Fear and Loathing in Doha: Sepp Will Never be Royal, Royal

Sepp Blatter believes himself to be the functional equivalent of a head of state. This means, among other things, that when he travels around the globe he expects - indeed demands - the exact same level of pomp, ceremony and accommodation as said country extends to visiting Popes, Presidents and Kings. Which is why, parenthetically, he doesn't come to, say, the US much. We're willing to be polite and all, and even have him round to The People's House for a quick photo or two when we're bidding on a World Cup. (Jack came along too; hopefully someone counted the spoons before he left.)

"And zis little hole is where zey put in the air. I'm pretty sure."

We'll even let our Chief Executive pose in front of the Resolute desk with your pet corrupt lowlife creep.

Quick quiz: Which of these men prominently featured this photo in all his reelection ads thinking it would increase his prestige?

What we don't do, however, is send the Marine Band around to Andrews AFB for a flags flapping, dignitary laden, little-girls-handing-him-bundles-of-flowers welcome ceremony as if he's someone we give a crap about. And we certainly don't arrange a gala awards dinner where we present him with a ridiculous gaudy medal naming him the Champion of World Understanding and Peace, like somewhat less particular countries do. Maybe a couple iHop coupons and a ticket to Sea World, but that's about as far as we go.

Contrast this with, for example, Uganda, which is giddy over the prospect of a possible Seppy visit, although as an official is quoted as saying, their odds would go up if they could get their fans to stop attending games brandishing "machetes, axes and knives.”

No doubt.

Jeez, I gotta stop digressing or we'll be here all day.

Which brings us to his recent visit to Qatar, where they're more than happy to provide all the bands, flag-waving crowds and limousine-laden flashing lights motorcades racing across the tarmac that he could possibly hope for, although if he bothered to look closely he'd see that the royals contract the whole thing out to Palestinian and Filipino extras.

(Unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, Qataris don't go out in the mid day sun; they pay people to do it for them. Granted a disturbing number of them drop over dead while doing it, but it's factored into the cost structure.)

Anyway, you'll recall that prior to the last FIFA Executive Committee meeting, Blatter told everyone that that august body "will" move the 2022 World Cup to Winter dates. The only issue to be decided, according to Sepp, would be exactly what those dates would be, and for that purpose a commission would be formed to consult with all the stakeholders and determine which dates would work best.

(For instance, Fox Sports in the USA who, along with Telemundo, paid almost a billion dollars for World Cup TV rights, may very well have an opinion on whether the Summertime programming they contracted for is suddenly moved to the Christmas and NFL playoffs season. Picky, picky, picky, but you know those TV guys. Always bitching about getting the event they paid for.)

Problem was of course that the ExCo staged something of a minor revolt and essentially told Seppy that his plan was idiotic; you don't vote on something first and then look at the facts afterwards.

Unless you're the US Congress, of course.

As a result of this radical, cutting edge kind of thinking, a commission was formed which will be delving into how to handle this whole pesky, "players and fans dropping dead in 140 degree heat" issue.

At around the same time, The Guardian came out with their report on foreign worker abuse, exploitation and deaths on projects directly connected with World Cup preparations, making it difficult to ignore, particularly in light of FIFA's stated goal to use football as a lever to make the world a better place.

In response, the ExCo voted unanimously to have Sepp himself jet off to Doha for a sitdown with the new Emir with instructions to explain that while abusing non-citizens and treating them like slaves is a long and proud Qatari tradition, the rest of the world finds this kind of stuff repugnant and if they want to keep the tournament then the river of dead workers was going to have to slow to, at the least, a trickle.

And if they'd like to stop holding these guys as prisoners, refusing to pay them and/or allowing them to leave that would be nice too.

Thus empowered, Sepp struck out for the Middle East for a showdown. His mission, as defined by the ExCo, was like those slip and fall ambulance chaser TV commercials featuring Robert Vaughn: tell that Emir "YOU MEAN BUSINESS!!".

