The Workers Cup

Poster for The Workers Cup

The Workers Cup (Director: Adam Sobel): When Qatar was awar­ded the 2022 World Cup, there were aud­ible gasps in the room. A gulf state with no dis­cern­ible foot­ball cul­ture or his­tory, it seemed to win simply by vir­tue of its con­sid­er­able oil wealth. Since there was no exist­ing infra­struc­ture for an event of this mag­nitude, soon dozens of com­pan­ies were on the ground, plan­ning and bid­ding on the myriad of con­struc­tion pro­jects that would pre­pare Qatar for its moment in the global sport­ing spot­light. Director Adam Sobel has lived in Qatar for many years, work­ing as a journ­al­ist. He was inter­ested in telling the stor­ies of the migrant work­ers who come from all over the world in search of a bet­ter life for them­selves and for their fam­il­ies back home. But he found that in his reports for main­stream media, there was only time and atten­tion for a very simple nar­rat­ive, that of the work­ers as hap­less vic­tims of an exploit­at­ive labour sys­tem. He wanted to dig deeper.

When the organ­iz­ing com­mit­tee of the World Cup announced they’d be organ­iz­ing a foot­ball tour­na­ment for work­ers in 2014, Sobel saw his chance. 24 com­pany teams were chosen to com­pete and Sobel embed­ded him­self with the team from Gulf Contracting Company (GCC). We see how the work­ers are housed in camps far from the city of Doha and their work sites. They are bussed to and from work, but have no oppor­tun­it­ies to leave the camp oth­er­wise. Their food and lodging is provided, but the envir­on­ment very much feels like a prison to them. Workers from dif­fer­ent parts of the world (Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, India) are segreg­ated from each other and most feel quite lonely. The tour­na­ment is a rare chance for them to mix with other nation­al­it­ies and even to social­ize with work­ers and man­agers from very dif­fer­ent levels of the cor­por­ate hier­archy.

Watching the play­ers carve out moments of joy away from their jobs is truly bit­ter­sweet. Captain Kenneth was lured to Qatar by assur­ances from his agent that work­ing con­struc­tion would lead to a chance to play foot­ball for a pro­fes­sional team. Realizing those prom­ises were noth­ing but lies, Kenneth put his head down and resigned him­self to long days of hard work. But being chosen cap­tain of the GCC squad reawakens his love for the game, and reveals an inspir­ing and shrewd leader. After the team’s first win, he corners the chair­man of the cor­por­a­tion and prac­tic­ally demands more train­ing time for the squad. Nepalese Padam cel­eb­rates every goal with his new­found African friends, but also dis­cov­ers that the line between teas­ing and racism can be razor thin. Kenyan Paul talks about women con­stantly, and yearns to leave the camp to go on a date.

Though both play­ers and man­agers know that the tour­na­ment is a PR exer­cise and a way for their com­pan­ies to attract pos­it­ive press and recruit more work­ers, they can’t help but get caught up in the spirit of team­work and com­pet­i­tion, and the film does a good job of immers­ing the audi­ence in that atmo­sphere as well. We fol­low the team’s pro­gress through the tour­na­ment and share in the play­ers’ joys and dis­ap­point­ments on and off the field. In the pro­cess, nation­al­it­ies and jobs mat­ter a little bit less. Near the end of the film, there’s an abso­lutely remark­able moment when Sebastian, a man with a com­fort­able (though still not luc­rat­ive) pos­i­tion in man­age­ment, gives a jaw-drop­ping speech in the locker room to the play­ers. It’s an example of what doc­u­ment­ary is cap­able of, the abil­ity to cap­ture unpre­dict­able emo­tions in real-time, and per­haps life-chan­ging epi­phanies, too.

Though I’ve always been aware of the cor­rup­tion and exploit­a­tion behind large-scale sport­ing events, The Workers Cup does an excel­lent job of human­iz­ing the people (at all levels) caught up in this infernal machine.

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