The Workers Cup - Exclusive Interview with Filmmaker Adam Sobel

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

The 2022 FIFA World Cup is scheduled to take place in Qatar and will be the first World Cup held in Asia since the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan. Qatar ‘22 will be the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup and the very first to be held in the Middle East, and in an Arab and muslim-majority country. Qatar beat out the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia to host the tournament, which will be the last to involve 32 teams, with an increase of 48 teams expected for the 2026 tournament. Furthermore, This will also mark the first World Cup not to be held in May, June or July due to the extreme climate; the tournament is instead scheduled to begin in November.

The conditions for migrant laborers in Qatar have been a serious problem for decades.  The Workers Cup is a film, directed by Adam Sobel, that tells the stories of several construction workers/footballers.  I had the chance to speak with Mr. Sobel about his film and his experience speaking with workers in Qatar. 

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FIFA and the Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

Outside the city limits of Qatar, in the heat of the desert, there are thousands of sand-colored trailers lined up in perfect rows sitting inside large sand-colored compounds.  This is where a majority of Qatar’s population lives, because a majority of Qatar’s population is made of up migrant laborers. They are out of site and out of mind, and designed to be that way by the same men that designed the massive construction projects for Qatar 2022.

Host nations are enticed by the legacy that a World Cup offers their country (i.e. global recognition, increased jobs, economic boost, automatic entry to the World Cup, and massive soccer stadiums), but in reality, more often than not the host nation’s World Cup legacy pales in comparison to the profit that FIFA makes off of the event.

In 2014, tens of thousands of Brazilian citizens were displaced by stadium and infrastructure construction.  The 2010 World Cup in South Africa left a devastating dent in the economy and served as a convenient cover-up for major social issues in the country.

The spectacle of the beautiful game allows FIFA to conduct ugly business.  The lawsuits in 2015 exposed the corruption that exists at the top levels of FIFA, but there is still an iceberg of issues under the surface yet to be dealt with.  In 2016 FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force because it had “completely fulfilled its mission.” Meanwhile, racism in Russian football stadiums is as prevalent as ever.

The labor situation in Qatar predates Qatar winning the right to host the World Cup by several decades. The difference is that once Qatar won the right to host the World Cup people suddenly cared about migrant workers in Qatar.
— Adam Sobel, Director of The Workers Cup

An unexpected consequence for host nations, however, is the global attention that can shed light on the ugly side of the game and even national policy.  At least for a short while all eyes are on one country, and with that visibility comes potential for meaningful change.

Fans that truly care about the wellbeing of the international game need to be aware of the problems that the game creates and be active in working toward solutions.  Otherwise we are complicit in FIFA's uglification of the beautiful game. 

The Workers Cup

The Gulf Coast Construction football team didn’t exist until the conception of The Workers Cup, a soccer tournament designed for the construction companies that are building the World Cup stadiums. Gulf Coast Construction and 23 other construction companies recruited players from within their work force to field teams for the tournament.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy - the organization responsible for building stadiums and infrastructure for Qatar ’22 - designed the tournament to demonstrate their commitment to corporate social responsibility.  And while that may seem like an empty PR stunt, the tournament became a rare escape from the harsh reality of life for migrant workers in Qatar.

Kenneth is the captain of the Gulf Coast Construction football team ("GCC").  He traveled from Ghana to Qatar at the advice of his agent, who told him that he would have the opportunity to earn a professional contract while working construction to build the stadiums for Qatar 2022. When he arrived in Qatar it became clear that the opportunity was a farce. Like other workers, he was lured to Qatar by the picture of abundant wealth and opportunity.

The film follows GCC in their quest to win The Workers Cup, but more importantly, the film gives the workers the opportunity to share their experiences.  Prior to The Workers Cup, media access into the workers' camps was impossible.  But the promotional element of the tournament gave Sobel and his crew an unprecedented foot in the door.  For the first time, the workers are able to tell their own stories on their own terms. 

Adam Sobel, director of The Workers Cup, talked with me about his experience creating the film, following the tournament, and speaking with the workers/footballers in the camps.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.  You can read the full interview HERE

Here’s how you can watch the film:

Public Release: July 9th Facebook.com/TheWorkersCupFilm

If you're in NYC or LA (or London, Hong Kong, and other international locations), you can catch screenings of the film in June.


Interview with the Director, Adam Sobel

Nick Barron: When did you know that this story needed to be told and that you and your team would be able to tell it?