On the way to his come-to-Mohammad meeting with the new Emir (his father abdicated the throne a few months back), Sepp stopped off in Iran before landing in the UAE for the U-17 finals and, as is his wont, managed to say some ill-advised things.

Apparently deciding he needed to fire a shot across the bow of the SS Qatar, Blatter told reporters that he thought it might be a good idea to have some 2022 matches played in other "Middle Eastern" countries, something which the Qataris have always vigorously opposed.

"To have the finals in different countries is not a new fact" he told reporters, "and I am sure it is something on the table at a certain time."

He then announced that he had spoken to UAE officials about this very thing and that they were "very eager" to host some games, and added that Iran too "said they would be happy to host some of the matches."

Then, just to make sure that Qatar got the point that this was a thinly veiled threat, he made it clear that one big reason for moving some games around to other "Middle East" countries (note: yes, I know that Iran is not in the Middle East; don't tell me, tell Seppy) was that he wants "to avoid all this criticism concerning workers' rights".

Now some people would suggest that moving matches to a country (Iran) where women are not allowed in soccer stadiums might, you know, pose some problems of its own, but then again the 2018 Finals are going to Russia, a country which just passed a Draconian anti-gay law, so obviously these things are of no concern to Sepp.

The important point was that Sepp was going to lay down the law to the Emir, and if he didn't get some action on the worker abuse issue, there were going to be some serious consequences.

Adding to the public pressure to get this problem resolved, just before Blatter got to Doha the International Trades Union Confederation upped the ante, issuing a statement warning Blatter in blunt terms that he'd better not come back from Qatar "empty handed":

"Fifa needs to tell Qatar that respect for International Labour Organisation standards is a condition for the World Cup in 2022 and that any further delay will jeopardise Qatar's hosting of the event"

Now, before we review what we'll call "Blatter's Craven Surrender" in Doha, let me make a point about Qatar's labor situation.

The kafala system is designed to segregate (Amnesty International uses the term "ghettoize") foreign workers for a simple reason: demographics.

Up until 1971, Qatar was a British protectorate. A census taken that year put the population at 111,000. Today it's over two million, only about 15% of which are ethnic Qataris. In short, the country is flooded with a huge - and exploding - population of people from other lands who are there to do the work in a country where an estimated 60% of the people qualify as "Royalty".

So if they let matters take their natural course, many of these foreign workers would settle in Qatar and in very short order would end up dominating the country. They might start demanding stuff like democracy, fair pay, human rights, all that scary stuff. The chubby Princelings who abandon brand new Maseratis by the side of the road when they can't figure out why they won't start might find themselves having to work for a living.

Furthermore, let's be clear about Qatar's system of government, which is strictly authoritarian. It bears no resemblance to a place like England where a sweet old lady is allowed to bounce around Buckingham Palace with her Corgis and her blubbering idiot husband for the benefit of the tourists while politicians run the country.

The Emir of Qatar is an absolute ruler. There is no independent legislature. Political parties are forbidden. There has been no national election of any kind there since 1970. They occasionally schedule one, but it always gets "postponed". No one complains. Then again, filthy rich people with virtually limitless wealth don't have a lot to complain about.

So the kafala system is designed to keep foreign influence and ideas from polluting the country. It's the very essence of reactionary, but the concept itself isn't particularly outrageous; if you hire a couple guys to come over and re grout your tub, you don't want them to rummage around the fridge, check out the 70 inch flat panel and diddle the Mrs. They do the job, get a check and hit the bricks.

No, the problem isn't the program, it's the abuse. Which of course is what happens in totalitarian countries where some people have rights and others don't.

Nothing inherent in the kafala system prescribes making men work in the mid-summer desert sun for 12 hours without water breaks, lunch, shade or a chance to sit down once in a while. Neither does it demand that labor contractors refuse to pay you what you are owed, refuse to give you your passport back when you want to quit or live 10 to a room in festering "workers camps" 20 miles from the jobsite.

Those are, however, entirely predictable results in a system where nobody but the employer has any legal rights worth mentioning.

