FIFA, the World Cup, and Slave Labor

Last year, we ran a blog series called “Re-think the World Cup”, a report and critique examining the preparations and aftermaths of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Out of that we placed FIFA, the profoundly corrupt and dictatorial organization that runs international soccer, at the #4 spot on our Top Ten Corporate Criminals List. We also circulated a petition demanding deep structural reforms to the organization.

Almost a year has passed since the 2014 World Cup, and in the span of only a few recent weeks we have witnessed a groundbreaking prosecution of top FIFA officials, the resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and reports that meetings on comprehensive reforms of the organization have begun. We’d like to think that some progress has been made – but there’s still much work to be done to ensure that profit and corruption of sport doesn’t come at the expense of communities and human rights.

In particular, our views should remain focused not only on the wake of devastation that FIFA has left Brazil with (see: hundred million dollar stadiums sitting empty after hosting only a handful of games, while many people still live without basic access to healthcare and sanitation), but also the 2022 World Cup scheduled to be held in Qatar.

In the media, critics of FIFA and Qatar’s selection as host country for the 2022 World Cup tend to focus largely on the corrupt means by which the Qataris likely won their bid. But while corruption should rightly be a target of criticism, the larger issue which transcends any problems of corruption is that of the slave labor currently being used in Qatar to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.

According to a Guardian investigation:

Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar… The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.

According to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International: “The evidence uncovered by the Guardian is clear proof of the use of systematic forced labor in Qatar. In fact, these working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”

Even if, hypothetically, the choice of Qatar as World Cup host was totally free of corruption, the current choice should still be obvious: Qatar must be stripped of its 2022 World Cup selection. Slave labor in and of itself should be enough to justify that.

The media’s focus on corruption of the Qatari bid distracts us from this larger and more important issue at play. How FIFA can turn a blind eye to slave labor and arrogantly pronounce that the 2022 World Cup will continue as planned is nothing short of repulsive. But we should also come to expect nothing less out of FIFA – its benevolence runs loyal only to its corporate sponsorships and dollar signs; it has no moral compass, no sense of humanity. If it did, Qatar would never have been chosen to host the World Cup in the first place.

Please, let’s strip Qatar of the 2022 World Cup. Not because it was awarded by corrupt means, which it very well might have been, but because slavery and sport should never go hand in hand.

TAKE ACTION: It’s time to Reform FIFA


The following is the third installment of a multi-part series examining the preparations and aftermaths of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Read the entire “Re-think the World Cup” series.


So who wins the World Cup? While it may seem that decision is still getting played out in stadiums across Brazil, FIFA president Sepp Blatter is surely laughing from his luxury suite.

The winner had already been decided well before the first match even began. FIFA’s 4 billion dollars in untaxed revenue from the event is the trophy.

It appears to be of little interest to Mr. Blatter or other FIFA execs that this trophy has come on the backs of 200,000 low-income people being forcefully evicted from their homes to make room for the event, 8 construction workers dying in the frenzied rush to erect stadiums on time, or 14 billion dollars of Brazilian taxpayer money being spent on the tournament in the face of poverty, inequality, and widespread social issues within Brazil.

For those who don’t know, FIFA – the Fédération Internationale de Football Association – is the world governing body for international soccer. Based in Zurich, Switzerland, the organization began in Paris in 1904 under the simple mission of creating and regulating rules for a burgeoning new international sport.

While the origins sound humble, it is now anything but that. FIFA has since developed into an extremely lucrative, secretive, and immensely influential organization that brings in billions of dollars and holds the power to override national governments.

FIFA has a notorious past, mired with corruption and scandals. If there were still people out there unaware of what FIFA is all about, John Oliver took care of that last week.

The corruption of FIFA itself is well-documented. If FIFA were a country, it would likely rank near the bottom of the transparency index in world corruption rankings. The hidden profit making and back alley deals of its executives are a punch to the gut to any person mistaking them as a benevolent sports organization. And in the face of Brazil’s poverty, no less, it is duly repugnant.

FIFA’s claim to be a non-profit organization, while taking shelter in its swanky, state-of-the-art headquarters building in Zurich, is offensive to those with rational minds. Its executive committee conference room harkens to mental images conjured from a Tom Clancy spy thriller.

