declined to comment on specific issues surrounding the tournament, but said the team “stands for human rights and equality for all.”
“The World Cup is a galvanizing force that unites people from different nationalities and brings awareness to key issues in society,” the club said in an email statement.
Fire midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri is set to play in the tournament for Switzerland, which squares off Thursday against Cameroon.
“As a Club, we aim to celebrate that aspect of the tournament by providing a space for all Chicago to come together and bond over their shared love of the game, while supporting their respective nations,” the Fire’s statement continued.
Every single World Cup game will be shown at AJ Hudson’s, an English-style Lakeview pub where soccer team banners and big TVs line the walls.
“The 4 a.m. games we’ll have to show on replay, but we plan to open our doors half an hour before the 7 o’clock matches,” general manager Julio Sandoval said.
Sitting at AJ Hudson’s on Saturday night, Ed Sasse of Lakeview said he plans to watch the games of his two favorite teams, America and his dark horse pick, Belgium. But the former college soccer player is disappointed that the host country’s government is “not accepting of people that are just wanting to live their life and be happy,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that the top of it is so corrupted when it brings so much joy to everyone else,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m happy to see that so many people are upset with the political aspect of it and are standing up.”
On Sunday, brother-sister duo Michelle Carbo, 28, and Felipe Carbo, 33, who hail from Guayaquil, Ecuador, waited in line outside the Globe Pub in the North Center neighborhood shortly before 8:30 a.m. and made their way inside as soon as the soccer-friendly bar opened. They draped an Ecuadorian flag over one of their seats.
Soccer fans like them show unabashed excitement for the World Cup, but that didn’t mean they were not plagued with questions about the controversies surrounding the tournament.
“What’s with all those deaths by building infrastructure over there?” Felipe wondered out loud as a promotional video of a Qatari stadium’s construction showed on screens across the bar. “They’re talking about the immigrants that go from other countries to work there. Why are the conditions so poor? Why (did) so many people have to die?”
But, Michelle said, scrutiny surrounding the World Cup hasn’t been unique to Qatar.
“It happened with Russia, the last World Cup. It’s the same with Brazil. It’s like that whenever the World Cup happens,” she said.
Ramakant Kharel, a Nepali immigrant living in the Chicago area, hears of dead bodies being returned to Nepal when he checks his home country’s news outlets, he said Saturday. He shared frustration with the deaths and the circumstances within Nepal that have led migrant workers to leave the country.
“I love the World Cup,” said Kharel, who serves as vice president for the Mount Prospect-based Nepali American Center, a nonprofit that serves the Nepali community. The tournament unites people from across the world, allowing them to find common ground and transcend political divides, he said.
“The purpose of sports is to bring the people together. But in order to achieve that goal, people are sacrificing their lives,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed.