Being a World Cup laborer in Qatar is dangerous. The mostly migrant workers building the stadiums and surrounding infrastructure for the 2022 international soccer championship toil in perilous, often life-threatening conditions. They live in cramped rooms in dusty, sprawling labor camps and have to sign over many of their personal rights to private companies. According to a report from the International Trades Union Confederation, there have been approximately 1,200 deaths since construction began in 2010.
And yet many of these men still absolutely love soccer.
In “The Workers Cup,” documentarian Adam Sobel captures the genesis of a now-annual tournament played by these laborers. “These workers are usually portrayed as victims or resources,” Sobel says. “We wanted to find a way to tell their story on their terms.”
Sobel, now 34, spent five years working in journalism in Qatar, where construction tied to the World Cup has drawn so many migrant workers, they now make up 60 percent of the country’s population of 2.4 million. But they remain largely, and deliberately, hidden from view of the rest of the residents in what is, statistically, the richest country in the world. “You might see them in passing on the street, on the bus, working on the side of the road,” Sobel says. “But there’s almost no chance whatsoever that you’ll have a dialogue with them.”
In “The Workers Cup,” Sobel shot at the Umm Salal Camp, located between a highway and a desert, for short stints and with limited access. He found a cross-section of men who were thrilled to play on the Gulf Contracting Company (GCC) team, including: 21-year-old Kenneth, from Ghana, who was falsely told that coming to Qatar as a laborer might mean a shot at playing professional soccer; Umesh, from India, whose two sons at home are both named for pro soccer players; and Paul, from Kenya, who’s a talent on the field, but mostly just wants to fall in love.
Selected from the ranks of workers, they bond through playing and slowly advance in the tournament. “I was really drawn to the fact that there was this multiethnic team,” says Sobel, adding that the camps tend to self-segregate into groups from various countries. “More than anything, these guys had a zeal and a passion for the tournament.”
In following the games, Sobel’s film nods at the fact that the Workers Cup was created in part to lure new migrant workers to the country. He also includes commentary from both workers and middle management about abject conditions in the camp. It’s a subtle approach he says some in the film industry encouraged him to make more overt. “Someone actually told me, ‘You just need to sprinkle in more suffering,’” he says. “I was like, ‘These guys already are.’ We wanted to criticize through juxtaposition. We think our characters’ human dignity is the only evidence needed to say, ‘Hey, this system is really wrong.’”
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