It is in this imperial conference room that FIFA execs draft their absurdly dictatorial demands on World Cup host countries. One such demand: the right for FIFA and its corporate sponsors to override existing local tax laws in host countries for near total tax exemption, which allow them to directly profit off the communities and countries they go into and yet give nothing back to them in tax liability. 

Another demand: the securement of 2 km “special zones” around all World Cup venues that only allow FIFA and its sponsors the exclusive right to sell products and services, essentially casting aside small local vendors and businesses that have made a living around local sporting events for years.

FIFA has also trademarked nearly 200 words and phrases for the 2014 World Cup for its exclusive commercial use, and any business that uses such words and phrases can face legal action. While “Brasil 2014” may be an obvious one, something like “Natal 2014” can be more problematic: Natal is a 2014 World Cup host city, but “Natal” also means “Christmas” in Portuguese – which could pose a dilemma for any local shop owner who wants to advertise for the holidays this year.

Through all these demands and revenues, FIFA has no accountability, no transparency, and no third party oversight whatsoever. Its executive committee is a small circle of secretive elites, almost exclusively men, who get to dictate the economic rules of the world’s most popular sport from a sleek mountaintop perch, void of any direct oversight or supervision for decisions and actions that affect millions of people around the globe.

One only needs to read today’s papers to find the most recent scandal: it has surfaced that Qatar – the chosen host of the 2022 World Cup – allegedly paid off FIFA officials with millions of dollars worth in bribes to secure the World Cup bid.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the man who led Qatar’s bid and who is at the center of allegations, Mohamed bin Hammam, is a former FIFA executive committee member himself. He was banned from soccer after bribing officials in 2011 to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.

Not only does it seem FIFA awarded Qatar the bid due to lucrative bribes, but it also chose Qatar despite the fact that the country is virtually a slave labor state – no small deal when the country has to build massive new stadiums and infrastructure much like Brazil has been doing. Hundreds of migrant workers have already died and thousands more have endured abuse in construction projects related to the 2022 World Cup.

According to a Guardian investigation:

(Last) summer Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar…The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.

According to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International: “The evidence uncovered by the Guardian is clear proof of the use of systematic forced labor in Qatar. In fact, these working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”

And if we thought the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was expensive, the tab pales in comparison to upwards of 100 billion dollars projected to be spent in Qatar for World Cup infrastructure such as stadiums, roads, rail and hotels.

If all that weren’t enough to call out FIFA on its abhorrent choice to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights, the weather speaks for itself: summer temperatures in Qatar can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit – hardly a pleasant, nor mortally safe, environment to play 90 minute matches of intense soccer.

Pending the outcome of the investigation, Qatar may be stripped of its World Cup hosting rights – along with any semblance of legitimacy and dignity that FIFA was still clinging to. Meanwhile, even some of FIFA’s primary corporate sponsors are speaking out against the continued corruption of FIFA, while demanding a further investigation into the most recent allegations.

Brazilians love soccer, as do millions of people around the world. But FIFA needs comprehensive institutional reform in order to make the “the beautiful game” beautiful again. FIFA should no longer be able to singlehandedly sully a game that so many love and adore.

Most of the reforms needed center around transparency and accountability. As it currently stands, FIFA essentially has zero of those qualities. It has no external oversight, only an internal “ethics committee”. But as Dave Zirin correctly points out: “The fact that one governing body is currently in charge of both the cash register and making sure no one is robbing the store is a recipe for graft.”

FIFA urgently needs separate oversight of all of its activity, particularly its financials and the World Cup host selection process. There may even be logic in the idea of a second, completely separate organizational body for international soccer as a whole. As Zirin suggests: “International soccer desperately needs two entirely distinct bodies. One would be in charge of monitoring and actually stopping corruption, bribery and match-fixing. The other could be in charge, in the words of (former FIFA president) Mr. Havelange, of selling ‘a product called football.’”

Some of the reforms needed:

  • Complete transparency of all financial transactions within FIFA, as well as salaries/compensations of executives, with separate oversight of this financial disclosure
  • Separate third party oversight of World Cup bidding and selection process
  • Separate ethics/corruption monitoring and investigative body
  • Compliance with local tax laws in World Cup host countries
  • An end to economic special zones around World Cup stadiums
  • No future World Cups in locations that don’t already have the necessary infrastructure in place

TAKE ACTION: It’s time for Fair Play. It’s time to Reform FIFA

Soccer is not the problem, but the way we have gone about carrying out the pinnacle of its competition is. The ability to love sport and appreciate its highest level of competition can go hand in hand with protesting the injustices inherent to its modern reality. As this World Cup continues, it does seem possible to be able to simultaneously cheer for our teams and appreciate the beauty of sport being played out at its highest level while also protesting and opposing the exploitation that its business side has brought upon us.

The exact origin of soccer’s nickname “The Beautiful Game” is disputed, often times credited to the legendary Brazilian footballer Pelé, while other times claimed by soccer commentator Stuart Hall. But regardless of who first coined it, the nickname stuck, and soccer – or football, as everyone outside the U.S. calls it – is and forever will be known as “The Beautiful Game”.

Sport at its highest level is beautiful. The tears of joy and defeat on the faces of athletes are beautiful. Football is “The Beautiful Game”. But the corruption of its business has polluted that inherent beauty. With these changes, perhaps we can get a little closer to making “the beautiful game” beautiful again.

TAKE ACTION: It’s time for Fair Play. It’s time to Reform FIFA

Explore these issues firsthand by traveling to Brazil on a Global Exchange Reality Tour. Become a Global Exchange member today and travel for 10% off all Reality Tours.

The following is the second installment of a multi-part series examining the preparations and aftermaths of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Read the entire “Re-think the World Cup” series.

The 2014 World Cup is about far more than sport.

When I talk to people here in the U.S. about the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, most still tend to think of soccer parties and cool World Cup commercials. The lack of awareness as to the realities of the event is startling. 

The U.S. media is partially to blame, as comprehensive coverage of the issue has been nearly absent up until very recently. And while sport and parties are certainly aspects to the upcoming World Cup, they are only a part of the story – and to many in Brazil, the least important part.

Brazil was booming economy during the first decade of the 21st century. Its GDP growth topped that of most countries in the world, it slashed its rates of poverty and inequality, it saw a significant drop in its legacy of drug-related violence, and it emerged as a growing player on the geopolitical world stage. These factors, combined with Brazil’s famous national passion for the game of futebol, made the country an understandable candidate for host of the 2014 World Cup.

However, some important underlying issues in Brazilian society were overlooked or ignored in the decision to bring the World Cup to Brazil, and which now threaten the very integrity of the event itself.

Among the issues: poverty, a stubborn gap between rich and poor, a deep need for better education, schools, and hospitals, a perverse presence of corruption within all ranks of government, damning environmental realities, and some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime.

Some of these indicators have seen improvements in the last decade, but hardly enough to shrug them off as solved. And despite the country’s firestorm rate of economic growth in the new milennium, this growth has slowed considerably in the last few years.

FIFA was blind to these underlying issues, or at least indifferent to them. And it was certainly of no interest to Brazil’s corruptos, who were quick to jump on the influx of hundreds of millions of investment dollars that would flow into the country for the event – a quick and easy penny in a system ladled with bribery and corruption.

Brazil is slated to spend 14 billion dollars on the World Cup – the most expensive World Cup to date, and far over budget. It’s a staggering figure no matter the place or context – but in the face of Brazil’s widespread social issues, it feels decidedly darker.

Logic would seem to say that a government should use the wealth of its country to address the social issues it still faces. Logic would say: the gains of the last decades were nice, but they need to be better; the gains of the last decades have improved some things, but the improvements are delicate and much more needs to be done.

But logic has not been at play here. Power, corruption, and the financial interest of a select elite few are.

White Elephants, Disparities, and Evictions

Perhaps the most potent and visible symbols of this World Cup’s injustices are its stadiums. Several of the new or renovated World Cup stadiums are being dubbed “white elephants” – expensive behemoths that will have little use once the frenzy of the World Cup has passed.

In Brasilia, the nation’s capital, the new stadium has cost $900 million and will hold 70,000 seats despite the fact that the local home team rarely brings in more than a few hundred fans per game and despite the fact that 80% of public schools in Brasilia have inadequate facilities that lack chairs, books, and water-tight roofs. For what? The stadium will host seven World Cup matches.

In the northern Amazonian city of Manaus, the stadium Arena da Amazonia has cost $240 million and is designed to hold 43,000 people despite the fact that the average attendance for local games is only 588 people and the local team that plays there is a fourth level professional team. The stadium will host four World Cup matches.

