The 2022 World Cup may well exemplify a long cycle of sports exploitation, but the filmmakers seem incapable or unwilling to deal with such issues.
Documenting construction workers on the projected site of the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar, The Workers Cup has moments of universality and profundity but is too unfocused and cynical to be more than an angry screed. This frustrated shout into the abyss lacks the audacity or the wherewithal to pick a target for its visceral complaints.
Director Adam Sobel follows a nation flush with Gulf oil cash in its unusual efforts to prepare the infrastructure necessary to host one of the world’s great sporting events. The Qatari government, working with the construction companies that have won valuable contracts to build stadia, highways and hotels ahead of the tournament, stage a soccer competition using the construction workers as players, with each major company fielding a team. This spectacle is meant to prove to a world community upset at Qatari labor conditions that workers are well-treated and corporations care about more than just the bottom line. The Workers Cup—the event, not the film—is a baldly contemptuous act of manipulation.
The film has the right perspective, taking players from one company team—Gulf Contracting Company (GCC)—and focusing on their athletic aspirations and their plight as contract laborers on the notorious building sites. The GCC team has an impressively multinational composition, with players and coaches from Ghana, Kenya, Bangladesh, Nepal and India; they are construction workers, but also accountants, cafeteria cooks and site managers. Young, lonely and alienated, they see the soccer tournament as a welcome reprieve from toil. Many of them were nearly professional-caliber players in their home countries and dream of being discovered by scouts and graduating from the stadium work site to a stadium dressing room.
The team has its ups and downs, and in its second act,The Workers Cup feels like a classic sports film. But around the edges of this tried-and-true tale of disparate men becoming a team, there is a more sinister tale of the Qatar World Cup bid and the exploitation of laborers in the 21st century.
It is an undeniable travesty that Qatar has been awarded the world’s most prestigious tournament, further proof of FIFA corruption, but The Workers Cupfails to make a compelling case. The film unwittingly suggests that the World Cup bid, by summoning international attention, has actually improved the lives of workers in Qatar. Doha, the country’s capital, has been going through a decade-plus building boom, so all the new World Cup-related construction is just an acceleration of what was already happening. Workers have been there for years, being mercilessly abused; the tournament bid means, as the film says outright, that white people now have a reason to care.
But the film refuses to blame the workers’ plight on the faceless and impersonal forces of global capitalism. Who is responsible for workers being abused in Qatar? FIFA? Poor labor practices pre-date the World Cup bid. Construction companies? The Qatari government? Sebold refuses to pick a target, but these entities are just the most recent in a centuries-long line of avaricious global players taking advantage of athletes. After all, the US, England, Germany, France and Spain have all hosted the World Cup and have much blood on their hands when it comes to exploiting black- and brown-skinned workers. In its worst moments, the film reads as a hypocritical rant against the heartlessness of the oil magnates, as if any country in the world has developed a capitalist economy without brutalization on a mass scale.
This is a film with an identity crisis. As a human interest/sports documentary The Workers Cup is funny, engaging and humane. But when it veers into political commentary, activist hand-wringing and an overarching critique of classism in the modern world, it quickly drowns. The 2022 World Cup may well exemplify a long cycle of sports exploitation, but the filmmakers seem incapable or unwilling to deal with such issues.