BBC skips World Cup opening event in Qatar, airs segments on country’s rights abuses

UK national broadcaster examines controversy surrounding soccer tournament, including deaths of migrant workers who built stadia, anti-LGBTQ laws; but some fans upset

Fireworks explode over the Al Bayt Stadium before the start of the World Cup, group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador in Al Khor, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
Fireworks explode over the Al Bayt Stadium before the start of the World Cup, group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador in Al Khor, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

The BBC, the UK’s national broadcaster, dedicated its coverage of the opening ceremony for the soccer World Cup tournament on Sunday to criticism of host nation Qatar’s record of human rights abuses.

As the multi-million dollar spectacular got underway in the Al Bayt Stadium near Doha, the network’s team of presenters skipped the ceremony and producers instead aired segments focused on accusations of corruption in Qatar’s bidding process, the over 6,000 migrant workers who are thought to have died while constructing event sites, and the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws.

“Women’s rights and freedom of expression are in the spotlight,” remarked former England soccer star Gary Lineker, who was on the presentation team. “It’s the most controversial World Cup in history and a ball hasn’t even been kicked.”

Other criticism was aimed at negotiations for compensation for migrant workers and their families. Amnesty International is seeking over $400 million but so far Fifa, the sport’s governing body, has not agreed, according to the Guardian.

Though the BBC did live stream the ceremony online, the broadcast channel instead featured segments that included an interview with Amnesty International about the competition’s impact on the environment.

“We’ve never seen a World Cup with a carbon footprint like this before,” stated presenter Ros Atkins.

After half an hour or so, the BBC broadcast moved on to a discussion of the tournament itself, and which team might eventually win.

However, the broadcast drew criticism from fans who were riled by the content in a sports broadcast, with some noting that the presenters were in a studio in Doha and paid for the work they were doing there, the Daily Mail newspaper reported.

Hawkish commentator Piers Morgan tweeted “Outrageously disrespectful to Qatar that the BBC didn’t broadcast the World Cup opening ceremony, and instead put out more virtue-signaling guff about how awful it is.”

“If they’re that appalled, they should bring home their vast army of employees and spare us this absurd hypocrisy,” he wrote.

Fans watch fireworks after the World Cup inauguration match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Corniche sea promenade in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP/Francisco Seco)

Meanwhile, over at Al Jazeera, the English-language network funded by the Qarati government showed construction staff meeting the England soccer team, the Guardian newspaper reported. As the clip ran, a narrator noted that without the tournament, “these two groups of men, with their different languages and backgrounds, might never have met. But football has brought them together.”

The 30-minute opening ceremony featured South Korean pop star Jung Kook of BTS fame as a headliner, and US actor Morgan Freeman, who has faced sexual assault allegations.

The Al Bayt venue is one of an array of new stadiums built for the tournament, which has cost Qatar an estimated $200 billion, the most expensive World Cup in history.

World Cup organizers hope the start of the event will quell the controversies that have overshadowed preparations for the tournament ever since Qatar was named as the host nation in a shock FIFA vote in 2010.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and the Gulf state’s human rights record have dominated the pre-tournament headlines.

Dancers perform during the opening ceremony ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group A football match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha on November 20, 2022. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

Several European nations taking part — including England, Germany and Denmark — have said their players will wear rainbow-colored “OneLove” armbands in a gesture of solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.

The move raises the prospect of disciplinary action from FIFA, which has revealed plans to make its own alternative armbands available to teams.

Israel did not qualify for the tournament, which is held every four years. But many Israeli fans are attending, including via unprecedented direct flights from Tel Aviv to Doha.

AFP contributed to this report.

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