The price for these stadium projects has not just been monetary: 8 workers have died in the fevered rush to complete stadiums on time for the World Cup, attempting to make up for delays in red tape, bureaucracy, and inefficiency.

The 14 billion dollars spent on the World Cup is a huge sum of money, and the opportunity cost – where the money could have been used elsewhere – can be hard to put into context, especially from a continent away. But when I was living in Brazil for a period of time last year, the reality of this injustice was made very real.

I went to a local soccer match at the Maracanã, Rio’s legendary soccer stadium and home to the championship match of the World Cup. The facility has been completely renovated up to FIFA standards, complete with sleek jumbotrons, sparkling hallways, clean new seats, and a pristine turf pitch. It is certainly fit for the highest levels of competition and a global spotlight.

While perhaps none of this would ordinarily be such a point of contention, when a soccer match ends at Maracanã and you walk out of the stadium you will quickly see why it is indeed just that. The disparity and dichotomy is unavoidable – the injustice, literally, in your face.

As I walked out of the revamped stadium, I looked up and was blighted by a scene of complete disconnect in front of my eyes: hillsides of sprawling favelas right next door – stark reminders of the realities the country still faces, and an instigator of many questions: what could the millions that were used to renovate the stadium I was just sitting in have done for the favelas I was now looking up at?

Favelas are often jointly referred to in Western media as slums or shantytowns, but this is not really an accurate definition – a favela is a favela, a low-income but sustainable model of urban development in its own right. Favelas are home to 12 million people in Brazil; residents often live below or near the poverty line, and can lack access to essential resources such as job training and education, as well as utilities such as sewage and sanitation. Favelas also have a long legacy of violence, both between rival drug gangs and with an abusive, corrupt police force.

But despite its image problem, favelas have emerged as sustainable models of urban living – organic and natural outcroppings from a legacy of disbandment and marginalization of poor populations, sprung up from squatters on the hillsides of large urban cities in the late 19th century. They have become sources of pride for their inhabitants, and contain an emerging middle class, solid structures, and an increasingly sustainable model of close quarter urban development.

Upwards of 200,000 residents have been forcefully evicted throughout Brazil in order to make room for sports-related projects. Residents are given stark options and little notice ahead of time, forced to uproot from their communities they have lived in for generations. They are given negligent compensation, if any at all. Those who do receive alternative housing are pushed to high rise public housing on the outskirts of major cities, far away from their jobs in the inner city and even further away from the cherished sense of established community they once enjoyed despite their financial hardships. 

The state of Rio de Janeiro’s hallmark “pacification” program, designed to both drive out drug cartels from favelas and finally incorporate favelas into city grids, is now being questioned and criticized openly. The program, developed after Brazil won its World Cup bid, has been largely credited with historic lulls in violence in Rio since its inception in 2008. However, recent months have witnessed a marked increase in violence, even in “pacified” favelas close to sport and tourist areas.

Of the hundreds of favelas that exist in Rio, only 37 have been “pacified”. Unsurprisingly, these 37 find themselves conveniently close to tourist areas, wealthy neighborhoods, and sporting venues. While levels of violence have dropped overall, the pacification program has also simply pushed much of the violence farther to the city’s outskirts rather than addressing its root causes. And in the process, heavy-handed police raids that attempt to drive out drug traffickers from favelas and keep sporting areas “safe” continue unabated. The incursions, some made by forces trained by U.S. defense companies, occur with little regard to innocent collateral and the human rights violations committed by police proceed with near total impunity.

Who is the World Cup for?

It’s the question many in Brazil have been asking.

The Brazilian people will pay 14 billion dollars out of their own pockets to produce the World Cup while FIFA, a “non-profit” organization, will walk away from Brazil with a projected 4 billion dollar untaxed revenue when the tournament is over.

FIFA and its sponsors will benefit handsomely from the event, as will select developers and certain members of Brazilian government. Sadly, the benefits are not so equally felt.

Despite old claims that mega-sporting events like the World Cup bring long-term economic gains to host countries, recent studies such as those done by sports economist Dennis Coates have shown that this idea is actually false. The games benefit a small circle of people at the top, while the rest of the country experiences no such gains. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost is huge – particularly in a developing country such as Brazil.

The conflict for Brazilians is obvious: they love their futebol, but they also want a better country. They want to celebrate the passion they hold for the sport, but they also want a better future for themselves and their children. The organization of Brazilian civil society in opposition to the World Cup despite their national obsession with soccer is the most telling sign of just how far off this mega-sporting event has become. That 60% of Brazilians feel that the World Cup is bad for the country in a population as soccer-crazed as Brazil is nothing short of remarkable.

