Mimi Kirk is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A new film follows the men playing in a soccer match comprised of laborers constructing buildings for the 2022 tournament.
In the opening scene of the documentary The Workers Cup, migrant laborers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East emerge, weary, in the pre-dawn to board a bus for work. The vehicle barrels down a dusty road until it comes upon a vast, lit-up construction site. The men have come to Qatar’s capital city of Doha to build the arenas and other infrastructure needed for the World Cup, which the Persian Gulf country will host in 2022. (That is, unless its recent political woes interfere.)
More than 1.5 million migrant workers live in Qatar, and they make up an incredible 60 percent of the population. When they arrive from their home countries, their residency permits are controlled by the company they work for. They cannot change jobs, quit, or leave Qatar without the company’s permission. They live in crowded, coarsely built shelters in vast camps located west of Doha. Except for Fridays, their days consist of 12 or more hours of intense labor (though they often work on Fridays, too). “All you think about is to get up, go to work, come back and rest,” Kenneth, from Ghana, says. “This is no life, man,” says Paul, from Kenya. “It’s like you are trapped or something.”
But one day Qatar’s Supreme Committee of the 2022 World Cup announces it will sponsor a soccer tournament for the workers, comprised of laborers from 24 companies that are constructing World Cup buildings. “We know the important role you’re playing in our economy and in our society,” a committee member intones at a press conference. “This tournament is organized in sports facilities you’re helping to build.”
Kenneth is named captain of his company’s team, and we follow him and his teammates as they train, win and lose games, and make it to the semifinals. But this is not a sports film. Though the scenes on the field are exciting, the director, Adam Sobel, is more interested in the workers as people than as players. We watch as friendships develop and conflicts flare up and resolve. We witness discussions on what it means to be free.
Sobel lived for five years in Qatar, where he worked on other video projects that involved migrant labor—but he never got much access to the workers. “We’d have to shoot undercover and hide people’s identities,” he says. Human rights organizations have been calling on the country to improve workers’ lives for years, and these calls intensified with the glut of construction projects for the World Cup. Qatar does its best to contain information about its workers’ living and working conditions. For instance, in 2016, government authorities detained and interrogated journalists who tried to report on the topic.
Sobel saw the Workers Cup as a way to gain access to the laborers. It was clear that the Qatari government and the companies involved were keen to mobilize the event for positive PR, and so filming was permitted. He notes that companies bidding on World Cup projects must sign on to a charter that holds them to a higher standard for laborers’ living conditions than most other companies in Qatar. As such, the camps seen in The Workers Cup, while crude, are better than many.
Much has been written about these living conditions, and though Sobel acknowledges the importance of this, he wanted to do something different with the access he had. “Not much had been made about the emotional stress these men are under,” he says. “That was the more pressing issue.” The workers, many of whom have left behind families, come to Doha to make money—“to fulfill their dreams,” as Kenneth says—but they end up in a reality where they are literally trapped, overworked, and lonely.
In one extreme example of this psychological suffering, we meet a man in the medical ward of the camp whose roommate has cut off his leg with a knife. “I woke up suddenly, and my leg was in his hand!” he says. When asked whether the roommate had mental problems, the victim says, “He was a nice person and a good man. The only problem is he wanted to go home.”
Sobel says that the segregation and isolation the men experience is what weighs on them most heavily. “Your life boils down to the work,” he says. “You’re just thinking about yourself as an instrument, a machine.” Before they come to Doha, he says, the workers hope that, even though they know they will labor in construction, the wealth and glamour of the city will rub off on them. But what they Google thousands of miles away is perhaps just as far away after they arrive.
The camps are situated far away from downtown’s glitzy buildings, not to mention any residential area where services, shopping, and entertainment can be found. The Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning even published a series of official, interactive maps in 2015 that show that labor camps are not permitted anywhere near the city. “The only time the workers see Doha is on the bus from the camps to the construction sites and back,” says Sobel. “That’s why the tournament became such an important part of their lives. Physically, they got to see something different. It broke their routine, and it gave them hope.”
Yet in the end, the authorities are not inclined to continue to support the men who made them look good. After the tournament is over, Kenneth and his teammate David tentatively ask their coach if they can form their own soccer club. “We are following the rules in Qatar,” says the coach. “You have to complete five years [of work] to play…Keep practicing. Don’t forget your dream.” Kenneth nods silently, his eyes down.
The Workers Cup will screen at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City on June 15 and 16.