GENEVA (AP) — The head of the World Trade Organization said on Tuesday that the benefits of working with FIFA to create more jobs in Africa outweighed concerns over controversies surrounding Qatar, which hosts the World Cup. football world this year.
Qatar has come under scrutiny and fierce criticism for its treatment of migrant workers who have been brought in over the past decade to construct tens of billions of dollars worth of construction projects ahead of the tournament, which begins in November.
“Yes, there may have been controversies and we don’t shy away from that,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said while welcoming FIFA President Gianni Infantino, at an event in Geneva.
The former Nigerian finance minister noted that “no one stopped the World Cup and said it wouldn’t happen.”
“I think the balance of thought is if we want the whole world to come to this place for this World Cup, regardless of the controversies, and we have a chance to make it all benefit the poor countries through trade, we will take that,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
She acknowledged that Qatar was a “very active” member of the WTO, before concluding that the benefit of its partnership with FIFA was worth the risk.
The WTO and FIFA hope that cotton-producing countries in West Africa can secure a greater share of trade and manufacturing jobs for the global football industry.
Infantino and Okonjo-Iweala put the annual economic value of sport at $268 billion, which is similar to the GDP of a top 50 country like New Zealand.
“Football is a big driver in terms of all kinds of goods and services,” the WTO leader said. “How to exploit the commercial part of it?”
She cited the “Cotton-4” group of nations – founded as Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali – which could benefit from the partnership. None of these countries’ national teams have ever qualified for a men’s World Cup.
“It could create so many jobs, so much income, uplift women, uplift young people,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
Infantino said one of FIFA’s goals was “to bring a lot of hope but also a lot of work and opportunity to many people around the world”.
The event moderator asked him if Qatar was a controversial choice to host the World Cup.
“Thanks to the spotlight of football, a lot has changed in Qatar,” Infantino said, referring to labor and human rights.
A campaign launched last week by eight of the 13 European teams qualified to play in Qatar aims to pressure FIFA into allowing its captains to wear armbands with a multicolored heart-shaped logo. This is part of the Dutch “One Love” project which supports diversity and LGBT+ rights. Homosexual acts are illegal in Qatar, but the host country has promised that all visiting fans will be welcome.
“Things still have to change but a process has started,” Infantino said of Qatar. “I’m happy to take all the criticism from everyone for whatever, as long as we can have a small, small concrete, real positive impact.”
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