'The Workers Cup' Spotlights a Human Rights Issue Within a Sports Film

Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Soccer, or football if you will, is a sport that brings the world together. It’s played everywhere, a passion for people rich and poor, and it’s so significant a pastime that its greatest contest has the power to impact everything from movie release dates to global economies. In 2022, the FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar, and already the nation is planning for the event through the construction of new stadiums and other facilities, mostly built with the labor of migrant workers from Africa and Asia.

That particular tournament in that particular host country has been in the news because of a number of controversies, one of which is the human rights concern for those outsiders’ living and working conditions. Thousands have reportedly died in construction accidents, mostly men of Indian and Nepalese origin, though the figures aren’t specific to World Cup-related sites. In fact, as the documentary The Workers Cup explains, because of international attention on the sporting event, construction companies involved with its planning have had better standards there than most.

The film gives viewers unprecedented access to one such firm, Global Contracting Company, and some of its workers who live in labor camps tucked away outside of Doha. The men seem to be slaves by another name, or prisoners of a kind of indentured servitude where they’re unable to quit once they’ve signed onto many years of commitment (one worker stabs another just to be let go). They are paid, but it’s very little, barely enough to send to their families back home. Some of the men are initially lied to by job recruiters. Kenneth, for instance, was told before leaving Ghana that he would be on a track towards playing pro football.

Fortunately, he did wind up on a team, but it’s GCC’s own intramural club, which competes against other companies in the titular series of games. Kenneth, who is also the team’s captain, and the rest of the players have to miss a lot of work in order to participate, but they need it. They don’t really have social or romantic lives. They hardly have anything but work and sleep, seven days a week. Plus, the few of them who do really well on the field manage to receive a few dollars worth of shopping vouchers as a bonus.

Director Adam Sobel, an American expat living in Qatar, means to showcase a human interest story rather than a human rights cause, but even with comparably safe and comfortable conditions for the GCC workers and their fulfilled love for the game, it’s difficult to ignore the negative aspects of their existence. In one scene in the camp cafeteria, as they eat what’s prepared for them in bulk, a number of characters discuss freedom, and it’s clear they’re uncomfortable with the subject as it relates to their current limitations and their general lack of opportunities and social mobility.

I can appreciate the glimpse into the world of these workers and the complexity of what we’re seeing, the good and bad, but there’s not enough here to become fully empathically involved with the subjects or to understand the whole context of their jobs or what they’ve left behind to choose this instead. The tournament narrative isn’t engaging enough. The rest is only sporadically satisfying as profiles of a handful of characters. These men really could have been anyone on the team or at GCC. And the sports stuff could have been set anywhere. Maybe there’s a universal quality there, or we’re just to see these men as common figures.

The Workers Cup isn’t supposed to be an expose, though it winds up being enough of one to spark a desire for more. Sobel isn’t hard on them but also doesn’t exactly promote GCC as a great exception to what’s out in the media about exploitation of workers in Qatar. We’re still left concerned about the psychological welfare for their employees, as well as for GCC’s support of deceptive recruiters wherever they can attract desperate men (GCC hopes the success of the football club is a big draw for new hires). The film displays without agenda, letting us make up our minds on what we see.

What is particularly intriguing here is enough to encourage that it be seen, though. The film was shot mostly undercover, and it’s not just that it’s something difficult to report but it’s also a different sort of migrant story than we’re used to seeing these days. The subjects are not refugees or the kind of hopeless immigrants featured in films like Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight and The Shelter, and their pursuits of prosperity are not nearly as gratified as the workers in The Overnighters. It’s also neither as observant as the former two nor as bountiful in story material as the latter.

On PBS: ‘The Overnighters’ Is a Brilliantly Snowballing Drama of the Human Condition

If sold as a sports film, The Workers Cup could appeal to a crowd that might not always consider the adverse side to the international machinations of something like the FIFA World Cup, so what a great gateway to reach all parts of the world through love of football and present a human rights issue. If sold as a human rights doc, however, the audience there just gets an unsatisfactory amount of information wrapped inside a mediocre sports film.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.