World Cup Corruption Meets Fantasy Football in ‘The Workers Cup’

Sport is big business.

It’s a fact that becomes glaringly obvious in The Worker’s Cup, a documentary revealing the human cost behind one the world’s most popular sporting events, the FIFA World Cup. It follows a select few of Qatar’s 1.6 million migrant workers, who sign away years of their life to keep the Middle Eastern country on track for their 2022 World Cup deadline. Workers like 21-year-old Kenneth, who was duped into heading to Qatar in promises of being signed to a professional football team, and family man Umesh, whose dreams of building a home back in India keep him away from his wife and two sons, both of which are named after his favourite Manchester United players. Trapped financially and physically (they’re unable to leave the country or change jobs for five years without the permission of their company) director Adam Sobel was granted rare access inside the labour camps, as the men are given a chance to play the sport that has brought them to Qatar in the first place—football.

Eager to draw attention to the ‘wellbeing’ of their workers and away from the questionable conditions and pay, the employers create the Workers Cup. It’s a chance for the men to play in the infrastructure they themselves are building, and which will be one day used by the same football players that plaster the walls of the overcrowded, dusty demountables in which they live. Sobel flicks so smoothly between tournament as a tool of escape and as an exploitative PR stunt, you’re left trying to resolve your opinion about it as the movie closes with workers sweeping glitter off the field they’ve been celebrating on moments before.

Sobel never explicitly categorises it as modern day slavery, but it’s hinted at in the nuances of the film: the 12 hour days, the mall being strictly out of bounds during opening hours, and the desperation of a sane man who attacks his neighbor with a knife, just so the company will release him back home to his family. At the root of the whole movie is the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of the men, and the immeasurable gap between the richest companies and the poorest employees. There’s money to made in Qatar, just not for the guys in this film. We caught up with director Adam Sobel ahead of The Worker’s Cup showing at Sydney Film Festival to find out more.

For such a PR-sensitive topic you seem to have encountered no barriers at all, how did you get access?

We’d worked there for long enough that we gained the trust of the important people, which helped us to gain the kind of access needed to make this film. And also, I think we just really cared about that society and wanted to approach the film in a more humanistic way. We’d been making documentaries and news pieces about migrant workers in Qatar for some time with CNN, BBC… whenever there was an international news outlet that wanted this story told, they’d hire us. But we had no editorial control over it, and we felt like the workers were often only presented as victims.

As you say, this is a very sensitive topic in the country, and media restrictions are really significant; we had a rule where you could only spend eight minutes filming in the camps and then you’d have to leave before the authorities would show up. It led to some important insights but there wasn’t much understanding. We wanted to find a way to gain real, meaningful access and actual time with the characters. It certainly wasn’t carte blanche access from early on, but we just kept going back to the camps over and over and eventually people just got tired of us.

Has it shown in Qatar?

It has not. We would love for it to be shown there, but I don’t know if it will ever happen in a public setting—we’ve done private outreach sessions for influential people. We tried to make the film in a way that it would create a discussion and reveals the nuances in a way that people could talk about. But I think it’ll take the courage of some people high up to actually do something about it.

Did you find it hard to strike the balance between showing the soccer tournament as a positive experience for the guys, but also showing that they were being essentially used as pawns to get some good PR?

It was difficult within the actual structure, but I think that it just becomes apparent as you watch the film. We were very careful not to editorialise that too much, but let it speak for itself. How the characters saw the tournament and how it changed over the course of time was fascinating. All of them were so thrilled for this opportunity to play in the soccer tournament, they had so much passion for it and it was a chance for them to escape, psychologically and physically as well. But they absolutely realised that they were being used for this PR ploy. I don’t think it’s black and white to be honest. They weren’t pleased with being used in that way and yet, the term tournament happened again the next year and every single one of them wanted to play in it. It’s just a complicated thing—they can love it and resent it all at the same time.

All of your key characters have very compelling stories, were there any that really struck a chord with you?

I was so moved by all of them, and what was so fascinating was the interesting blend of nationalities and ages. Umesh the Indian character is 36, and then you have Kenneth from Ghana who is 21. They were at different stages of their life, and I think that I gravitated to certain characters because there was just a spark to them, an ease of communication not just in terms of language but the way they expressed themselves in a way that was different to what I expected. The film is this thing that bonds us together, so we’re still in constant communication.

Are they all still at the labour camp?

We finished filming about a year and a half ago, since then some of the have gone home. Kenneth just went back to Ghana and he’s trying to play football and find a professional club. Paul went back to Nairobi and got engaged, but he’s thinking of going back to Qatar for two years because he needs some money for his wedding. Coltan, who’s the guy who loves ladies, is still in the exact same camp, as well as Samuel the goalkeeper from Ghana. Umesh has gone back to India with his family, and Prabhan is back in Kathmandu, though I don’t know if he’s staying there for long.

It’s like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, there being no jobs back home but having to live in such difficult conditions in the camps?

They’re so proud, you know. I think it’s that emasculation that they feel at home—they’re not earning any money or able to support their families—that really puts them in that hard place and forces them to make the ‘sacrifice’, which is how a lot of them put it. It’s a terrible by-product of this global economy that we live in.

The term “modern day slavery” comes up quite a bit throughout the film. You’ve seen it all firsthand—do you agree with that term?

I’d never use that term mostly out of respect for the characters because some of them really react badly to it, even in the film you can see them recoil. I would just say that I hope the film speaks for itself in that regard.

All of them are so open and honest on camera, is that just a by-product of you being there all the time?

Having a camera around changes people, even if you’re shooting with people for a year it’s still going to change the dynamic. I think the power of documentary in particular is that you’re empowering people who’ve repressed things, and they just wanna get it off their chest. These are guys who really don’t have any way to express their point of view to an outsider, and they were being given that chance.

The penalty shootout scene was so tense, what was it like to shoot?

It was amazing and heartbreaking. Of course we were hoping they were going to win, because by that point we were just another member of the team. We’d had coffee before the match began, and I sat down with the DP and the other cameramen and mapped out what we would do if there was a penalty shootout. As soon as the shootout came our DP turned to me and said, “Our film is arriving, our film’s arriving!” Those are the moments you live for when you’re making this kind of film. That drama was absolutely what we were hoping for, but it still breaks my heart that they lost. We had a screening for the characters once the film was finished, and they were just devastated having to watch that again. It’s the agony and ecstasy of sport, then you throw in really just the agony of being there (in the camp), and needing that release.

The costumes some of the workers created for the matches were so incredible.

We couldn’t tell the whole story about that because we didn’t have time, but that guy is an artist and had no way to practice his art, so this was his way of practicing it. He started making these costumes for every match and going bigger and bigger with his ideas. 14 hours of his day is taken up by work, but in the one or two hours he had available to himself he would make art. It was such a beautiful thing to see, how creativity can’t be kept in, it has to be expressed.

Get your tickets here to watch The Workers Cup at Sydney Film Festival.

Sign up for the Monster Children Newsletter