Bijendra Bikran Rana likes football. He regularly plays with other Nepalese men near Chicago’s Foster Beach, where he plays his home country’s favorite sport, and would normally be thrilled to watch the World Cup.
But this year is different. Thousands of migrant workers, many of them Nepalese, faced dangerous working conditions and died during the construction of stadiums and tournaments for the tournament in host country Qatar, human rights groups claim. He expects to only watch a few games.
“I want to see it, but I’m not too crazy, not too excited,” Bikran Rana said on Friday.
The first World Cup match of 2022 took place on Sunday, with Qatar losing 2-0 to Ecuador. And while there was a lot of excitement for the opener, there was a lot of controversy in the days leading up to it.
Qatar has faced widespread criticism and criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, the gay community, environmental sustainability, corruption and other issues since winning the hosting rights to the tournament more than a decade ago.
Boycotts and protests against the World Cup have sprung up around the world in response to those concerns. Chicagoans, too, are grappling with the thorny issues that plague the usually joyful event.
But Qatar has repeatedly resisted the criticism, labeling it racism against the first Arab country to host the tournament, claiming construction conditions have improved.
As representatives from FIFA and Qatar double down on the host nation’s defence, problems continue to loom throughout the tournament. A Qatari tournament ambassador publicly denounced homosexuality last week. On Friday, after consultations with the Qatari authorities, FIFA suddenly announced that the sale of beer is prohibited in the eight stadiums where matches are played. Subsequently, FIFA President Gianni Infantino delivered an hour-long diatribe to reporters on Saturday, calling criticism of Qatar and the World Cup hypocritical.
Many of the Nepalese Chicagoans Bikran Rana has spoken to feel the same way he does: eliminated from the tournament because thousands of their compatriots have died building stadiums in reportedly dangerous conditions, he said.
Life is also often difficult for Nepalese workers in Chicago, as they have little support and limited access to high-paying jobs, added Birkan Rana, secretary general of the Chicagoland Nepali Friendship Society, a local Nepalese community group.
Portage Park’s Santiago Muñoz learned about what he called “shocking human rights abuses” surrounding the tournament when he wrote a World Cup-focused article for a college class. After reading about the treatment of migrant workers, anti-LGBTQ+ views and corruption, he decided not to watch.
The longtime enthusiast of the sport said he would have been excited to watch the tournament if another country with a better human rights record hosted it, but feels a “general consensus” that other football fans are not very excited about this World Cup.
“You have people who get millions of dollars to promote the World Cup, even if it feels fake and weird,” Muñoz said on Friday. “It just makes you really don’t want to look.”
He would have liked FIFA to hold Qatar accountable. Countries must be held to certain standards, he added.
“I think by Qatar not adhering to those standards it is just disrespectful to everyone. To the people involved, to the fans and especially to the migrant workers who died building the stage for this tournament,” Muñoz said.
The Chicago Fire plans to host a Navy Pier watch party for Team USA’s crucial Friday game against England. A club spokesperson declined to comment on specific issues surrounding the tournament, but said the team “stands for human rights and equality for all”.
“The World Cup is an energizing force that unites people of different nationalities and raises awareness of important issues in society,” the club said in an emailed statement.
Fire midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri plays in the tournament for Switzerland, which will play against Cameroon on Thursday.
“As a club, we strive to celebrate that aspect of the tournament by providing a space for all of Chicago to come together and enhance their shared love of the game while supporting their respective nations,” the Fire’s statement continued.
Every World Cup game is screened at AJ Hudson’s, an English-style Lakeview pub with football team banners and large-screen TVs lining the walls.
“We will have to show the 4 o’clock games on repeat, but we plan to open our doors half an hour before the 7 o’clock games,” said general manager Julio Sandoval.
Sitting at AJ Hudson’s on Saturday night, Lakeview’s Ed Sasse said he plans to watch the games of his two favorite teams, America and his dark horse pick, Belgium. But the former college football player is disappointed that the host country’s government “doesn’t accept people who just want to live their lives and be happy,” he said.
“It’s a pity that the top is so damaged when it brings so much joy to everyone else,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m glad to see so many people angry at the political aspect of it and revolting.”
On Sunday, sibling duo Michelle Carbo, 28, and Felipe Carbo, 33, who hail from Guayaquil, Ecuador, waited in line outside the Globe Pub in the North Center neighborhood shortly before 8:30 a.m. and made their way inside as quickly as possible . when the football-friendly bar opened. They draped an Ecuadorian flag over one of their chairs.
Football fans like them show unabashed enthusiasm for the World Cup, but that didn’t mean they weren’t plagued by questions about the controversies surrounding the tournament.
“What about all those deaths from building infrastructure there?” Felipe wondered aloud as a promotional video of the construction of a Qatari stadium played on screens across the bar. They’re talking about the immigrants who come from other countries to work there. Why are the conditions so bad? Why (had) so many people die?”
But, Michelle said, the focus on the World Cup is not unique to Qatar.
“It happened with Russia, the last World Cup. It’s the same with Brazil. That is always the case when there is a World Cup,” she said.
Ramakant Kharel, a Nepalese immigrant living in the Chicago area, learns that dead bodies have been returned to Nepal when he checks his home country’s news outlets, he said Saturday. He shared his frustration at the deaths and conditions in Nepal that have prompted migrant workers to leave the country.
“I love the World Cup,” said Kharel, who is vice president of the Mount Prospect-based Nepali American Center, a nonprofit serving the Nepalese community. The tournament unites people from all over the world, allowing them to find common ground and transcend political divides, he said.
“The purpose of sport is to bring people together. But to achieve that goal, people sacrifice their lives,” he said.
The UK Time News contributed.