Adam Sobel:  I lived in Qatar for five years. I moved there in 2011, so shortly after they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, and once I moved to Qatar I started working with this production company Mediadante - who ended up producing this film - and the two producers of the film, Rosie [Garthwaite] and Ramzy [Haddad].

We all worked together making news and current affairs documentaries around the region. When we were hired to produce things inside Qatar it was oftentimes by international news outlets who were interested in telling the stories of migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup. We produced those features for CNN, HBO, BBC, but this is a really sensitive topic in Qatar, and we media freedoms are extremely restricted.  

We often had to work undercover, we had to hide people’s identities, and, I don’t know, I think that the three of us, Rosie, Ramzy, and I, felt like we were barely scratching the surface.  The work that we were able to make led to some important insights but not a whole lot of understanding. So we were always looking for some way to get more meaningful access into the labor camps, and the question was: how could you do that?

 Kenneth (left), GCC Captain

Kenneth (left), GCC Captain

The soccer tournament, The Workers Cup, got announced, and it was being organized by the same committee organizing the World Cup, and we knew that there was a promotional element that they were interested in advancing.  We thought perhaps that was a way to gain actual access.

I should say that when we started this project we had no idea that it would be a feature film.  You know, we went out and started shooting and thought, this might be like a nice three-minute film, but somebody’s going to shut us down eventually.  And somehow we were able to continue to go back to the camps day after day, week after week, month after month. I think because we had been trusted as journalists, based on our reputations having worked there for so long, we were able to just negotiate access that otherwise had been impossible for people.  So, yeah, it still feels kind of shocking because we surpassed our expectations.

What I’m very proud of about this film is that we’re able to make a film that’s very critical of the situation but it does so just by holding up our characters’ humanity and dignity and the evidence that’s needed to see that the situation is wrong.
— Adam Sobel

NB: Following up with your point about limited access, it seems clear that the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy would not want this film to be seen by the rest of the world. Did you run into any barriers while filming? Was there a line that you couldn’t cross?

AS: Actually, I guess I’ll start off by saying that the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy are aware of this film, they knew about this film while it was being made and they saw the film.  We made the film completely independently, but we showed them the film before it had its world premiere, because we didn’t want to surprise anybody. Because surprises in Qatar don’t go over well [laughing].

My priority was really to approach the story on the workers terms instead of on the terms of international news media, and just let [the workers] dictate the content as much as possible.  

What I’m very proud of about this film is that we were able to make a film that’s very critical of the situation but it does so just by holding up our characters’ humanity and dignity and the evidence that’s needed to see that the situation is wrong.  

So we don’t really focus on these big headlines that people already know about, you know: “Migrant Workers in Qatar”, but instead we look at the isolation that they feel and the psychological duress that they live under, and just the abject segregation that exists for migrant workers.  

And by focusing on that I think we were able to actually portray something that is: number 1, a lot more relatable for audiences, and number 2, something that the workers could be proud of when they saw this film.  

NB: Sebastian (GCC team manager and a mid-manager of construction) gives a rousing speech about unity after GCC loses an important match.  The images in the film evoke a powerful sense of the loneliness in the camps, which is contrasted by the unity that develops within the GCC team during The Workers Cup.  Were there other moments you sensed unity sort of rising out of the ashes of loneliness?

 Paul (left), from Kenya, works in the camp seven days a week and struggles with the loneliness of living and working in the camp

Paul (left), from Kenya, works in the camp seven days a week and struggles with the loneliness of living and working in the camp

AS: I think the entire tournament was a chance for the workers who were playing in the tournament to feel like they were part of something. And they were desperate for that. And I think that’s just one of the realities of life for migrant workers in Qatar; the mundane rituals of just waking up, getting on a bus, driving an hour, going to a job site, working a really long day, often times in really terrible heat, and then getting on your bus going back to your camp eating a meal, going to bed.  

This is just a loop that workers are caught in and they live it out at least six days a week, oftentimes seven days a week, for months and years. So they were desperate to break that cycle in any way possible and the tournament offered this rare chance to celebrate something and feel alive. I think that absolutely brought them together in a way that otherwise, I would say, that was otherwise impossible.

Labor camps are segregated based on nationality. So if you’re Nepali you live in the Nepali area of the labor camp, if you’re Indian you live in the Indian area of the labor camp, if you’re Kenyan you live in the Kenyan area. So then your roommates are all from your home country and you’re also eating with other people from your home country.  

