Football with the work lot. For many of us, it’s an escape. An escape from the monotony of the working week, a chance to dust off the well-worn Preds you bought 15 years ago when at least one of your knees still worked and go out and leave one on the boss, who you’ve never really liked anyway.
For those working to build the eight venues for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, it’s no different. Only the things they’re escaping aren’t a cramped underground commute, avoiding the accounts department at the water cooler, and the dreaded team-building exercise. Instead, it’s 40-degree heat, working through the night, and the very real possibility of being one of the hundreds that Human Rights Watch claim die in the construction camps every year.
A recently-released documentary follows 22 of these workers, selected to represent their company in a tournament set up by the World Cup organising committee.
“Football was the ultimate icebreaker,” says Adam Sobel, director of The Workers Cup. “Instead of asking them about the bathrooms in their camp and how exploited they are, we said ‘hey, tell us about why you love football so much! What kind of football did you play back home? Who were your favourite teams?’
“Instead of sticking a camera in front of someone’s face, maybe having eight minutes to capture their story then having to leave because the authorities might come, we were able to follow this tournament.
“That was the secret ingredient of the film—we’re guiding all the storytelling through this tournament. We were then allowed to access parts of the story that then presented themselves because we were in a labour camp and surrounded by repressed emotions and isolation that these guys feel all the time.
“Even if that’s erased sometimes by this soccer tournament, it immediately comes flooding back as soon as the match has ended.”
On December 18th, 2022, the World Cup final will kick off in the city of Lusail. But don’t bother looking at hotel prices—Lusail doesn’t exist yet. Building the city, its 86,000-seat stadium and seven other venues for the tournament, is the job of 35,000 mostly migrant workers. Everyone’s heard tales of their treatment, and they’re the latest in a long line of problems facing the tournament, which go far beyond whether travelling fans can get pissed at the game.
Potential voting corruption, the move to a winter tournament and the fact Qatar’s 103rd–ranked, recently-lost-at-home-to-Liechtenstein national team will be a top seed for the group stage all haunt a tournament that could only ever have FIFA’s name on it.
It’s precisely because these issues are so well-known however that Sobel, who has produced films for the BBC, CNN, and HBO on Qatar, chose to shift the focus.
Sobel says: “When we showed rough cuts to financers, they only issue they cared about was workers who had died.
“Everybody said ‘you need to sprinkle more suffering into the film’—that’s an actual quote. We’d seen and produced that media before and we didn’t want to create an exposé—we wanted to give the workers a voice.
“What they spoke about was how much they miss their families, how much they want to meet a girl, how they felt isolated from the rest of society. We tried to approach it more on these humanistic levels that I think show the psychological duress they were under.”
The team behind the film is composed of Qatar-based filmmakers who went in and out of the Umm-Salal camp for a year, spending as much as three months at a time inside the gates gathering footage. As producer Rosie Garthwaite says, the country’s culture and conventions forced some difficult editorial decisions.
She says: “There is no independent media in Qatar, so it’s too dangerous to do it in any meaningful way, i.e. without access and without permission—you’d just get thrown into jail.
“There was a lot on the cutting room floor that we could have left in to create more of a sensation in Western media, but wouldn’t have contributed to our ultimate aim. The film is about emotional truths, you don’t have to pack it with current affairs.”
Completed at the beginning of 2017, the film has hit hard with viewers, including at a screening in Zug, the home of FIFA. But the most poignant responses came from the film’s main targets—Qatari bosses.
“We showed the film to so many people,” Garthwaite says. “One of them employed 300,000 people but said that they didn’t even know the name of anyone at that pay rate. They felt really embarrassed and cried during the film—they knew the names of these guys but didn’t know anyone in their own companies.”
Sobel hopes the film’s impact can bring change to a labour market in which migrant workers cannot choose, change, or leave their job without their employer’s consent: “Just because a system is uncaring, it doesn’t mean there aren’t good people at every step of the ladder.
“Once the film is more widely available in Qatar I’m sure there will be people who object to it—that’s no surprise, there are many people pleased with the status quo for workers. I’m just grateful that the film will have a chance to create a discussion.”
“I want the World Cup to happen in Qatar because this issue continues to be in the spotlight. If it doesn’t, people stop hearing. The film gets to this irony as well—even though these guys are toiling to bring a World Cup into existence, they’re huge football fans, and for many of them if it didn’t happen they’d be distraught.”
Garthwaite agrees: “Without the World Cup there would never have been any attention on the workers’ situation in Qatar.
“It may be that for whatever reason, the World Cup has become the catalyst for real change.”
Screenings of The Workers Cup will be shown at the Human Rights Watch Festival in London at Regent Street Cinema on March 13th, and Barbican Cinema on March 14th. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with Rosie Garthwaite—buy your tickets here.