A football team indefinitely cloistered and bored. Often unhappy players pondering the futility of it all. High hopes dashed by the crushing disappointment of exiting a tournament on penalties. Many are the parallels that can be drawn between the team of amateurs featured in The Workers Cup and England football sides of yore, but for all the similarities between these enthusiastic players and their professional counterparts, the modern-day slaves featured in Adam Sobel’s documentary about an annual football championship organised for foreign workers in Qatari migrant labour camps could scarcely be further removed.
Housed in the spartan surrounds of the Umm Salal camp, home to more than 7,000 workers from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal and Africa, they are among the poorest workers in the world, labouring in its richest country. The myriad hardships these workers are forced to endure on a daily basis have been well documented as they go about the back-breaking, and often deadly, business of building the infrastructure Qatar requires to stage the 2022 World Cup. They work long hours in dangerous, sweltering, dust‑choked conditions for as little as $200 a month.
A recent report published by Human Rights Watch estimated that in the Arab state’s drive to prepare for the tournament it was controversially awarded by Fifa in 2010, Qatar has a migrant labour force of nearly two million workers who comprise almost 95% of the country’s labour force. Tasked with building the eight stadiums, numerous hotels, roads and everything else required for such a massive global jamboree, it is only through the systematic abuse and exploitation of these men – and they are almost all men – that staging the World Cup in Qatar will be possible.
While the country refuses to release information on worker deaths, Human Rights Watch estimates that there may have been 2,000 unexplained migrant worker fatalities since Sepp Blatter announced the destination of the World Cup after next. “Fifa released a statement about the findings we put out,” Nick McGeehan, author of the report, said in a recent interview. “There was no expression of concern for the findings, there was no expression of concern for the deaths. The tone of it was sort of bristling with indignation that we would present information that was contrary to the narrative of events that they wanted to accept.”
Sobel’s documentary helps put a human face on this misery, as the unprecedented behind-the-scenes access he is given enables him to introduce us to the players representing GCC (Global Construction Company) in the 2014 Workers Cup, organised by Qatar’s portentous sounding supreme committee for delivery & legacy.
It is a self-serving agenda, of course, which conveniently adheres to the narrative of events Fifa would rather accept. Participation increases the 24 construction companies’ chances of securing World Cup tenders, while overseas recruitment in the modern-day slave trade is that little bit easier when you can tempt desperate young men with photographic evidence of prospective colleagues playing football in front of enthusiastic crowds and having what looks like a pretty good time.
“This tournament demonstrates how much we value corporate social responsibility,” says one organiser, even though the players involved know only too well they are being used but play anyway because it helps alleviate the tedium of their lonely, desperate lives.
We meet Kenneth, Ghanaian and one of a few decent players on the GCC team, whose recruitment agent assured him he would be going to Qatar to join a professional football team. Betrayed and working in construction, the endearingly deluded 21-year-old hopes to catch the eye of a scout while playing in The Workers Cup.
The same age, Paul is Kenyan and desperately alone, confined as he is to barracks and building site seven days a week, obsessing over all the women he never gets to meet, let alone seduce, while sharing what is to all intents and purposes a prison with several thousand men.
Umesh, from India and a Manchester United fan, is working in Qatar to earn the price of his own house and will remain separated from his wife and two children, Rooney and Robin, for as long as that takes. A talented goalkeeper who played in the Ghanaian top flight but could not make a living, Samuel is too proud to tell his father he works in the building game and said he was off to Qatar to play professional football. Padam, from Nepal, spends what little spare time he has bickering with the wife he never sees over the phone.
The Workers Cup pulls off the impressive feat of having everything to do with football while having nothing to do with football. It should be required viewing for anyone with even the most passing interest in what is a beautiful but increasingly ugly game.
For more information visit www.theworkerscupfilm.com