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With the World Cup over, rights groups hope the issues raised stay relevant in Qatar

Fireworks are pictured before the start of the Qatar 2022 World Cup final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium north of Doha on December 18, 2022.
Patricia De Melo Moreira
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AFP via Getty Images
Fireworks are pictured before the start of the Qatar 2022 World Cup final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium north of Doha on December 18, 2022.

DOHA, Qatar — Trouble brews in the run up to every global, mega sporting event. It's what happens when thousands of journalists descend on a host city / country, with no games to report.

Trouble can take benign forms, such as buses not running on time, or venues seemingly not ready for action.

And once the games begin, the buses run, the venues work, and journalists (and fans) get swept up in the sports, while the controversies recede.

It's often different though when the super events are held in places with autocratic, socially conservative governments, as has been the recent trend.

Places like Qatar.

As this World Cup approached there was nothing benign about the potential threat to fans from LGBTQ communities – homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. Nor was there anything trivial about the many allegations of mistreatment of the migrant workers who make up an estimated 90% of Qatar's workforce, and who built the dazzling World Cup infrastructure – stadiums, roads, a subway system, high-rise buildings.

And those controversies did not disappear when the first match kicked off. They lingered throughout the tournament and even became more pointed as Qatari leadership and FIFA officials pushed back on the issues.

Working for workers

They fought to the end.

No, we're not talking about Argentina and France, who did engage in a one-for-the-ages soccer battle in Sunday's exciting final.

Rather, rights groups that fought to shed light on the treatment of migrant workers, who transformed Doha into a place that could only be imagined a dozen years ago.

"I've had so many experiences where, y'know you turn on Google maps to try to work out where you're going in a car [in Doha], and it turns out Google maps has no idea how to get there," said Mustafa Qadri of the human rights charity Equidem, "because the roads have changed. Everything has so rapidly changed."

For the last dozen years, Qadri has spent considerable amounts of time in Qatar, working to help those whose work created that change. In doing research and gathering stories, Equidem, Qadri says, has used the workers themselves.

"All that research is carried out by migrant workers from Africa and Asia," he said, "and they're our team. They're not fixers or people we bring in as volunteers. They're actually professional staff. And that's a really big part of what we're trying to do, which is to give a voice to these people who don't have a voice. Facing serious exploitation, give them empowerment and ownership by being part of our team."

He says employing migrant laborers in this capacity allowed Equidem to interview more than 2,000 workers who built the stadiums and worked on the hotels at the heart of the World Cup.

And those interviews revealed, in great detail, problems including workers not being paid, not reporting unsafe or unfair working conditions for fear of losing their jobs, unhealthy living conditions. And Qadri says, some described employer attempts to cover things up by hiding the workers from labor inspectors.

"For example [at job sites], they would use the fire alarm, to make workers [gather] at their [gathering] points," Qadri said, "and bus them out of the stadium construction sites before the inspectors could come and visit them."

Throughout the World Cup, some of the stories emerged as migrant worker issues battled to hold their own against the glut of news about a thrilling tournament.

Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, is seen before the ceremony during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 3rd Place match between Croatia and Morocco at Khalifa International Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, is seen before the ceremony during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 3rd Place match between Croatia and Morocco at Khalifa International Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

Qadri made a final push by posting an open letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, before Sunday's final match.

In it, Qadri offers to share the worker interviews his researchers gathered, and he makes three requests: 1). that FIFA, which reportedly will take in revenues of $7.5 billion for the Qatar World Cup, commits to creating a compensation fund for migrant workers, and the families of workers killed, injured or otherwise abused "in the delivery of this World Cup." 2). That FIFA uses its influence to help create a Migrant Workers Center in Qatar, which Qadri says would be a "safe space, run by workers, where they can get the help they need." And 3). That FIFA works "with Qatar and expert agencies around the world to break down the systems that allowed a celebration of sport to bear such a terrible impact on the lives of so many vulnerable people."

FIFA did not answer a request for comment about Qadri's letter.

But in recent days, Infantino said FIFA is working with the International Labour Organization to guarantee the World Cup in Qatar "can be leveraged" to improve people's lives.

Fear of a post World Cup backlash

Qadri is worried, as are others who sounded the alarm on human rights during the World Cup, that with the show now over and TV cameras and reporters pivoting away from Qatar, things actually could get worse.

Piara Powar runs the FARE network, an organization that combats discrimination in soccer. He's been in touch with members of Qatar's LGBTQ community, people who are forced to keep their true selves hidden. They worry, Powar says, there might be a backlash after all the discussion and attempted demonstrations of rainbow solidarity during the tournament.

"There has been a lot of fear," Powar said, "that the [Qatari] regime may well start to sort of bring back measures that clamp down on the community. There's famously a squad within the Interior Ministry [whose] role seems to be partly to identify members of the LGBTQ community to undertake surveillance of their activities and where they can, operate sting type operations and bring them into custody or embarrass them in front of their families and employers and friends."

Powar says this fear prompted many in the LGBTQ community to go quiet during the World Cup. Many also supported the government's position against the rainbow flag, as a way not to provoke the feared backlash.

But also, interestingly, because there was resentment among people who want to create change at their pace.

"They understand the dangers of moving too quickly," Powar said, adding, "when they're asked what will be the spot for the change, they don't always have an answer. But they're very clear that they don't think it's the waving of the rainbow flag.

"I think one can have a very interesting and nuanced debate with LGBTQ people in a country like Qatar and other countries of the [Persian] Gulf. Where they talk about the things they think might result in freedom for them. And at the same time, they're also very clear that they don't want it imposed from the outside, that they don't feel that some of the messages that were coming from the western media, the criticism that was being made of the Qatari government, they didn't think that was going to be helpful at all.

"But nevertheless, people are very clear. They're very intelligent. They have these positions worked out. And in the end, I think it comes back to the same point – that they acknowledge that they're repressed and they want freedom."

Trying to find a silver lining

Qatar. China. Russia.

All recent hosts of World Cups and/or Olympic Games. All with authoritarian rule and dubious human rights records.

And all able to point to rousing sporting success as their event's lasting legacy.

"A big sporting event like these create memories," Powar says, "positive memories. [And] at the same time, its impact will also be fairly fleeting in terms of what one can achieve through it. I think we're always fighting a sort of rear guard battle to make sure that the considerations on human rights, on diversity, equality, equality between people, they're always going to be secondary to an event like this, I'm afraid."

Qadri however, finds a potential silver lining in that the just completed Qatar World Cup hasn't yet written its legacy.

If the event is deemed a success, and early grades are good on the soccer, logistics and fan engagement, then there's the possibility the country puts itself in position to host future sporting spectacles. But if it does, Qadri says, the standards to host may be different, considering the controversies that shared the stage with soccer.

And Qatar, he says, having transformed itself physically for this World Cup, has the opportunity to transform on a more meaningful, societal level.

"There are so many issues in any part of the world," Qadri said, "but the societies that generally have been successful have been ones that have recognized that greater rights and freedoms, greater diversity and celebrating that actually leads to a more robust society, a stronger society, one that can withstand the tensions and the pressures much better.

"The difference with Qatar is it has a stable government. There are no elections there [for the highest ruling positions]. They can think this through. They can plan longer term. And the other thing is [societal change] would make Qatar stand out from the crowd in its region."

It's a journey, he says, but one worth taking. And as many turn their gaze away from a tiny Gulf nation that became huge for a month, Qadri, Powar and others will keep watching and fighting. And hoping an event that claimed to unite the world, can start moving a host country toward changing its world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.