"Qatargate": After the World Cup, the Scandal of a Decadent Spectacle Goes On

If ever a cultural event epitomised the state of today’s global mode of production then we need look no further than the FIFA World Cup tournament held in Qatar at the end of 2022. Allegedly, more people watched this televised spectacle than any previous World Cup. It also cost more to put on than all previous World Cups and Olympics put together, despite being hosted by a nation with a population of less than 3 million (only 10% of whom are actually citizens).

An absolutist monarchy headed by the Al Thani family, Qatar’s oil wealth has made it per capita (according to the IMF) the richest country on Earth. And it has played its wealthy petrodollar cards well in the global imperialist game. Building the US a billion dollar air base at Al Udeid in 1996 and signing a defence cooperation agreement with it, which means that it has hosted the Pentagon’s central command thereafter. Not only did it become the launch pad for US operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria but it meant that it could count on the US to shield it from the wrath of its only territorially adjacent neighbour, Saudi Arabia, when it attempted to isolate Qatar as a “terrorist” state in their struggle for influence in the Middle East in 2017.(1)

Some have suggested that this Saudi ire was just an attempt to undermine Qatar’s greatest PR coup. In 2010 it became the first Arab and Muslim country to win the bid to host the men’s football World Cup, a tournament always held in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. To say that this raised eyebrows was an understatement. In Qatar summer temperatures often reach 45 degrees Celsius as any of the thousands of Indian, Nepali and Kenyan workers who toil there will tell you. These workers with no rights had already built the tower blocks that defined the Doha skyline, and now were set to to work to build new underground lines, hotels and ultra-modern stadiums. Mainly coming from India and Nepal (men) or the Philippines (women, for domestic service) under a form of modern slavery called the kafala system (used throughout the Gulf after it was introduced by the former imperialist overlord, Britain) workers have to have a “sponsor” to whom they hand over their passport, and who can stop them leaving, or taking another job. Paid less than promised, when indeed they are paid, and housed in unspeakably insanitary conditions, they are neither allowed to organise unions, nor in reality have the right to strike.(2) It is now considered an underestimate to say that 6,500 of them died in that heat building the infrastructure for these “Hunger Games”. The decision to shift the finals to the last months of 2022 may have spared the richly rewarded players, but only added to the suffering of the workers through that unusually hot summer. Little wonder that despite the oppressive regime hundreds of them finally went on strike on 5 August 2022. The state’s response was to threaten them with deportation and at least 60 were kicked out.(3) Many others remain there hoping that they can finish their two year contract (which they would have paid $1,200 dollars to get!) and that they no longer get their wages stolen by their bosses.

The World Cup may be over but the scandal of how it came about continues to haunt some of our rulers. The latest episode, as the article which follows highlights, is about the bribery of European MPs although the “Qatargate” label is not new. It first surfaced soon after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010. Within a short time questions were being asked about how such a bid could have succeeded. By 2013 the French press, especially France Football and the Sunday Times, were alleging massive bribery of FIFA officials, many national football authorities and prominent footballers from many countries including France, Spain and Argentina. The top football officials of FIFA and EUFA, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, both lost their jobs as a result(4) but the list of those on the Qatar’s bribery payroll extended far beyond them to football authorities in African states (handy votes), assisted by disgraced former Caribbean football boss, Jack Warner. Meanwhile, leading football legends from Spain, France and Argentina all voiced their support for the viability of the Qatar bid. Qatar even bought up the declining French club Paris Saint-Germain and made it a big player in Europe by buying the likes of Neymar and Lionel Messi (no strangers to financial scandal themselves). Appropriate then that France and Argentina should have played out the final of the most corrupt footballing spectacle in history.

In the article which follows our Italian comrade indicates that institutional corruption has a long pedigree with reference to the corruption of the ancient Roman Senate in the First Century AD. We could extend the analogy a little. Augustus did turn the Senate into his tool with the usual bribes and pork barrel politics so evident in today’s US Congress (and in every other regime but less crassly) but the return to one man rule after a century of civil war was the beginning of the long slow decline of the Roman Empire. Having dispossessed the peasant farmers who had built Rome, the ruling elite were faced with a class of recalcitrant plebs who had to be bought off somehow. The poet Juvenal warned where the decadent culture of “panem et circenses” was going in his Satires of the first century AD,

They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,
Bread and circuses.
‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,
The furnace is huge.’

