If there was a theme that could be attributed to the 2022 World Cup more than any other, it’s “murky ethics”. If you’ve got mixed feelings about this year’s edition of the prestigious 92-year-old tournament, you’re likely not alone.

On one side, Australia surpassed all odds to reach the tournament despite going through a rocky qualification campaign. The country seemed destined for the tournament early on—even setting a record for 11 straight victories—until a series of sloppy results meant they were unlikely to progress. Australians knew that after defeat by Japan on March 24—a game which I attended—there was slim chance of beating United Arab Emirates in a sudden-death knockout game, and pretty much no hope of beating a strong Peru who awaited after that.

And yet they did, mainly thanks to new honorary “Grey Wiggle” goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, whose dancing antics against Peru in the final penalty shootout booked the country’s ticket to Qatar. On the flip side, New Zealand narrowly missed out on a World Cup berth, falling to Costa Rica during their sudden-death qualification game.

But, as fans of both countries can testify, the pain of missing out is temporary and there’s always next time.

However, this year’s tournament has particularly struck a nerve for many. Qatar was awarded rights to host the tournament by governing body FIFA amidst widespread allegations of corruption. According to the Daily Mail, 16 of the 22 officials who voted for Qatar to host the tournament have either “been banned, accused of or indicted for criminal corruption”. It left a sour aftertaste in the mouths of Australians, whose own government was also bidding for hosting privileges—$A45.6 million taxpayer dollars only gets you one FIFA official’s vote, it seems.

Hosting a World Cup requires massive investment in stadiums, and Qatar’s infrastructure work came on the back of large-scale migrant worker exploitation. A government study reported in The Guardian found 6500 workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and more, died in the country’s building program; a figure that is widely accepted to be “under-reported”.

Amnesty International’s study of 105 workers found almost all worked more than 14-hour days and seven-day weeks, while half of women surveyed also reported working more than 18-hour days; all in the hot desert heat. There have also been allegations of extortion when workers were brought in from overseas, reports of deaths in workers’ cramped living quarters, and those who did survive being significantly underpaid. In May 2020, FIFA reported it was “unaware” of the situation and was not being “routinely notified” of remediation efforts.

If you weren’t previously aware of the staggering body count behind the tournament, you might have just acquired those mixed feelings I mentioned earlier. I had that same moment a few months ago.

Love of the game

I love football. Currently, a miniature version of the World Cup ball, Al Rihla, sits on my desk. There’s a different vibe around the community when 32 of the best nations in the football world meet to determine who deserves the golden World Cup trophy. The atmosphere is electric and it certainly becomes a daily conversation topic. Some of my best television memories include watching the controversial 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy, watching Germany beat Brazil 7–1 or seeing Australia punch above their weight against the world’s greats.

But I doubt that feeling will be there this time around. I assumed published reports of migrant exploitation wouldn’t be enough to stop me getting excited about the tournament. My mind quickly changed after watching a documentary on YouTube that showed what conditions workers had to live in.

Moral compromises

The 2022 World Cup will perhaps be subconsciously recognised as a tournament that challenges the morals of those who plan to watch it. On one hand, the Qatar-hosted tournament is far from the first to cross the “moral line”. Allegations of corruption in determining tournament hosts extend back decades.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil also had a chequered history; eight deaths were reported in building accidents while the country’s citizens also cried foul about money spent on the tournament, despite widespread poverty. None of this stopped 1.01 billion viewers tuning in for the final, according to ESPN.

It raises a broader question of how, when and where the general public should choose to boycott things which go against their moral values. And why, in so many cases, people fail to do so. Others may point out the hypocrisy in that comment.

Unless one only shops for A+ clothing on Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide, only entrusts their money to companies with a clean record or eats food that hasn’t meant someone (or something) up the chain has been exploited, we have all inadvertently benefitted from moral or ethical corruption. A sobering point to be sure, and one that should change the way we think about everything—not just the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The psychology of choice

Every person makes choices on a daily basis that align with their moral code. There are some obvious ones—for example, the choice whether or not to steal—and less obvious ones—like making a choice whether to support people or institutions with a history of causing hurt. The former seems pretty obvious as it’s likely enacted through a country’s legal constitution. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you might recognise these moral lines stem from the Bible’s 10 Commandments as described in Exodus 20.

But the latter is a trickier proposition because though the person or institution may be challenged in civil court, there may not be any rules governing what you choose to do about it.

Every day, humans take part in ethical decision-making according to the things that matter to them. Underneath the surface, psychologists have studied these processes. There’s Kidder’s “Ethical decision-making” checkpoints from his book Moral Courage, which encourages testing the issue in order to understand its implications.

Others have broken down the components of how we make decisions into moral sensitivity, moral judgement, moral motivation and moral character. One point in a study led by researchers from the University of Hertfordshire simply suggests that “when education stops, moral development stops”. In the same way that I could’ve remained ignorant about the issues around the 2022 World Cup, I’m now more educated and also more cautious.

A critical thinking God

There’s also the question of how a religious belief system can shape this understanding of a “moral code”. My high school religion teacher once made an interesting comment that helped shape how I understood God. “He allows freedom of conscience,” he told the class. That simple notion changed my picture of God from being a micromanager to a mentor figure. I no longer saw Him as a rule-keeper but as Someone who wanted the best for me and those around me.

Jesus’ apostle Peter discovered this and wrote about it in the Bible. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). God wants us to decide what’s right, and He gives us the Holy Spirit to influence our conscience on the path to good. “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit,” the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 9:1.

Making the right choices

Speaking to TODAY directly after Australia beat Peru to qualify for the World Cup, well-known football pundit and human rights activist Craig Foster summed up the sentiment around the tournament. “It’s a highly controversial World Cup, but Socceroos fans won’t be worrying about that today, nor will the players. They’ll have an opportunity around the World Cup to make some good social statements, I hope.”

In an increasingly complex and corrupted world, a football tournament held over four weeks may be one of the milder trigger topics. And yet, it offers a glimpse into the plight of those who are less fortunate in other corners of the globe. While there’s tragically no way to bring back those who died, education about the factors that led to their deaths may reignite humankind to put pressure on those who put profit ahead of human lives. Hopefully it’ll lead to a future on earth where people won’t have to experience pain and suffering.

Daniel Kuberek is a former assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. He currently works in the Australian film industry.  A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished here with permission.