The Workers Cup review: A momentary delight in an otherwise grim perspective of migrant exploitation and human rights.

The Workers Cup review by Dan Bullock, Sydney Film Festival.

To say the Qatar World Cup in 2022 has already been shrouded in dispute is a huge understatement. Rumours of alleged bribes, discussions on the practicability of hosting a football tournament in a Middle-Eastern summer that’ll hit temperatures of 50°C, and never drop below 30°C, and workers’ rights have never wavered, let alone the suggestion that it was chosen in suspicious circumstances, with former FIFA President Sepp Blatter a key figure in the controversy.

Directed by Adam Sobel, The Workers Cup is his first feature-length documentary and he’s picked an important subject to explore which, on the surface level, is about football but also it clearly questions the nature of modern slavery. It focuses on the migrant workers, thousands of people who’ve been employed to build the facilities required for the 2022 World Cup, and their progression as they enter a ‘workers’ football tournament organised from within.  There’s a total of 1.6 million migrant worked in Qatar, that’s 60% of the population, and it seems that a large majority live in labour camps across the country.

They’re primarily employed via African, Asian and Arab countries and all have different stories of how they ended up there.  One African man tells us how he gave $1,500 to his ‘agent’ because he was told he was going there to play football but, of course, when he arrived there was none. There are also tales of folks with financial problems, or previous agreements with companies, so they had to come back because they didn’t know what else to do. In truth they’re pressured to work here even though the money and conditions aren’t very good. This latter thought is proved by the fact they have to sign a contract that ties them into not working anywhere else, not living outside the ‘labour’ camps and, frankly, doing nothing but working for abysmal money.

As the documentary develops, and does revolve around the football tournament, we begin to get an insight into their lives and the psychological issues involved with feeling confined.  They’re very much aware of where they live and what people ‘outside’ think. During a chat in their accommodation, one guy is talking about meeting a girl he’s met online but she doesn’t know that he’s in the construction, and he and his roommate talk about the association with UN refugee camps and here. When watching conversations like this, I can’t get past feeling how lucky we are and this gives us all an understanding of the harsh reality outside our Western bubble. There’s a very discerning chat over dinner where they discuss ‘freedom’ as a concept, and what it means to them, they conclude that they know this is modern slavery but what choice do they have?

It’s desperately sad, people living in box buildings, nowhere to go and nothing to do. You cannot underestimate that clear, very real aspect, even if they’re based in the office or out digging and building. There’s a depressing mix of personal circumstance and propaganda that keeps everyone ‘in their place’. The downside, in a production sense, is the lack of reminders on-screen of who people are, because there are many stories, you can lose track of who’s who and I wanted to know who’s who. Also, despite a conversation between two Nepalese colleagues about deaths around them during working, I think there’s a missed opportunity to open up that dialogue further.

With The Workers Cup, I believe Sobel decides to hone in on the positive nature of community in a dark, dusty place where there was little before. Team spirit, connectivity, even in the face of adversity definitely comes through, even though there’s deep sorrow and a huge fight against their own self-belief as individuals who have something to say, and who they want to be. While that human right for freedom never wavers from lurking beneath the surface, and it’s a definite reminder of the very real gap between the rich and poor, there’s also the message of hope which comes through, which is a little glimpse of light through the dust when you consider the world as it is right now. Insightful and saddening, The Workers Cup is a definite must-watch and a vital reminder of the need for hope and rights wherever you come from, and whoever you are.

The Workers Cup is playing at the Sydney Film Festival.