If English football administrators were desperate to avoid controversy about labour issues in Qatar during the World Cup then the choice of venue for the team’s first match has put paid to any such hope.
On Monday lunchtime, when Harry Kane leads out England’s team for the game against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium, he will do so in a venue touched by tragedy.
Khalifa, named after a previous Emir of Qatar, is the country’s national stadium. Of the eight venues where games will be played at the World Cup, Khalifa, built in 1976, is the only one to be refurbished rather than built from scratch.
It was the first stadium to be made World Cup-ready, was the site of the World Athletics Championships, where Liverpool beat Flamengo to win the World Club Championship in 2019, and just a short trip down the usually congested Al Waab street from where current Barcelona boss Xavi cut his managerial teeth at Al Sadd.
It is a well-known site for locals, signposted on Doha’s landscape by the nearby Torch Tower and close to the popular Villagio shopping mall, which if you do not fancy walking while shopping, can be navigated by gondola.
It is also an area of the Qatari capital which will evoke sadness for some. Villagio was the site of a disastrous mall fire in 2012, which left 19 people dead, including 13 children, as the blaze started in a nursery located in the mall. It was one of the single, deadliest incidents ever to occur in Qatar.
And the grim shadow cast by Villagio extends far enough to hang over the nearby Khalifa Stadium, one of the venues definitively affected by the disputed issue of World Cup workers’ deaths.
In January 2017, Zac Cox fell 40 metres (130 feet) to his death while working on the renovation of Qatar’s national stadium in western Doha.
Mr Cox, 40, fell from rigging when a platform he was trying to install collapsed after lever hoist equipment failed. He was a specialist in construction work on tall buildings.
A subsequent coroner’s inquest held in Brighton – Cox was a dual British/New Zealand citizen who lived part of his life in Hove – said a “perfect storm of events” led to his death, criticised the decision to speed up the refurbishment of the stadium, and the use of substandard equipment during work, especially the rusting lever hoists.
“If you cut to the quick, the root cause of the accident was that the workers were being asked to use equipment that was not fit for purpose,” said coroner Veronica Hamilton-Deeley.
A fellow worker told the inquest that the hoists “should have been thrown in the rubbish bin”.
What followed after the death added insult to tragedy.
A South African colleague of Mr Cox’s, Graham Vance, was arrested within hours of the death, accused of negligence and the Qatari authorities sought his imprisonment.
He was only allowed to leave the country after 10 months and cleared of any responsibility. Then it emerged that a report completed within days of Mr Cox’s death explaining the circumstances of the incident was not given to his grieving family. A row has subsequently continued over exactly who was responsible for his death.
Amid claims that thousands have died helping Qatar to prepare stadiums for the World Cup – Qatar denies this and says there has been 37 deaths among workers directly linked to construction of tournament venues, 34 of those classified as “non-work related” – Mr Cox’s death was one of those specifically related to construction being carried out on a tournament venue which will be showcased to the world in the coming weeks.
He is thought to be the only western construction worker killed during the massive infrastructure work undertaken in preparation for the World Cup, and the only Briton.
His case is also unique in that his family was able to receive an inquest into his death, something painfully impossible for others.
Given Qatar 2022’s relentless ability to draw controversy from almost every corner of the tournament, it is ultimately not surprising that of all venues where England could have played their first match of the tournament, it ended up being at Khalifa International Stadium.
Until now, England’s team have only tentatively spoken about workers’ rights, seeking to address the issue but to not annoy their hosts at the same time.
It is a tactic that has not really worked.
Gareth Southgate, who has proved the most media-adept of all England coaches, was instantly criticised for his claim earlier this month that migrant workers in Qatar were “united” in wanting the World Cup to take place. There has been a picture call with migrant workers from their training camp south of Doha.
Much more positively, the English Football Association has publicly supported the need for a compensation fund – in partnership with other European FAs – for migrant workers and their families to recompense those who have suffered helping Qatar prepare for the World Cup, either directly in stadiums or the vast infrastructure projects which will support the event.
To Fifa’s shame, it is yet to commit to such a fund despite for abuses suffered during preparations for the tournament, despite football’s governing body being expected to make billions from the tournament.
Human rights groups say that Fifa president Gianni Infantino should commit to the fund to leave a lasting legacy from arguably football’s most controversial ever World Cup.
So far, Mr Infantino has kept his silence.
“Fifa cannot use the spectacle of the World Cup to dodge its responsibilities,” says Amnesty’s Steve Cockburn. “It has a clear duty towards the hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered while building the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the tournament.”
Much of the next four weeks is likely to see the volume turned up on the Fifa boss to agree to some sort of settlement.
But whether he does or not, the human cost of building the World Cup will be evident in many places once the tournament kicks off on Sunday.
For England, that evidence will be seen immediately as their World Cup campaign begins, and whatever Harry Kane and the team manage to do in the next few weeks, none of it will have the lasting impact of what happened at the Khalifa Stadium almost six years ago.