Iranian security forces on Thursday arrested one of the country’s most famous footballers, accusing him of spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic and seeking to undermine the national World Cup team.
Voria Ghafouri, a former member of the national football team and once a captain of the Tehran club Esteghlal, has been outspoken in his defence of Iranian Kurds, telling the government on social media to stop killing Kurdish people. He has previously been detained for criticising the former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.
Iran are due to play Wales on Friday. The Iranian team has already been embroiled in controversy after failing to sing the national anthem before its game against England, and Ghafouri’s arrest is likely to be seen as a warning to the players not to repeat their protests.
He was detained after a training session with his club, Foolad Khuzestan, on charges of having “tarnished the reputation of the national team and spread propaganda against the state”, the Fars new agency said.
Other agencies said he was being charged with “insulting and intending to destroy the national football team and speaking against the regime”.
Ministers in recent days have accused Ghafouri of being a Kurdish separatist, but he replied that he would give his life for Iran. Earlier this year, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: “Some people, who benefit from the country’s peace and security, enjoying their jobs and their favourite sports, bite the hand that feeds them,” a reference many thought was to Ghafouri.
The footballer, 35, was a member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad, but was surprisingly not named in the final lineup for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Originally from the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj in western Iran, Ghafouri had posted a photo on Instagram of himself in traditional Kurdish dress in the mountains of Kurdistan, but is a cult hero beyond Iran’s north-west. Sanandaj endured some of the most violent crackdowns in the protests that followed the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, and Ghafouri had visited some of those injured in the protests in Mahabad.
In 2019, he distributed blue jerseys in honour of Sahar Khodayari, a woman who self-immolated after being sentenced to prison for attempting to watch an Esteghlal match at Azadi stadium. After another incident of violence against female football fans in 2021, Ghafouri wrote on Instagram: “As a soccer player, I’ve indeed become humiliated when I play in an era when our mothers and sisters are prohibited from entering stadiums.”
Many fans suggested his career at Esteghlal, a championship winning team, was cut short in June as punishment for speaking out. Others argued that in his mid-30s, Ghafouri was too old for the Iranian top flight.
He recently tweeted: “Stop killing Kurdish people!!! Kurds are Iran itself … Killing Kurds is equal to killing Iran. If you are indifferent to the killing of people, you are not an Iranian and you are not even a human being … All tribes are from Iran. Do not kill people!!!”
In 2013, after the announcement in 2010 that the tiny but enormously wealthy Gulf state of Qatar would host the Fifa 2022 Football World Cup, the Nepal-based Guardian journalist Pete Pattisson made the first of many trips to Kathmandu’s airport in Nepal to count coffins.
For months, Pattisson traced the bodies of dozens of migrant workers repatriated from Qatar back to their families to try to establish why they never made it home alive. It was the start of 10 years of reporting by the Guardian into the sometimes brutal conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers tasked with building Qatar’s state-of-the-art stadiums, and the roads, hotels and infrastructure needed to host one of the biggest sporting events on Earth.
With just days to go to first kick-off, we look back at how migrant rights became centre stage in arguably the most controversial World Cup in the history of the tournament.
September 2013 Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’
The Guardian publishes a comprehensive investigation into worker deaths and abuse in Qatar, which finds that dozens of workers had died and others were suffering appalling labour abuses, which in some case could amount to forced labour, a form of modern slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Workers were being forced to live in unsanitary and overcrowded accommodation and some said that they were not being paid and were unable to leave and return home. In response, the Qatari labour ministry says it has strict rules governing working in the heat, the provision of labour and the prompt payment of salaries. The Supreme Committee, the body tasked with organising the World Cup, told the Guardian it was “deeply concerned” with the allegations and had been told the government authorities were conducting an investigation
September 2013 Qatar under pressure over migrant labour abuse
The Guardian reports that Qatar is facing growing international pressure to act against the rising death toll of migrant workers preparing for the 2022 World Cup, as unions warned another 4,000 people could die in the Gulf emirate before a ball is kicked. Fifa calls for an urgent enquiry and says “very concerned about the reports presented by the media regarding labour rights’ abuses and the conditions for construction workers”. A spokesman for Qatar’s World Cup organisers says they are “appalled” by the Guardian revelations and there is “no excuse” for the maltreatment of workers.