Historical analogies have their limits but today it seems we are back in the world of “bread and circuses.” What better way to escape the miseries of the rising cost of living, shit jobs, environmental disaster and spreading wars than watching a grand spectacle like the finals of “the beautiful game”?(5) The big difference is that today we are not talking about events in one city with a fairly static mode of production. We live under a global and much more dynamic system. Although like Ancient Rome the pursuit of financial gain has led to a society where wealth is accruing into fewer and fewer hands. And this wealth brings power and influence. We haven’t only seen this with the corruption in FIFA, or the European parliament where bought MPs made speeches in defence of Qatar before the World Cup. We saw it in the pandemic in the UK when over £16 billion was shelled out to Tory donors and MPs families to provide so-called PPE which was useless. And indeed the system runs on this corruption where there is a revolving door between MPs and former MPs who now become lobbyists (as in the role of Cameron with Greensill) and where big oil polluters finance climate denial to block legislation which might hit their profits. Bread and circuses did not solve the contradictions of the Roman slave based economy, instead they were symptomatic of its inability to solve these contradictions. Neither can today’s bread and circuses solve capitalism’s contradictions, in reality we are in a similar situation. A system with a chronic economic crisis that has lasted decades is now incapable of dealing with climate change as its various components intensify their rivalries and increase their war preparations. Both threats have brought us to the edge of an abyss even if we have no clear idea of how far we actually are from the “event horizon”. However a warming planet(6) and an intensifying imperialist war have dramatically shortened the timescale before the “furnace” of Juvenal’s poem engulfs us.

The EU’s “Qatargate” - Another Bourgeois Disgrace

The corruption of members or entire sectors of the institutional apparatuses of the bourgeoisie is as endemic as it has always been since society was divided into classes. The senators of Ancient Rome dealt in bribes like there was no tomorrow, and from then on we have come down to the present day. The need for a change of guard at the helm of a state sets the judicial arm in motion, with one faction of the bourgeoisie using it to eliminate the one in power in order to take its place. The corrupt are unmasked, someone takes the rap and the worst that can happen to the others is that they have to recycle and rebuild their innocence under new political banners. In a nutshell, this was what happened with “Tangentopoli”,(7) useful in bringing about a modest regime change at the end of the Cold War, given the need to get rid of a political class that had outlived its usefulness. But we know that when the ship is holed, even if the helmsman changes, the fate is always that of the Titanic.

If anyone thought that corruption only affected the "peripheries", i.e. individual nations, and not also large transnational bodies such as the European Union, we can only imagine their astonishment now, which however we don’t share. It's like being surprised when, in mafia terms, they arrest a big fish: it's not just the unskilled workers and the picciotti (little men) who end up in jail, sooner or later it will also be the turn of some big boss. But another will take his place, and beyond the "winning" or "losing" ndrine (gangs), the "mafia" institution will certainly not have been eradicated in the blitz, which at most will have barely scratched it.

So we come to "Qatargate". Currently, after the discovery a few weeks ago of one and a half million euros in the homes of the vice president of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, her father and her partner Francesco Giorgi and MEP Antonio Panzeri (linked to the Democratic Party), Giorgi is collaborating with the investigators. The NGO(8) in the eye of the storm was created to justify Panzeri's traffic with Qatar, but also with Morocco (from which a bribe of €50,000 had arrived) and Mauritania (a bribe of €25,000). In the case of Qatar, which wanted at all costs to host the World Cup to make a boatload of money, this pantomime should have reached the European Commission for Human Rights, after having paid Panzeri for the opportunity, the Qatari Al Marri turned up to give a positive image of his country saying that, in terms of human rights, things are now much better. But, think about it, the speech was written by Panzeri who, in addition, had also written the questions that various MEPs such as Marc Tarabella, who is also in the eye of the storm, had to ask their interlocutor in order to facilitate him in his task of convincing people. The latest developments are perhaps the start of a process (historical and political, as well as judicial) which will run and run.