Now of course there's one other problem with Sepp's "Fly In And Lay the Smack Down" trip to Qatar (besides the fact that Blatter couldn't care less if they were randomly shooting construction workers for fun):

No country, even small, poor, third world sinkholes, can allow some fat European bureaucrat to into their capital and deliver a tongue lashing and some threats to the head of state.

And that goes double for a King. Wars have been started for less.

So this whole "Sepp is going to give the Emir a stern talking to" theory was always a fantasy, and even Blatter must have known it. Even without his profound respect for money and the people who have limitless oceans of it, he's just not that stupid.

In the end, Sepp flew in, met with a Prince or three, and even got a reportedly brief meetup with the new Emir.

At which point Blatter caved like a tunnel made of oatmeal, and before he even left the country he got on his Twitter account and pounded out the following (sorry - I don't know how to cut and paste a Tweet):

3 point mission to Qatar now complete:

#1 reconfirmed to Emir & PM that 2022 #WorldCup will be played in Qatar (& NOT shared with anyone)

Of course it was Sepp himself, not two days earlier, who had been telling everyone that playing games elsewhere was an idea which would be considered. Nobody else. In any case, he has no authority to move games or to mandate that they not be moved, and this was never part of his mission.

#2 Discussed possible change to 2022 dates. Consultation process must continue, but Jan/Feb ruled out to avoid Winter Olympics clash

As noted, the ExCo has commissioned a study. They'll report in a year, after which a vote will be taken on when to hold the finals. Sepp Blatter has no authority to proscribe January/February or any other time period. No such decision has been reached. This was never part of his assignment either.

#3 Received full report from authorities & BWI (Building & Wood Workers International) union on efforts to improve working conditions.

#3 continued - I really encourage people to see these efforts to improve working conditions themselves, before forming opinions. (2/2)

Now in fact Sepp was sent here tasked with explaining to Qatar that they need to stop abusing the human rights of the people building World Cup venues. Instead, they gave him "a full report" on their "efforts" that cleared the whole problem up.

So please, people, before you judge the Qataris by the number of dead Nepalese construction workers they're shipping home, don't jump to conclusions. The Qataris are working on it.

Problem solved.

Now of course this is how Sepp handles everything. He holds some meetings, everybody talks a lot, and he then declares the problem fixed. (see: "Reform Process, FIFA")

Unfortunately for Sepp, his personal Executive jet had barely landed in Zurich when Amnesty International weighed in on the issue.

And it's uglier than anyone had imagined.

You can find it online, and I urge you to do so, but be prepared to be appalled and outraged.

Amnesty said employees were found working up to 12 hours every day of the week, and added that its researchers heard a manager of a construction firm refer to workers as “the animals.

Workers are often subjected to blackmail, and, in several cases examined by Amnesty, were made to sign papers falsely confirming that they received their wages so they could retrieve their passports back from employers.

Nepalese workers said they were “treated like cattle”. Employees were working up to 12 hour days and seven day weeks, including during Qatar’s searingly hot summer months

(You'll note that FIFA's chief medical officer formally reported to the ExCo - before the 2022 vote - that playing 90 minutes of soccer in those conditions, or even sitting in the stands watching 90 minutes of soccer in that kind of heat, would likely result in deaths.)

“Please tell me – is there any way to get out of here? … We are going totally mad,” one Nepalese construction worker, unpaid for seven months and prevented from leaving Qatar for three months, told Amnesty International.


Blatter quickly issued a statement condemning the abuses AI reported, calling working conditions in Qatar "unacceptable" and saying that the matter was "of great concern" to FIFA.

Except that when he had the chance to tell the Qataris this face to face, he meekly listened to their report and announced that all the people whining about this stuff didn't know what they were talking about.

For their part, Qatar says they are "studying the situation" and are "investigating" reports of abuses and will punish anyone caught being, you know, mean and stuff. Left unmentioned is the fact that they've been saying the same thing ever since a UN report found the exact same situation over a year ago.

Bottom line, they fully intend to change nothing and nobody can make them.

The only leverage anyone has is the threat of taking away the World Cup.

And Sepp Blatter has taken that off the table.