JULY 20, 2018
Welcome to LARB Ball, our new sports and culture column! From race and gender to fandom and sociability, athletics and education, fashion and advertising, the pleasures of play, the concussions, the anthem, the protests, the gambling, the violence, the money — this is the world of sports we seek to address. We’re looking for a diverse group of critics, scholars, and fans to go beyond the highlights and the play-by-play to the bigger questions that make sports both exciting and essential, for those who don’t watch and those who can’t stop. If you’re interested in writing, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org!
As the 2018 World Cup comes to a close, many fans—not least US supporters—will already be hoping for better prospects in four years. Some self-interested North Americans may even have set their sights on 2026. But the competition will first pass through Qatar, the next stop on the international football corruption circuit detailed last year in David Conn’s The Fall of the House of FIFA.
Qatar was hardly an obvious choice. With its soaring summer temperatures and lack of the basic infrastructure to host a tournament of this scale, it seemed like the last place to pick. Since its controversial selection in 2010, the emirate has raced to build eight new stadiums. This despite the ongoing blockade, led by Saudi Arabia since June 2017, that has slowed the supply of building materials, turning the construction sprint into something more like marathon walking. Work on the largest of these projects, Norman Foster’s expectantly named “Iconic Stadium” in Lusail, has been slow to launch. In the meantime, the smaller Al Wakrah Stadium, designed by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid before her death in 2016, has grabbed the headlines, both for its evocative, unmistakably vaginal, shape and for shining a light on the dark shadows cast by the Gulf’s gleaming new skylines.
Landmark buildings, especially those with starchitect imprimatur and spiraling budgets, tend to become sounding boards for social and political malaise, and indeed the new Qatari stadiums have amplified accusations of worker abuse. Even before construction commenced, Al Wakrah sparked an architecture-world scandal when Hadid sued Martin Filler and the New York Review of Books for defamation. Filler had accused the architect of being indifferent to the deaths of thousands of workers involved in Qatar’s World Cup projects. As reported by The Guardian in early 2014, more than 500 Indian and 382 Nepalese migrant workers had died in the two years since building began, a problem, Hadid insisted, that governments, not architects, should solve.
Hadid had a point: contractors had yet to break ground on Al Wakrah, so no one could have died on her watch. But while her lawsuit earned an apology from Filler, workers in Qatar were still dying. Maybe not on Hadid’s project, but still. Meanwhile, as a 2016 Amnesty International investigation revealed, many more faced dire working and living conditions that artist-critic skirmishes seem unlikely to improve. Even if Hadid was right that the stadiums’ architects had no “duty” to maintain worker safety—surely a dubious claim—what government did she have in mind? Could anyone count on the one in Qatar?
On the face of it, the Qatari government had a lot to lose. Its World Cup bid had been a masterful set piece, played with all the finesse of soft geopolitical power (even if, as many allege, it had to be hammered home with the brute force of money). But simply acquiring the bid wouldn’t be enough. As the bid’s PR director put it to David Conn, Qatar 2022 was meant to promote an image of “warmth, hospitality, economic development beyond oil and gas, openness to the world and being a positive interface between the Arab world and the rest of the world.” Yes, money would flow in too, but Qatar has plenty of money. What it needs more is a positive image projected on a global stage.
At the World Cup, stadiums like Lusail Iconic and Al Wakrah are the stage, however much they may disappear into the visual sameness of televised sports once the matches begin. In Qatar, more than ever, they’re supposed to represent wealth and the power it permits (the power, even, to control the desert environment with open-air climate control). If the stadiums come to signify human rights abuses and the depths of corruption rather than the heights of power and prestige, so much for that World Cup sheen.
What then to do about the workers?
Earlier this month, PBS took up the question with a broadcast of The Workers Cup, a documentary (premiered at Sundance) about some of the 1.6 million migrant laborers currently working on projects like Al Wakrah stadium. Produced by a Qatari-based team in 2017 and directed by Adam Sobel, an American who was living in Doha during the lead-up to the FIFA 2022 selection, it will hardly inspire confidence in Qatar’s response. Though the film has little to say about worker fatalities like those reported by The Guardian, it narrates the slower death—of freedom, of possibility, of hope—that these migrants struggle against every day.
The Workers Cup takes its title from an annual event first launched in 2013 by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), the organization overseeing Qatar 2022, and sponsored by the Qatari professional football league. Modelled on FIFA’s crown jewel, the competition features 32 teams (upped from 24 in 2017) comprised of workers representing the contractors involved in World Cup preparations. It looks something like a corporate softball league, just with more fans—many more fans—and poorer players. The workers take it seriously, though, and it’s all good fun, for a while at least. The players win a week off work to train between group stage matches, while the non-playing workers don appropriately comical outfits and invest more emotion than you’re likely to find from the average American soccer fan.