And that type of segregation is by design, because I think that the company sees a security risk if you bring people together. Because workers in particular just exist in such great numbers. So I think that was maybe an unexpected consequence of this tournament was that it offered workers a chance to come together and kind of unionize in some way.  

NB: You speak about amateur competitions telling particularly powerful narratives. At the Daily Soccer Digest, we follow amateur clubs around the United States. Of course The Workers Cup and an amateur club in the U.S. are two entirely different things, but what is it about the Workers Cup and amateur competition that builds a meaningful story?

AS: I grew up playing soccer, I understand it on an emotional level.  The game, whether you’re playing in some sort of championship or whether you’re playing in a kick around pickup match, it doesn’t take much to level the stakes emotionally, if you will.  It’s hard to not buy in one hundred percent when you’re playing the game.

 Samuel (standing on left) played in the 1st Division in Ghana before moving to Qatar to work construction

Samuel (standing on left) played in the 1st Division in Ghana before moving to Qatar to work construction

I think that what was really cool about The Workers Cup, maybe that even other amateur competitions don’t always get, is that The Workers Cup was happening in the shadows of the World Cup.  In that opening match they’re playing in the model stadium that was built to demonstrate how World Cup stadiums in Qatar would be built. So this is in some respect the same field that, you know, legends of the game will play on in 2022. And so that maybe raises the fantasy element a little bit more, but I do think that amateur competitions in general, they contain all of the emotions of any professional event. The competition may not be as intense, the level of play isn’t as hot, but that doesn’t mean that the level of emotion is any lower.

The tournament was an escape. A metaphorical escape from daily life but also a physical escape from the camps and the construction sites that they’re working in.  And so it takes on a greater meaning in that regard than a professional event when guys are going out there and getting paid to play.

The game meant even more to the workers in the tournament because it was the only good thing going on in their lives.  And for that reason I think that, yeah, it had an even greater impact on their life than I think it might for a professional.  

NB: What are your feelings about the World Cup in Russia this summer? I understand conditions have been almost as bad as Qatar for the laborers. Should we still invest so much emotional energy in the international game? Will you be watching the World Cup? And do you have a team?

AS: I will definitely be watching the World Cup this summer.  All of my teams have been eliminated, unfortunately. I mean between the U.S. and I was gonna say I could cheer for Ghana, but Ghana was eliminated!  So, I don’t know, I love watching the World Cup. It’s the greatest month every four years, and I’ll be watching very closely.

I don’t actually want to talk about the labor situation in Russia because I don’t know enough about it to draw any useful comparisons.

I think your question more broadly is: “Should people care about the World Cup when there is an ugly side of the game?”

NB: Yes. Precisely.

AS: I’ll just take it from the perspective of Qatar in 2022.  People are always talking about legacies when it comes to World Cups.  I actually am cautiously optimistic about the potential for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to make some sort of meaningful change to the labor situation in the country.

 Paul

Paul

The labor situation in Qatar predates Qatar winning the right to host the World Cup by several decades.  The difference is that once Qatar won the right to host the World Cup people suddenly cared about migrant workers in Qatar.  But migrant workers had been there for decades and had been living under the same kafala system that exists today.

So I think what that also indicates is that come 2022 when the World Cup has come and gone, people’s interest in the labor situation in Qatar will have also passed. So I do see it as this short window of time when Qatar is in the spotlight, migrant workers in Qatar are in the spotlight, and hopefully that kind of critical attention can actually change things for the better. And I think that would be an amazing legacy for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to leave behind.

I still think it’s got a long ways to go before any meaningful change is made. But I do think that there’s momentum in that direction and I don’t think that momentum exists without the World Cup. I’m not trying to say “good on Qatar because now they’re changing the labor situation” because it’s an unexpected consequence of hosting the World Cup. But I do think it could be a positive consequence.  

We should continue to be invested and we should not just be passively invested. In some respect workers in Qatar are sacrificing themselves, their livelihood, for our entertainment. And that makes us complicit in a way.  If we, as fans of the sport, can’t be critical about it and raise our voice, then we become complicit.

So hopefully people feel that sense of responsibility and somehow can balance that responsibility with their love for the game as well.  I guess that’s the irony, even for the workers in the film; they were suffering to build the World Cup, but they love the World Cup! They would be devastated if it didn’t happen.  So I do think that the film reveals that there is a different way to evaluate how we find meaning and what we truly care about, what we truly value.

 Director, Adam Sobel

Director, Adam Sobel

 

Author: Nick Barron