May 2014 Qatar promises to reform labour laws after outcry over ‘World Cup slaves’
July 2014 Trapped in Qatar: the migrants who helped build the ‘tower of football’
As construction on the World Cup stadiums begins, the Guardian returns to the Qatar capital, Doha, and reports that workers assigned to build the “Aspire” football complex – housing the headquarters of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – claim they were not paid for months. In response to the allegations, Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organising committee says it is “heavily dismayed” to hear of the allegations and “will continue to press for a speedy and fair conclusion to all cases”.
July 2014 Qatar World Cup stadium workers earn as little as 45p an hour
A follow-up investigation finds that migrant workers building the first stadium for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup say they had been earning as little as 45p an hour. The pay rate appeared to be in breach of the tournament organisers’ own worker welfare rules and despite the Gulf kingdom spending £134bn on infrastructure in the lead-up to the competition.
November 2014 Qatar’s ambitious future driven on by North Korean ‘forced labour’
The Guardian finds North Korean labourers working on large construction projects in conditions that may amount to forced labour. The investigation suggests the workers may receive as little as 10% of their salary during the three years they typically work in Qatar, with the remainder expropriated by a chain of North Korean state-run bodies, overseen by Office 39, a department that reportedly controls a fund to bankroll Kim Jong-un’s lifestyle. The Qatari authorities say that there are 2,800 North Korean guest workers registered in Qatar and they have no recorded complaints about their payment or treatment. “Qatar is determined to continually improve labour conditions for all who work in the country, and will continue to work with NGOs, businesses and other governments to achieve this,” it says in a statement.
April 2016 Balfour Beatty and Interserve accused of migrant worker labour abuses in Qatar
The Guardian reveals claims of labour abuses among subsidiaries of leading British construction firms. Alleged abuses include erratic or reduced payment of wages, passport confiscation, workers entering employment with high levels of debt bondage and pay levels below those agreed when workers were recruited in their home countries. The workers spoke of a culture of fear and intimidation, with threats of arrest or deportation. Both companies say they are working within the parameters of Qatari law and rigorously monitor their labour supply companies to ensure good practice.
November 2018 £40 a week to build the World Cup stadiums
The Guardian finds World Cup stadium workers being paid £5 a day – a £650 a month basic salary for eight hours of work a day, six days a week. The investigation also uncovered the plight of those who say they had paid agents for visas, but whose jobs and sponsors proved to be a mirage. The supreme committee says its contractors had been instructed to pay the advisory minimum wage and after an investigation, any problems with payment had been rectified.
October 2019 Revealed: hundreds of migrant workers dying of heat stress in Qatar each year
Despite bid committee chief executive Hassan Al-Thawadi saying in 2010 that “heat is not and will not be an issue”, the Guardian reveals that hundreds of thousands of migrant workers toiled in temperatures of up to 45C for up to 10 hours a day, potentially leading to the deaths of hundreds of workers. An analysis of weather conditions finds that it is unsafe to work outside at all in Qatar. A government spokesperson acknowledges that heat stress was challenging but says the government has introduced legislation to protect workers, as well as new national heat stress guidance.
August 2020 Qatar has failed to explain up to 70% of migrant worker deaths in past 10 years – Amnesty
The human rights organisation says themajority of migrant worker deaths in Qatar are attributed to “natural causes”, cardiac or respiratory failure; classifications which are “meaningless” without the underlying cause of death explained, according to one expert cited. Amnesty says intense heat and humidity exposure is likely to be a significant factor and has urged the Qatari authorities to put in place better protections for workers. A government spokesperson says: “Qatar remains steadfast in its commitment to labour reform and will not be thrown off course by any organisation that seeks to discredit the progress we have made.”
September 2020 New labour law ends Qatar’s exploitative kafala system
Qatar finally launches sweeping reforms to its labour laws, ending kafala and introducing a “non-discriminatory minimum wage”, the first in the Middle East. The reforms are widely lauded by the ILO and cautiously welcomed by human rights groups.
February 2021 Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded
A multi-country investigation by the Guardian finds at least 6,500 workers from south Asia have died in Qatar in the 10 years since it was awarded the right to host the World Cup. The findings expose Qatar’s failure to protect its 2 million-strong migrant workforce, or even investigate the causes of the apparently high death rate among the largely young workers. The Qatar government says that the number of deaths – which it does not dispute – is proportionate to the size of the migrant workforce and that the figures include white-collar workers who have died naturally after living in Qatar for many years. It also says that only 20% of migrants from the countries in question are employed in construction, and that work-related deaths in this sector accounted for fewer than 10% of fatalities within this group.
