With the passing of Pelé, the conclusion of Qatar, and the World Cup’s anticipated arrival in North America, we wonder: can the beautiful game ever be beautifully governed?
Pelé, who died on December 29, infused international soccer with a character that colors our hopes still today. He taught us that soccer can be beautiful, and not just clinical; inspirational, and not just impressive; global, and not just European.
And then, amidst controversies that were anything but beautiful, the World Cup came to Qatar. The soccer was epic, but the governance questions loomed. Suspicions of bribery in winning votes, though unverified in the 2014 Garcia Report, would eventually be validated in the course of the DOJ’s prosecution of FIFA corruption: its third superseding Indictment specifically referenced an unnamed Qatari bribing select FIFA Executive Committee members.
The accusations became credible. But let’s be honest with each other and ourselves: countries like Germany, France, Japan, and even the United States – countries otherwise perceived to have relatively low levels of corruption – have allegedly done the same in recent decades. The bribery accusations were not new, and not unique to Qatar. Still, they underscore the enduring need to tackle corruption in sports.
The governance challenges in Qatar would prove two-dimensional: they concerned both corruption and human rights. Qatar’s well-publicized use and abuse of migrant labor in its construction sector generally and World Cup construction specifically, as well as problems of LGBTQ discrimination, received deserved attention and need not be detailed here. What most readers do not know, though, are Qatar’s efforts in using the World Cup spotlight to reform their labor practices.
First, they developed the Workers’ Welfare Standards, addressing workers’ freedom, safety, and compensation. Then they used the World Cup as a sort of laboratory, implementing many of the Workers Welfare Standards into national law and in the process overhauling their national labor rights framework. Many rights were abused, and an unknown number of lives lost, as Qatar worked to abolish the notorious kafala system of worker sponsorship, implement a meaningful minimum wage and grievance mechanisms, and improve worker safety. Only time will tell whether these reforms will prove meaningful and enduring in post-World Cup practice.
In megasports we use the word “legacy” to capture the event’s enduring impacts. While for most the term references infrastructure and economic returns, legacy can also include less tangible or quantifiable impacts. However one might evaluate Qatar’s successes or its motives in adopting labor reforms, the country plainly expanded our thinking about legacy. The Qatar 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup called attention to the possibility of, and the acute need for, a megasports anti-corruption and human rights legacy.
And now, the FIFA Men’s World Cup moves to North America. The next event, in 2026, will be co-hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In its bid book, North America made three unprecedented promises. First, they pledged to implement rigorous risk assessments and compliance measures on both the human rights and anti-corruption sides. Second, they planned to impose similar requirements not just on the organizing committees but on all third parties doing business with the event. Third, and most unique, the bid book explicitly states an intention to leave human rights and anti-corruption legacies. These are big claims. They create big opportunities to construct anti-corruption and human rights legacies.
Can the beauty of what Pelé called the beautiful game extend beyond the pitch? Can the beautiful game be governed beautifully? Might it yet be?
Hardened cynics will insist not. Just as their forebears insisted that a 1958 Brazil team, featuring a 17-year-old newcomer named Pelé, could never defeat the mighty Swedes.