We may indeed look back and see that the 2014 World Cup stood on the crux between an old and a new. Like in the Middle East, we are witnessing the rise of a burgeoning civil society in Brazil that is young, tech savvy, and fed up with business as usual. The injustices of the World Cup have forced long-standing social issues in Brazil into the limelight like never before and have instigated a larger social movement that may not fade once the competitions are over. And it us now offering us the chance, as a global community, to re-think and adjust our approach to the ways we go about producing, thinking about, and discussing these mega-sporting events.

The irony would be amusing, if it weren’t so tragic: while corrupt actors initially saw the World Cup as an opportunity to prop themselves up, they may have in fact instigated their own downfall.

Read all entries in the Re-Think the World Cup blog series.

Explore these issues firsthand by traveling to Brazil on a Global Exchange Reality Tour. Become a Global Exchange member today and travel for 10% off all Reality Tours.

The following is the first installment of a multi-part series examining the preparations and aftermaths of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.”

So said the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Thanks to sports journalist Dave Zirin, the quote has been getting quite a bit of attention recently. But the power structure of world football is not the only malevolent shadow lurking in the dark today. There have been a great series of injustices secretly unfolding in Brazil ever since the South American giant won its bid for the World Cup back in 2007.

On June 12th, the world will shift its attention and collective body clock south, with the idea that the 2014 World Cup is solely about soccer and national rivalries as the planet’s 32 top teams vie for soccer’s most coveted prize in 12 cities throughout Brazil. While an intriguing storyline for FIFA and its corporate sponsors, the storyline is a misleading half-truth at best.

At one point in time, I wanted to be in Brazil during the upcoming World Cup. To attend the pinnacle event of the world’s most popular sport, in the spiritual home of the sport itself, the idea was alluring – all the more so being that I had fallen in love with that wonderful country and its people after living there for a period of time during 2013.

I envisioned Brazilian flags hanging from balconies, groups of fans chanting in unison, and eruptions of shouts from outdoor cafes in Rio following a goal by Neymar. The sun would be shining, live samba would be flowing from open-air bars, and maybe – just maybe – there would be a raucous celebration throughout the streets of Brazil upon the Brazilian national team winning it all.

Unfortunately, this was an ill-fated vision. One that fell hard and swiftly upon learning what this World Cup is really about.

When I think about the upcoming World Cup now, a very different set of images come to mind.

I see 14 billion Brazilian taxpayer dollars squandered while FIFA escapes with 4 billion dollars in revenue tax-free; I see the use of those billions of taxpayer dollars to build or renovate stadiums that will sit idle or offensively underused after the World Cup, rather than building badly needed schools and hospitals in a country that is still very much developing and still very much grappling with widespread poverty, inequality, and violence; I see the forced evictions of thousands of marginalized, low-income favela residents to make room for sport venues and infrastructure projects; I see a corrupt government out to gain for itself and please foreign interests rather than take concern for the welfare of its own people and wondrous natural environment; I see the hijacking of a country by a select elite few, including FIFA, corrupt politicians, and foreign corporations; I see police brutality and a thinly layered mascara attempting to cover up deep-seated and festering social dynamics within society.

And through it all I see the continued endorsement of the event by major U.S. corporations, as well as hordes of foreign tourists who will flock to the shores and cities of Brazil by the hundreds of thousands, pleasantly ignorant to the true realities of this mega sporting event, the true costs of hosting it in this still-developing nation, the true impact that it has wreaked and will continue to wreak on the lives of many ordinary Brazilians.

The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is not largely about sport, it is about money. It is not about the pinnacle of competition, it is about greed and corruption. It is not about communal enjoyment of games, it is about inequality and corporate power.

It’s time to re-think the World Cup. The façade of sport needs to come down. It can come down as swiftly and forcefully as it did for my glorious visions of the World Cup. And it can start now, with Brazil.

Expose the kingdoms from their secrecy, and the kingdoms will reform. Or fall.

Read all entries in the Re-Think the World Cup blog series.

Explore these issues firsthand by traveling to Brazil on a Global Exchange Reality Tour. Become a Global Exchange member today and travel for 10% off all Reality Tours.