November 2021 ‘We have fallen into a trap’: Qatar’s World Cup dream is a nightmare for hotel staff
A year before the first match is due to be played, the Guardian exposes allegations of abusive working conditions in hotels included in Fifa’s hospitality packages. A Qatari official said Qatar had a zero-tolerance approach towards violating companies, issuing harsh penalties that included fines and prison sentences.
March 2022 Revealed: migrant workers in Qatar forced to pay billions in recruitment fees
We reveal how low-wage migrant workers have been forced to pay billions of dollars in recruitment fees to secure their jobs in World Cup host nation Qatar over the past decade. The Qatar government says companies involved in illegal recruitment practices have been severely punished and that 24 recruitment agencies were shut down and had their licences revoked for breaking Qatar’s laws.
April 2022 ‘No one should suffer like me’: families of Qatar’s dead migrant workers left with nothing
The Guardian travels across the southern plains of Nepal to investigate how families of workers who died in Qatar are left in debt and without compensation after a failure to investigate deaths. A spokesperson for the Qatar government says that companies in Qatar are legally required to compensate the families of all workers who lose their lives in a work-related incident. The supreme committee organising the World Cup in Qatar says in a statement that its commitment to the, “health, safety and dignity of all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast and unwavering.”
September 2022 Migrant workers in Qatar left in debt after being ordered home before World Cup starts
With only months to go before the start of the tournament, the Guardian’s Pete Pattisson travels again to Qatar to report on how migrant workers say they are being ordered home before the World Cup starts, leaving them in debt and without work. In a statement, a Qatari official says there is no government requirement for companies to repatriate employees or reduce their workforce before the World Cup.
November 2022 Security guards at Doha World Cup park claim they are paid just 35p an hour
On the eve of the tournament, security guards at the heart of World Cup festivities claim they are paid just 35p an hour, appear to only get one day off a month and are housed in dirty camps on the edge of the desert. In response, the Qatari government says that extensive action has been taken to combat exploitative labour practices and when violations are recorded, corrective action is taken and offending companies penalised. The Al Nasr Star Group, which employs the security guards, confirms the guards work 12-hour shifts but say they get two hours’ break each day and one day off a week.
Andy Payne has supported England at every World Cup bar one for the past 40 years – but when it was announced that Qatar would host in 2022, he hesitated. “There’s so many people, including me, quite rightly having major moral thoughts on all this,” he says.
In the end, he and his wife, Kirsty, decided to go – but his usual T-shirt and shorts will be adorned with a bright rainbow armband, while Kirsty will wear a large rainbow hat.
“It’s a World Cup and England are there so we will go out, but wearing as much rainbow gear as we possibly can so we can do our piece to represent England and progress in the world,” he says.
Before the World Cup kicks off next Sunday, many fans concerned about Qatar’s human rights record and stance on LGBTQ+ rights are feeling conflicted, with some deciding to boycott the event, bars choosing not to show games and sponsors hiding.
Hosting the World Cup has put an unprecedented spotlight on Qatar’s human rights record. Reports suggest migrant workers who constructed stadiums endured “persistent and widespread labour rights violations”. According to Guardian analysis, about 6,500 migrant workers have died since Fifa members voted in 2010 to award the 2022 tournament to the Gulf state.
A recent survey found six out of 10 British people believe Qatar’s stance on gay rights – homosexuality is illegal, attracting punishments of up to seven years in prison – should have barred it from hosting. This week an ambassador for the tournament described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”.
Sandra Tyrie, the manager of the Liverpool Arms pub in Chester, said it had decided not to show any matches – and since the decision others have followed suit. “We spoke to our customers and we just felt promoting it wasn’t doing any good for our community,” she says. “We just wanted to use the small voice we’ve got to speak out.”
Others who will travel to the country are deciding to use the opportunity to try to open debate in a place where freedom of speech is stymied. The BBC pundit and former footballer Pat Nevin said like others travelling to cover the tournament he would keep his “eyes and ears open”, adding: “Those of us who come from countries with allegedly free speech, we will not be quiet and we will say what we feel.”