As far as we are concerned, beyond those who get a criminal record and those who stay clean, corruption is to capitalism what pancetta (bacon) is to a carbonara sauce. An enormous mass of cash must be circulated and for the bourgeoisie any means are permitted, whether or not this is permitted by its legislation. The criminal side as opposed to the "honest" one (which, supported by its laws and codes, declares wars, exploits and leaves millions of human beings in poverty) is only one of the two sides of a coin, the capitalist one, which is no longer worth anything. It's time to start a new "currency", based on collective needs, without profits made at the expense of the majority, and on economic and social equality. Guess which?

Battaglia Comunista
31 December 2022

P.S. Corruption is, in fact, something that cannot be eliminated from class society, but the fact that the main character involved in the "affair", Panzeri, was secretary of the Milan Chamber of Labour for years, makes it even more malodorous. A former trade unionist becomes an accomplice to a reactionary regime whose hands are stained with the blood of thousands of workers, sacrificed on the altar of profits from the World Cup: we do not expect anything from trade unionism in favour of the working class, but this is truly enormous in its infamy.


(1) See leftcom.org. It seems that Saudi rivalry has now taken the same sporting route as Qatar. Not only have they been buying the likes of Newcastle United in the UK but having had a single skier compete in the Winter Olympics in 2022 they will now host the 2029 Asian Winter Games at what can only be a massive cost to the environment.

(2) Strikes can only take place with permission of the Minister of Labour! After 2017 and in the glare of the spotlight over working conditions the Qatari state agreed with the UN's International Labor Organization to dismantle the kafala system but no compensation was offered to the families of the dead workers. It also made little difference as the August 2022 strike demonstrated. See David Goldblatt "How to Get on TV" in London Review of Books, 17 November 2022. For formal informaton about conditions in Qatar in general see: world-psi.org but don't expect to find here any account of the real situation of either construction workers or the virtual imprisonment and sexual violence experienced by any Filipino women in domestic service there.

(3) hrw.org

(4) Mystifyingly (or was it?) both were acquitted of corruption by a Swiss court in July 2022 – the prosecution has appealed. Gianni Infantino, Platini's second in command took over as boss of FIFA in 2016 (the year the Panama Papers implicated him in corrupt dealings with FIFA) and distinquished hmself by defending Qatar's anti-gay laws in the weeks before the 2022 World Cup. Players were banned from wearing the rainbow emblem of gay solidarity in the actual World Cup matches under pain of being yellow carded. Infantino's defence of Qatar was historical but irrelevant "What we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons", And he defended Qatar's labour relations by saying that the workers got "pride" from their "hard work". See apnews.com. Mr Infantino is a Swiss citizen but has a second home ... in Qatar.

(5) A term coined by the BBC sports journalist Stuart Hall in 1958, and used in the title of the auotbiography of Edson Arantes do Nascimento (aka Pele). With poetic irony, Pele died a few days after the end of the Qatar World Cup in December 2022.

(6) After the failure of COP27 (see "Capitalism Takes One More Step Towards Our Extinction" in Revolutionary Perspectives 21, now out) COP28 promises even less as it will be held in the UAE and will be chaired by Abu Dhabi's oil minister!

(7) "Tangentopoli" can be translated as "Bribesville" (una tangente is a bribe or kickback). It was a scandal which brought down the First Italian Republic after the Second World War in the 1990s when it was alleged that about half of the deputies in Parliament in the 1980s had accepted bribes from businessmen to award contracts to their firms or appoint friendly officials to posts in state industries. It saw the disappearance of several parties but as the article points out, some of their MPS reinvented themselves (Berlusconi being the classic) and went on to serve in government.

(8) The NGO is called "Fight Impunity". It (ironically) claims its main aim is to establish the principle of "accountability" in international affairs to prevent criminals getting away with crimes against humanity. Its board has famous politicians on it like French ex-PM Bernard Cazeneuve, Federica Mogherini and Emma Bonino (forner European Commissioners). Bonino has resigned from "Fight Impunity" since the scandal broke.

Monday, January 16, 2023