FIFA will take its time over inviting bids for the 2026 World Cup while it assimilates recommendations on how to bring human rights concerns to the heart of the process.
The proposals are contained in a report the world football federation had commissioned from Harvard professor John Ruggie and which should set a checklist of standards for any and every major sports federation.
However the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will escape Ruggie’s advice that FIFA should “consider suspending or terminating” a staging contract if it is “unable to reduce severe human rights impacts by using its leverage.” Contracts were signed and sealed five years ago; that horse has long since bolted.
Not that the controversy over Qatar surprised Ruggie the further he delved into what he found to be FIFA’s comparative ignorance about the human rights dimension in sport. In reviewing his own report he revealed surprise at the lack of awareness of human rights issue within the sport’s governing body.
The quality of Ruggie’s work was welcomed by FIFA’s most dogged pursuers in Amnesty International and the International Trade Union Confederation as well as by the world players’ union FIFPro.
During the farrago over the various scandals and the recent presidential election, several candidates used prospects for the 2026 World Cup – award system, increase to 40 teams etc – as a useful distraction from the intense focus on reform and votes.
However president Gianni Infantino, in his continuing whistle-stop tour of the Americas this week, suggested that a congress vote on the 2026 host might be delayed until 2020. If, by then, Ruggie’s checklist on human rights has been fully adopted then it can only improve prospects for a United States bid.
Conspiracy theorists elsewhere in the world game might consider that as the ‘secret’ endgame of the investigation by the US Department of Justice into the $200m FIFAGate corruption conspiracy.
A fixed set of rules might also prove awkward for the Chinese companies currently queueing up to sink their sponsorship claws into FIFA. Wanda signed up recently until 2030 with Alibaba reportedly next in line.
Ruggie’s report, For the Game. For the World, owed its commission to the ongoing storm about the abuse of migrant workers involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
He noted, crucially, that FIFA did not have adequate systems in place to both understand and then enforce human rights in practice; that, while not directly responsible for human rights abuses by organisations or countries with which it works, was responsible for its own involvement; and that FIFA remained significantly challenged by gender discrimination in the world of football.
Ruggie said: “FIFA is not solely responsible for solving [human rights] problems where the actions of others are the primary cause. But it must use its influence to address these human rights risks as determinedly as it does to pursue its commercial interests.”
This should include, if necessary, that “where FIFA is unable to reduce severe human rights impacts by using its leverage, it should consider suspending or terminating the relationship.”
That is, remove from a country the right to stage the World Cup (or other tournament).
Separately Ruggie added: “My message to FIFA would be: ‘If you don’t fix these problems, if you don’t respond to these challenges, you will see outside interference from governments and that’s the thing you hate most of all.’ So get going and fix this thing yourself before someone is forced to fix if for you.”
Ruggie’s work was hailed by Sharan Burrow, Brussels-based general secretary of the ITUC, as “a major breakthrough for human rights and sport.” It had established a global requirement for all sports organisations, both for major events and for their ongoing operations including marketing and sponsorship.
But Burrow warned that FIFA could not pick and choose from among the recommendations.
She said: “Professor Ruggie has made it clear that the whole package of rights must be respected, without exception, and in every area of FIFA’s operations including but not limited to huge events such as the men’s World Cup.”
Amnesty International noted the report while returning to its consistent criticism of FIFA which “has had its head in the sand about the abuses in Qatar for more than five years . . . The Ruggie report warns that FIFA has ‘a long road ahead’ from this ‘initial commitment to human rights’. But migrant workers in Qatar cannot wait. They need human rights protections now.”
FIFPro noted with approved that Ruggie had recommended a review of football’s arbitration system including the right for players, in the case of significant human rights issues, having the right to access non-sports courts.