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Over the last year, reporting about FIFA, football’s scandal-plagued governing body, has focused on arrests, corruption, and worker rights abuses in the upcoming World Cup host countries, Russia and Qatar.

Qatari fans watch a Qatar vs. China soccer match in the Abdullah bin Khalifa stadium, Doha, Qatar. The stadium is one of several that Qatar is building or renovating ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2022. © 2013 Scott Nelson/Getty Images

So today’s news that Harvard University Professor John Ruggie agreed to help FIFA implement human rights rules, in accordance with reforms announced by FIFA’s executive committee in May 2015, is a step forward. Ruggie has agreed to review FIFA’s rules and recommend how it can implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – which he helped create when he was a UN special representative – in FIFA’s policies and practices. 

If FIFA carries out those recommendations, it could move the ball down the field for human rights. But FIFA has commissioned and buried reports before, so whether FIFA is serious is still an open question.‎

Action on rights is urgent. In October, Qatar, the Gulf state hosting the 2022 World Cup, passed a law indicating that it has no intention of reforming its kafala system of sponsorship-based employment, meaning low-paid migrant workers still need their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country.

Russia’s selection as host of the 2018 World Cup is also a source of concern, in view of the extensive abuse of migrant workers Human Rights Watch documented ahead of the Sochi Olympics, including during construction of Fisht Stadium, a 2018 World Cup venue. The construction led to forced evictions and affected entire communities, including one village that was deprived of a reliable water supply for more than five years.

Despite its influence and power, FIFA has long failed to tackle abuses in the life cycle of its mega-sporting events, from bidding through construction, to legacy for local populations.

The early and most visible test of Ruggie’s new rights rules will be whether FIFA puts words into action to press Qatar and Russia to change their treatment of migrant workers, and whether FIFA will begin to contribute to broader reform of labor practices across the Gulf.

That would be something to cheer, on and off the field.

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