Sobel and crew follow the action in fairly conventional documentary style. The film flows from match to match, interspersed with player/worker interviews and data, mostly in the form of intertitles, about Qatar and its labor politics. We learn, for instance, that workers comprise 60% of the population, that they live, by law, segregated from everyone else, that many work twelve-hour shifts, seven days per week (despite a six-day legal limit), and that some are forced (again illegally) to hand over their passports to their employers.
The film focuses on a small group of players for the Gulf Contracting Company (GCC). Hailing from countries including Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, and India, they offer a range of migrant tales. The film opens with the most apropos: the story of team captain Kenneth, an ambitious would-be footballer who was lured from Ghana by a recruiting agent who promised a spot on a professional club team. The reality ends up being far different, and Kenneth becomes a typical case: $1,600 poorer, 4,000 miles from home, and crammed into a labor camp. Others have similarly tragic stories. Kenyan co-captain Paul, for instance, made his way to Qatar only after losing his bartending job at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi after the 2013 terrorist attack that left at least 67 dead.
Their teammates’ stories are no less dreadful for being more banal. Lacking opportunities back home, many have been working in Qatar for years (some by way of Dubai first) in a futile attempt to amass enough wealth either to bring their families or simply to return home better off. Faced with poverty, violence, or geopolitical instability, stable work of any kind looks like opportunity. Day-to-day life in the Gulf, however, challenges even this limited hope. The men, packed cheek-by-jowl into ordered housing blocks, lead lonely lives. Far from their families, forbidden even from entering the very places they’ve built, and unable to make lasting connections beyond the camps, they live in a kind of purgatory.
Football is their escape. These workers may never become goal-scoring stars, but for a few weeks, or even just a few hours, they could achieve the higher goal, as one player puts it, “not to be considered as workers, but as footballers.” It’s great while it lasts, but the weight of normalcy hits hard when it ends. Without giving too much away, the film’s emotional arc predictably peaks towards the tournament’s conclusion with a penalty shootout. In Qatar, these men might be footballers for a short time, but they’ll always be workers.
What good is football, anyway? What value does it have for these migrant workers—or for that matter, for us, the fans and critics? The Workers Cup doesn’t always tackle these questions head-on, but there’s a cynical allegory struggling to get out. Over the course of the film, Kenneth and his teammates come to realize that the tournament is just a cover for something else. One player, initially excited about coverage the team has been getting back in his native Nepal, laments that their fame will just become another selling point for corrupt recruiters—his escape turned into a snare for someone else like him. One can imagine an agent back in Ghana selling the team’s story to another hopeful Kenneth. In a particularly charged post-tournament scene, another worker voices the painful truth that “it was never about football.” Their Workers Cup was just management’s publicity stunt: a spectacle of corporate welfare to distract the world from labor abuse.
The film never asks how far this realization extends. There’s a powerful story here about workers in Qatar, but does it have anything to say about the tournament they’re building—or about the professional sport beyond it? As the story of FIFA corruption illuminates, the World Cup too is a cover for many things that are never about football—not least geopolitical power. For the past few weeks, football has normalized Putin’s politics, and in 2022, it will do the same for the Qatari labor practices that made it possible. Even the Trump administration has tried to boost itself on a 2026 tournament that it had little to do with and won’t be around to witness.
It would be easy to dismiss football as the cover known as false consciousness. It’s a familiar charge. To watch pro sports is to watch the zeros pile up, on bank notes as on scoreboards. Those zeros buy political power and reinforce global inequality. They keep us in sports arenas rather than political ones. At best, they buy escapism—an opportunity to bask in athletic excellence, elite competition, and the simple pleasures of play. It’s fun, but is it worth it?
For Team GCC, it both is and isn’t. These workers need escape as much as anyone, but some also see an opportunity to build on their success. Kenneth tries to start a football club, but management isn’t interested—the company is there to build stadiums, not communities. Others find something more abstract in the game: a kind of freedom, or what one player, invoking Bob Marley, describes as emancipation from mental slavery. For these players, the beauty of the “beautiful game” is its imagination and creativity—the freedom to learn and test the limits of a world.
German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin once similarly described play as a repetitive form of trial, error, and self-discovery. Struggling over an “object of love” like a football, he argued, was one of life’s most essential gestures. Through it, we learn “the rhythms in which we first gain possession of ourselves.” The essence of this learning through play, for Benjamin, was repetition. To grow up is to learn habits, and to find pleasure in their replication. Play is the therapy that makes growing up possible. Part of the pleasure of sport is to evoke the childlike world of possibility that comes with every struggle to improve.
To play or watch sports is to imagine and create, to learn to be better. This is escapism, yes, but not an escape to nowhere. In the age of Trump we need this kind of escape—this opportunity to think and dream otherwise—as much as ever. Who can be saddled with these politics all the time? This isn’t to say, as Trump would, that sports should be without politics. Sports is always about politics. So too, politics is a kind of sport; a struggle over an object of love—the world we share. Benjamin reminds us that it’s all about how you play. Some of us use games to learn how to grow up and be better, all while retaining play’s childlike pleasures and its power of creativity. Others just remain childish.