A century has passed since the founding father of the World Cup, Jules Rimet, assumed the presidency of Fifa and began to set the wheels in motion for the first tournament in 1930. Even a visionary like Rimet would have had It’s hard to imagine the immense success and global appeal the tournament would command a hundred years later, but it’s not hard to guess what he would have thought of the 22nd World Cup in Qatar.
Rimet came from humble beginnings as the son of a grocer in a small village in eastern France, and he rose through the ranks by winning a scholarship to law school. His beliefs were simple: that football should be global and inclusive, fair and respectful. In a small Parisian café, he co-founded a sports club called Red Star based on these principles of cooperation and equality. Red Star was rare in that it did not discriminate based on social status and included working-class players, and its football team still cherishes those roots closely today.
As a devout Catholic, Rimet was inspired by Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, a letter published in the aftermath of the industrial revolution that sets out the principles of basic workers’ rights. It was partly a doctrine against exploitation, and a doctrine that resonates as strongly with 1920s France as it does with the 2022 World Cup; what is exploitation if not the transformation of the sweat and blood of workers into wealth or power for someone else. The origins of the World Cup began with one man who fought against the class structure, and a century later the tournament kicks off in one of the most structured and racially divided class systems in the world, where several thousand South Asian workers are at the bottom of a brutally unequal society ruled by a few incredibly wealthy sheikhs.
You will have already heard many allegations against Qatar 2022: a brazen act of sports washing by a young authoritarian nation trying to make waves on the world stage; a bid won through corruption, according to a US Department of Justice investigation (which Fifa and Qatari officials deny); miserable working conditions not rectified; thousands of unexplained worker deaths; the oppressive Kafala system, finally abolished in 2020, strangling workers’ rights; in a country where women’s freedoms are dictated by male guardianship and where homosexuality between men remains illegal. Then there is the surprising lack of urgency with which Qatar has investigated the many issues raised by human rights groups in the decade since it was embarked on the massive construction project needed to host the World Cup.
Fifa’s argument that migrant workers from Qatar could now be heading to new sunny highlands is a fantasy. The small progress made so far in Qatar, such as the abolition of Kafala, came too late for migrant workers who had already been exploited, and its deplorable practices would continue. Notably, after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Brazil 2014, there was evidence of a gradual improvement in workers’ rights in the construction industry, following protests in both countries. Yet in August, 60 migrant workers protesting over unpaid wages were arrested by Qatari authorities and, in some cases, deported, allegedly for “violating public safety laws”; therein lies the difference between democracy and dictatorship.
Rimet saw his brainchild being abused by the dictatorship first hand. The 1934 World Cup was awarded to Benito Mussolini’s Italy at a time of global financial crisis when there were few willing and able host nations. The Italian government assured Fifa that they would cover all financial losses, which turned out to be a convincing argument.
Mussolini skillfully used the World Cup both as a projection of power abroad and as a propaganda vehicle at home. Specially commissioned posters and stamps flooded Italy in the build-up, and Mussolini personally stirred up the excitement by buying a ticket for the opening game – that classic populist trick of portraying himself as a man of the people. He commissioned a radio documentary that heralded 16th century Italy as the true birthplace of the game, so that when the Italian team won the World Cup in Rome, a nation rejoiced in the return of football to the home.
Fifa was criticized for giving fascism such a platform, and President Rimet later regretted what became an exercise in nationalist fist-punching, saying: “I feel like it’s not It’s not really Fifa who organized this World Cup, but Mussolini.” The tournament is said to have cost Rimet the Nobel Peace Prize when he was nominated in 1956.
Rimet had mistakenly believed that sport could transcend politics – his grandson, Yves Rimet, described him as an “idealist” – but 1934 showed that one could be weaponized by the other, especially on the world stage. Trying to unite the world around the sport in a pre-global era brought many challenges and those early tournaments were all flawed in their own way, but maybe that’s the point: that in the 21st century the World Cup world can still be exploited for political ends. and may not meet basic human expectations.
So here we are on the eve of a tournament that will be played in sparkling stadiums, mausoleums in the desert, ready to be dismantled once everyone has returned home. On the surface will be a brilliant soccer World Cup; Look, there’s Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, playing football in Qatar. But let’s not forget the values of Jules Rimet, whose name bestows the trophy that famous footballers will lift in Doha on December 18. Equality, it’s not. As the Tournament blooms in the winter sun, know that it was sown in filthy soil and cultivated by bloody hands.