Billy Grant, the co-presenter of Brentford FC’s Beesotted podcast and a travelling England fan since 1990, said many supporters were staying at home. Some were doing so because of costs and the timing of the tournament, which was rescheduled for winter to avoid Qatar’s overwhelming summer heat, others such as a gay friend from America said they did not feel safe.
But Grant said the tournament was also an opportunity for cultural exchange. “When you start talking with locals you have more of an opportunity to change things than anybody can do at home,” he says. “We know this is sports washing – but while switching off the football and watching Coronation Street might make you feel better, it’s not going to change anything.”
Payne agrees, and says many fans who are travelling will – respectfully – be speaking their minds, maybe even from the stands. His ambition is to start a new chant, based on the chorus of the 1978 song by the Tom Robinson Band: (Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay. “If I can get some of the boys to start it, then you never know if it will catch on,” he says. “Watch and listen to this space.”
Qatari organisers of the 2022 World Cup have responded to the Socceroos’ criticism of the country’s human rights record, praising the group of players for raising awareness of issues ahead of the tournament while admitting that “no country is perfect”.
Sixteen Australian players raised their concerns about the “suffering” of migrant workers and the inability of LGBTQ+ people in Qatar “to love the person that they choose” in a collective video released on Thursday.
They acknowledged that some progress has taken place in Qatar before next month’s kick-off, but that implementation of reform in the country “remains inconsistent and requires improvement”.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – the tournament’s organisers – responded to the players’ statement and the issue of workers’ rights.
“We commend footballers using their platforms to raise awareness for important matters,” the committee said.
“We have committed every effort to ensuring that this World Cup has had a transformative impact on improving lives, especially for those involved in constructing the competition and non-competition venues we’re responsible for.
“Protecting the health, safety, security, and dignity of every worker contributing to this World Cup is our priority.”
Qatar’s human rights record has been under increased scrutiny as the kick-off for the showpiece event approaches, with several acts of protests planned once the football gets under way on 20 November.
The Socceroos’ Group D opponents, Denmark, have produced an all-black playing shirt to honour the workers who died during the construction of stadiums and infrastructure, while players from nine teams will wear “One Love” armbands.
The organisers did not directly address the issue of same-sex relationships raised by the Socceroos players in the video – which remains illegal in Qatar – but said: “This World Cup has contributed to a legacy of progress, better practice, and improving lives – and it’s a legacy that will live long after the final ball is kicked.”
They said any change in workplace culture might not be seen immediately, and implementation of new laws was a challenge not unique to Qatar.
“New laws and reforms often take time to bed in, and robust implementation of labour laws is a global challenge, including in Australia,” added the spokesperson.
“No country is perfect, and every country – hosts of major events or not – has its challenges.”
The Socceroos begin their Group D campaign against France on 23 November, before playing Tunisia three days later and Denmark on 1 December.
The Socceroos, including their captain Mat Ryan, have issued a strong collective statement of protest over the human rights record of Qatar, the country which will controversially host the tournament starting next month.
The Australian men’s national team released a video on Thursday morning with 16 players delivering their message line by line, raising concerns about the “suffering” of migrant workers and the inability in Qatar of the LGBTI+ people “to love the person that they choose”.
“There are universal values that should define football values such as respect, dignity, trust, and courage. When we represent our nation, we aspire to embody these values,” the players said.
The Socceroos’ video was released alongside an open letter from the players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, and a statement from governing body Football Australia addressing the human rights and workers’ welfare concerns which have been raised around the host nation.
Over the past two years the Socceroos, PFA and Football Australia have been engaged in a process of consultation with stakeholders such as Amnesty International, International Labour Organisation, Builders and Woodworkers International, the International Trade Union Confederation and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy about the situation in Qatar.
In their video, the Socceroos said “we have learned the progress has been made both on paper and in practice”.
They highlighted that the kafala system (which enabled employers to take away workers’ passports and block them from leaving the country) has largely been dismantled, and that working conditions have improved and a minimum wage has been established.
However, the players said while the reforms are an “important and welcome step, their implementation remains inconsistent and requires improvement”.
“These migrant workers who have suffered are not just numbers, like the migrants that have shaped our country and our football. They possess the same courage and determination to build a better life.
“Addressing these issues is not easy. And we do not have all the answers.”
“We stand with Fifpro, the Building and Wood Workers International and the International Trade Union Confederation, seeking to embed reforms and establish a lasting legacy in Qatar.
