Tuesday 23 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: World sits on its hands as death toll rises in Qatar's vanity project

The Khalifa Stadium in Doha where a British worker fell to his death last week – perhaps the only reason last week’s tragedy even registered as international news was the nationality of the victim. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
The Khalifa Stadium in Doha where a British worker fell to his death last week – perhaps the only reason last week’s tragedy even registered as international news was the nationality of the victim. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The wreath inside Palermo's La Favorita stadium eventually withered and died, replaced by a green plastic seat, embedded into the concrete.

Commerce supplanting sentiment I suppose.

By the time Italia '90 pitched up in Sicily, there was no plaque, no visible memorial to the five deceased workmen. Ten months earlier, they had been crushed by what was described as an "inexplicable" collapse of a partially constructed roof. Work was suspended for two months after, colleagues refusing to return to a site they fervently believed to be cursed.

It meant a desperate rush in the end to finish the venue that would host Ireland's World Cup games against Egypt and Holland.

But La Favorita found a bewitching beauty by the time the eyes of the world settled upon it. Separated only by a harness-racing track from the foot of Monte Pellegrino, the work of a batallion of gardeners had flowers exploding into brilliant colour behind each goal and parallel to each tramline.

It looked gorgeous yet, occasionally during those games, I found myself glancing up at the reconstructed roof, trying to imagine the horror of such heavy steelwork tumbling down upon humans below. I'd visited La Favorita that March, workmen endlessly blessing themselves each time they walked past the flowers placed in honour of fallen colleagues. The word then was that senior FIFA officials had taken to "expressing serious doubts" about whether or not Palermo should remain a World Cup city.

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Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates after his side qualified for the quarter finals of the World Cup thanks to a 1-1 draw against Holland in Palermo's La Favorita stadium
Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates after his side qualified for the quarter finals of the World Cup thanks to a 1-1 draw against Holland in Palermo's La Favorita stadium

But then 19 other people had perished in the construction of stadia on the Italian mainland, so where exactly was the deployment of a conscience going to lead football's governing body?

"We can never be happy until finished with this place," one Sicilian workman told me in broken English during that March visit. He said they believed that the ghosts of those who died would haunt La Favorita forever more.

Perhaps that's why it was eventually renamed Stadio Comunale Renzo Barbera, the Wikipedia page of which makes no reference today to the tragedy of August '89. La Favorita and its ghosts have all but been air-brushed from history.

I was reminded of those workmen last week when the wretched toll of Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup slipped into sharp focus again with the death of a British worker at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha. For "unknown reasons" a suspended catwalk platform collapsed, causing the 40-year-old to fall from a height.

In a sense, the world has been turning an increasingly bleary eye towards Qatar of late after initial revulsion at the findings of international camera-crews, filming the squalid camps in which migrant workers are, effectively, imprisoned by unscrupulous contractors.

Two of those crews were subsequently imprisoned for telling a modern-day story of slavery.

But disgust seems to have mutated into a kind of resigned acceptance that no matter the injustices ventilated, nothing will stop Qatar hosting the biggest sporting event in the world. The Disneyfication of this tiny gulf emirate is already much too far advanced.

In fact, a suspicion finds stubborn traction that perhaps the only reason last week's tragedy even registered as international news was the nationality of the victim. The incident is officially registered by the organisers, The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy no less, as only the second confirmed death of an employee working on a Qatar World Cup site in the last three months.

Which, presumably, means either that working conditions are exemplary or those recording the fatalities have the arithmetic skills of a potted plant.

Last June, the Washington Post published a graphic displaying the number of construction fatalities broadly accepted as having occurred before some of the world's biggest sporting events. The toll for the Sochi Winter Olympics was a sobering 60.

Next up? The Brazil World Cup with 10. Then the Beijing Olympics, six. The South African World Cup? Two. The London Olympics? One. And their estimate for the last three years of frantic construction in Qatar? Twelve hundred.

Those with a taste for semantics might argue that not all of these largely Nepalese, Indian and Sri Lankan victims actually died inside what will, technically, be World Cup venues. But to host the tournament, Qatar is building 20 new skyscrapers, a new airport, new roads, sewerage systems, even the equivalent of an entire new city, the total infrastructure budget reputedly running to $260 billion.

This might sound like rather a lot of money but Qatar is, per capita, the world's richest country.

It is also an "open jail" according to the Nepalese ambassador who was sent home for questioning the morality of what he saw happening there. FIFA's language is, of course, more circumspect. They use expressions like "ongoing processes" and "challenges remaining".

They could be talking about stocks and bonds rather than humans going home to their impoverished families in boxes.

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GAA director general Páraic Duffy, FAI boss John Delaney, and IRFU chief Philip Browne as they arrived to attend the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burkefor

How reassuring then to hear John Delaney come under such, em, rigorous questioning about FIFA's conduct in Kildare Street last week when the FAI boss sat before a Joint Committee on Tourism, Transport and Sport. Did he think, asked one TD, that FIFA's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams might "dilute the quality of the finals?"

Another, presumably with a view to more immediate travel possibilities into racist, homophobic, habitually violent Russia for the 2018 tournament, apparently wondered if fan embassies might be a good idea "going forward".

I trust they received suitably ecumenical messages to bring back to their people.

When it comes to global sport, the great, clanking machinery of commerce eventually anaesthetises everything and everybody. No matter what way you hold it up to the light, Qatar will get its World Cup.

It will get it even though nobody over the age of ten honestly believed in the probity of the process that awarded it to them, not to mention the integrity of the body qualified to make that award.

Rampant

Remember, in May of 2015, the US indicted 14 then current and former FIFA officials and associates on charges of "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted corruption."

Sepp Blatter is, of course, no longer President, but - apart from super-sizing future World Cups - Gianni Infantino seems to do little apart from embracing assorted luminaries at celebrity football games.

So a country, in which a Dutch woman who last year reported a rape found herself convicted of having sex outside marriage, passes the only test that -ultimately - matters in the broad global conscience for a suitable World Cup host. Is it willing to pay?

A country where the consumption of alcohol can be punished by 40 lashes. Sex outside marriage? A hundred. No football history, a climate that has already forced a winter rescheduling of European club football and irrefutable evidence of forced labour on the construction sites, yet Qatar knows for certain that nobody will lay a glove on it.

They tell the world that the welfare of migrant workers is a "top priority", promising a dramatic revision of the 'kafala' labour system that so facilitates exploitation. That revision - unveiled last December - left "the same basic system intact" according to Amnesty International. Still, contractors confiscate passports and withhold wages. Still, corpses accumulate.

History tells us it's nothing new and, in time, the world will come to swoon at Qatar's futuristic architecture. There will be no moral awakening because there is no more global compunction for the dead than if they'd been cockroaches crushed under human feet. The argument against Qatar feels burnt-out.

Wonder will they have fan embassies?

Irish Independent

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