The most striking image in Adam Sobel’s soccer documentary The Workers Cup comes about halfway through, when we see the gleaming towers of Doha, Qatar — that shiny, trillion-dollar, perpetually under construction Gulf megalopolis — from the ground, a rat’s-eye view looking straight up at the sky. If you’ve seen images of Doha before, it’s probably come via aerial shots featured in commercials and investment brochures and airport billboards. So, this perspective feels new — a forbidding vantage point on an unreachable, impossible world.
What does all this have to do with soccer? In 2010, Qatar was picked to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup — a first for an Arab nation — unleashing a massive construction and promotion bonanza. Glimpses of the country’s FIFA application video early on assure us that the value of soccer in the Middle East could grow by as much as $14 billion as a result of the tournament. As international companies have raced to seize business opportunities, Qatar’s workforce has swelled considerably: There are now more than 1.6 million migrant workers there, making up 60 percent of the population and living in poverty, in a country that has the highest per capita income in the world.
These workers reside in massive labor camps that are, by law, located far away from the glittering business centers of Doha. They come from places like Ghana and Kenya and Nepal and the Philippines, and receive minuscule salaries. They can’t leave the country, or even quit their jobs. They’re not allowed to enter the city’s brightly lit, overpriced shopping malls during working hours. Late in the film, we learn of one man who, missing his family in Bangladesh, stabbed his roommate so that he could be declared insane and sent back home.
In 2016, as a way of testing out some of the facilities under construction, and also supposedly “to make the workers a part of football,” Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy organized the Workers Cup, in which teams of laborers from 24 of the largest international corporations working in the region would compete against one another. For some of these men, it seemed…well, not so much a dream come true as a potentially bright light at the end of a nightmarish tunnel. Kenneth, a 21-year-old Ghanaian who is one of the film’s main subjects, informs us early on that he was duped by an agent back home into thinking he was coming to Qatar to play soccer; instead, he wound up forced to work construction. Another player from Ghana, Samuel, actually played professionally in the first division in his home country, but to make enough money to live on he had to come to work as a laborer in Qatar; ashamed of the truth, he told his father that he was in Doha to play soccer.
Sobel focuses on the efforts of one team in particular, GCC (Gulf Contracting Corp.), as it makes its way through the tournament. We see these men at work — laboring in kitchens, or at construction sites, or even in drab, poorly paid desk jobs — and then on the field, where they let loose, becoming figures of grace and spirit. We also see how they become ever more devoted to their company as the tournament proceeds. Along the way, they pick up fans, most of whom appear to be fellow workers. Before long, they’re all chanting “G-C-C! G-C-C!” as if it were a beloved and historic sports franchise, and not some faceless multinational that’s underpaying, overworking, and effectively imprisoning them. “We are doing the maximum for our company!” goes one cheer. An amiable company executive looks on, beaming and maybe even a little befuddled at his good fortune.
In their quieter moments, far from the pitch, these workers are clear-eyed about their predicament, lamenting the fact that even as they proudly wear this corporation’s logo on the field, they’re living in labor camps, effectively indentured to that same corporation. One interviewee hesitates to call this arrangement slavery; another one goes ahead and calls it exactly that. If you can have a meaningful debate as to whether your living conditions constitute slavery or not, then something’s gone terribly wrong.
Sobel is wise enough, however, not to turn his film into a screed against one particular company, or one country. He doesn’t so much editorialize as contextualize. Many of these workers understand that in most cases their wages back home would be worse, if they could even find a job. The real villain here is a ruthless social and economic order that extends far beyond Qatar. The small Gulf nation simply happens to provide one particularly clear and unfortunately extreme example of a world gone haywire.
The unnerving paradox at the heart of The Workers Cup extends to the viewer as well. On the one hand, I felt myself rooting for the GCC team, as the film eases its way into something resembling a sports movie; on the other hand, we see the system in which GCC operates. Sobel lets these conflicting feelings hang in the air, offering no pat conclusions, or convenient corporate bogeymen. By refusing to resolve or reconcile these contradictions, he ensures that we’ll keep thinking about them. And if we choose to pursue these ideas further, we may find ourselves questioning how our allegiance to the adrenal thrills of sports can help hide darker truths about the companies, countries, and organizations we throw our allegiance behind. Think of that next time you enter a stadium named after an insurance giant.
The Workers Cup
Directed by Adam Sobel
Passion River Films
Opens June 8, Museum of the Moving Image
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 5, 2018