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Bayern, Qatar and the Club World Cup: An uneasy relationship

February 9, 2021

The FIFA Club World Cup reaches its climax on Thursday, with Bayern Munich taking on Mexican side Tigres in Qatar. But Bayern have been reticent in responding to questions about Qatar's serious human rights abuses.

A Bayern Munich fan watches training in Qatar with a Bayern flag wrapped around him.
Bayern are currently taking part in the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.Image: Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

To most football fans, the Club World Cup is meaningless.

European clubs have far bigger budgets than their Asian, African or South American counterparts, creating a predictable competition that, if Bayern Munich beat Mexican outfit Tigres on Thursday, will have been won by the European representative in 13 of the past 14 tournaments.

For Gianni Infantino, however, it's anything but meaningless. The FIFA president has confirmed that the competition will be expanded to 24 teams from 2022 and held in China, vowing to make it "the best club competition in the world" — a direct challenge to UEFA's Champions League.

Not even a global pandemic can stop it. When asked whether this edition of the tournament in Qatar should be going ahead at a time when much of the world are in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Infantino's rebuttal was instant: "We will certainly not take any risk for the health of anyone when we play football."

There are those in Qatar who would disagree.

Arabische Gastarbeiter in den Golfstaaten | Katar
Migrant workers in Qatar have had their passports confiscated and thousands have died while constructing World Cup stadia.Image: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture-alliance

Qatar's shocking abuses go on

Thousands of migrant workers from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and other Asian and African nations have been recruited to build the stadia and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, the rights to which the Middle Eastern state won in controversial circumstances in 2010.

They live and work in squalid conditions and carry out dangerous, labor-intensive duties in the extreme desert heat, leading to shocking numbers of fatalities, many of which remain officially unexplained.

"Qatar have not released any statistics on the number of dead workers since 2012," Nicholas McGeehan, director of London-based Human Rights organization Fair Square Projects, tells DW. "The real problem isn't just the number of dead workers, which is high anyway, but the rate of unexplained deaths, which is roughly 75% of all the dead.

"The Qatari death certificates usually list the cause of death as "natural causes" or "cardiac arrest" which aren't causes of death. And if a death is unexplained, there is no compensation and no answers for the families, as well as no autopsy and no investigation. They don't release the stats because they know what the stats say."

Bayern Munich players training in Qatar in 2017
Bayern have held their training camps in Qatar since 2011 and have multiple sponsorship deals with the oil-rich stateImage: Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

Despite the conditions for workers in Qatar, which have been described as "inhumane" by Human Rights Watch, FIFA rarely make statements on the issue. In 2016, however, football's governing body said that they have no responsibility for "wider societal problems" in a host country and that the tournament can be a "catalyst for change" in Qatar.

The only positive change seen in a decade was the decision in August 2020 to abolish the exploitative ‘kafala' sponsorship system under which workers had to surrender their passports, preventing them from switching jobs or leaving the country without their employer's permission.

There was also an increase to the minimum wage, however critics say the changes don’t go far enough with many workers still working for as little as €1/hour, if they are paid at all. These mild reforms have come too late for the many who have already died.

How rich regimes are ruining football

Money talks for Bayern in Qatar

Yet it's not as if money is short in Qatar. The oil-rich state has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world and is classified by the United Nations as a country of "very high" human development.

The Qatari state has used its immense financial power to buy into European and world football on a large scale – a process often described as "sportswashing," an attempt to launder a country's image and distract from negative issues.

In 2011, Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a subsidiary of Qatar's sovereign fund, acquired majority control of French side Paris Saint-Germain, but Qatar also has well-established links with Bayern Munich, for whom commercial deals account for over 50% of revenue.

The German giants have held annual winter training camps in Qatar since 2011 (except for 2020 due to the coronavirus) and have had sponsorship agreements with state airline Qatar Airways since 2017. The club is also linked to Qatar through Volkswagen subsidiary Audi, which has an 8.33% stake in the club. Qatar holds 14.6% of the shares in Volkswagen.

Bayern remain silent

When questioned about their cosying up to Qatar, Bayern have been reticent.

On February 5, 2020, Fair Square Projects director McGeehan co-signed a letter to CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge requesting Bayern speak out about workers' rights in Qatar – as English champions Liverpool had done ahead of their appearance in the Club World Cup in 2019. The letter was ignored despite repeat requests for comment.

"We wrote to Bayern repeatedly about this issue but they haven't responded to our letter, which didn't call for Bayern to boycott Qatar or end the commercial relationship, but just to use their leverage positively," McGeehan tells DW.

"Bayern were advised on what steps they should take before entering into a relationship with a country like Qatar and were also in touch with the German government about it. When it was revealed that there were human rights abuses at sites in Qatar that are linked to Bayern through sponsorship deals, they did nothing.

"The key for any company that wants to get involved with an abusive government is to at least make it very clear what you expect to happen. However, they have fallen back on PR lines that have no substance," McGeehan adds.

Bayern finally break silence 

In March 2020, Munich councillors also requested that city mayor Dieter Reiter press Bayern on the club's relationship with Qatar, and this week, Bayern finally responded, telling mayor Reiter that the club has worked with politicians, business and NGOs to "create a culture of change" in Qatar, and insisting that "Qatar is on the right path."

They added that they have already called for a round table meeting to discuss "German and Qatari society, the importance of the World Cup for Qatar and the Arab world, and the criticism from human rights organizations" which has had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

And they reaffirmed the club's commitment to the values of freedom and democracy enshrined in the German constitution, "especially the fundamental civil rights which are also human rights."

Fair Square Projects director McGeehan welcomed the plans for a round table, but pointed out that the club had once again failed to address calls for an investigation into migrant deaths.

Fans gagged

Bayern Munich themselves may have been slow to respond but sections of their fanbase have not.

Match-going fan groups have been vocal on the issue and one fan has even been banned indefinitely from attending Bayern games — even though the official reason given by Bayern was the "unpermitted positioning" of a banner against Monday fixtures at a reserve team game.

The fans' lawyer appealing the ban made the following statement to DW: "My client is involved in the criticism of Bayern Munich's dealings with Qatar. The reason why he alone has been sanctioned can only be that [Bayern] want to silence a critical fan." 

Bayern Munich ultras holding a banner against their club's relationship with Qatar.
"Outstanding training conditions": Bayern fan groups have protested against their club's relationship with Qatar.Image: Imago/B. Fell

Yet as Bayern prepare for Thursday's Club World Cup final, the protests from fans and warnings from human rights organizations have apparently been ignored. DW also approached Bayern for comment but is yet to receive a response.

"I don't think that Bayern will change their minds about the Qatar deal, but I think there may be changes in the future," hopes Alex Fischer, a spokesperson for the Bayern supporters' association Club Nr. 12.

"I would like to think they will be less defensive and listen to the advice of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and think again before entering into these kinds of relationships again."