“This must include establishing a migrant resource centre, effective remedy for those who have been denied their rights, and the decriminalisation of all same-sex relationships.
“These are the basic rights that should be afforded to all and will ensure continued progress in Qatar. This is how we can ensure a legacy that goes well beyond the final whistle of the 2022 Fifa World Cup.”
Football Australia, which had until Thursday remained silent on the issue of hosting the tournament in Qatar, also called for the establishment of a Migrant Workers Centre to continue to represent the rights of the workers beyond December 2022, as well as solidarity with LGBTI+ communities.
“As the most multicultural, diverse, and inclusive sport in our country, we believe everyone should be able to feel safe and be their true authentic selves,” the statement said.
“Whilst we acknowledge the highest levels of assurances given by HH Amir of Qatar and the President of Fifa that LGBTI+ fans will be safely welcomed in Qatar, we hope that this openness can continue beyond the tournament.”
The 16 Australian players involved in the video were captain Mat Ryan, Bailey Wright, Jamie Maclaren, Nick D’Agostino, Jackson Irvine, Craig Goodwin, Danny Vukovic, Andrew Redmayne, Mathew Leckie, Mitchell Duke, Mitch Langerak, Denis Genreau, Cameron Devlin, Adam Taggart, Kye Rowles and Alex Wilkinson, the president of players union Professional Footballers Australia.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been stopped in Qatar while staging a protest against the Gulf state’s criminalisation of LGBT+ people.
Tatchell’s protest outside the National Museum of Qatar in the capital, Doha, comes less than a month before the start of the Fifa World Cup, which is expected to attract 1.2 million visitors from around the world.
Reuters reported two uniformed police officers and three plain clothes officials arrived at the scene. They folded up his placard and took photos of Tatchell’s passport and other papers, and those of a man accompanying him. Police left after shaking hands with Tatchell, who remained on the sidewalk.
The veteran campaigner, whose whereabouts are unknown, was holding a placard that read: “Qatar arrests, jails & subjects LGBTs to ‘conversion’ #QatarAntiGay.”
The Peter Tatchell Foundation said this was the first LGBT+ protest in Qatar or any Gulf state.
The incident adds to mounting pressure on Qatar over its treatment of the LGBT+ community and migrant workers, as well as other human rights concerns.
Qatari law criminalises both male and female homosexuality, with sentences of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual gay or lesbian sex.
Speaking from Qatar shortly before his protest, Tatchell said: “There can be no normal sporting relations with an abnormal regime like Qatar. It is a homophobic, sexist and racist dictatorship.
“Qatar cannot be allowed to sportswash its reputation. It is using the World Cup to enhance its international image. We must ensure that the tyrant regime in Doha does not score a PR victory.
“I did this protest to shine a light on Qatar’s human rights abuses against LGBT+ people, women, migrant workers and liberal Qataris. I am supporting their brave battle against tyranny.
“LGBT+ Qataris face police harassment, online entrapment, ‘honour’ killing, arrest, three years’ jail and potentially the death penalty. Qatar has secret gay conversion centres where LGBT+ people can be detained and subjected to abusive attempts to turn them straight.”
Last month, European football federations announced their intention for team captains – including England’s Harry Kane – to wear “One Love” rainbow armbands to symbolise opposition to LGBT+ discrimination in Qatar.
Tatchell added: “Despite Fifa saying that discrimination will not be tolerated, if a Qatari footballer came out as gay, he would be more likely to be arrested and jailed than be selected for the national team. That’s discrimination and against Fifa’s rules.
“Fifa has failed to secure change in Qatar. There have been no legislative reforms on LGBT+ or women’s rights. Improvements for migrant workers have been patchy at best. Fifa is letting Qatar evade many of its pledges when it was granted the right to hold the World Cup.”
Tatchell’s arrest comes as Qatar’s ruling emir attacked criticism of his country over its hosting of the World Cup, describing it as an “unprecedented campaign” targeting the first Arab nation to hold the tournament.
In a televised speech before the emirate’s legislative body on Tuesday, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said: “The campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives.”
Human rights groups have credited Qatar with improving its labour laws since it won the right to host the world’s biggest sporting event, such as dismantling the kafala system, for example, which tied a worker to a single employer, and introducing a minimum monthly wage. However, activists call for more to be done.