Much has been written about Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. A lot of it doesn’t reflect very well on Qatar or, indeed, FIFA. Worker rights, alleged corruption and the unequal use of resources have so far dominated the conversation. But what about the actual football team?
Qatar has never qualified for a World Cup before. 2022 will be its first. The country has vast resources and has invested heavily in the Aspire academy to raise a team that can compete in 2022.
I went to Doha for the New York Times to find out about Qatari football culture, something that hasn’t been written about much. I spoke to Xavi Hernandez who is playing his last season, in Qatar. You can read my New York Times story here.
In August 2017 my third book “The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners” (Bloomsbury) was released. The book took me all over the world looking at the backstories of the super-rich who were now investing in football clubs: China, the UAE, Qatar and, most surprisingly, Bangladesh.
Whilst football is growing in this cricket-mad country, there hasn’t been any investment as such from Bangladeshi billionaires in European football. But the country plays an important part in that story.
There is little doubt that the wealth of the Middle East is reshaping the game. Whilst that wealth is derived mainly from oil and gas, it is the millions of poorly paid migrant workers who build these autocracies on the shores of Persian Gulf. Most come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Much has been written about the kafala system of sponsorship in relation to the building projects for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar. Kafala has been described by Human Rights Watch as a form of “indentured servitude” and it is Bangladeshi workers that tend to be the worst paid and worst treated. And not just in Qatar. The UAE too has an appalling record on worker and human rights. This is especially relevant given that Manchester City is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and, effectively, by the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mansour, the club’s owner, is one of the most powerful political figures in the country and many of the club’s board members are also deeply involved in an economy dependent on the kafala system.
So I wanted to explain how a worker comes to leave Bangladesh and arrive in the Middle East. Why do they leave? What happens on the way? And how are they treated when they get there? What I saw in Bangladesh was a broken system where some of the poorest people in the world are exploited on every step of the way by agents, employers and, in the end, whole countries.
The football season is coming to an end in Europe and the Middle East. And there was one competition that was at the crucial later stages in Doha, the capital of Qatar: the semi-finals of the 2016 Workers Cup.
Ever since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals, the tiny emirate has been under the microscope. And one of the issues that has been getting plenty of criticism is the treatment of migrant workers, who make up the majority of the country’s population but live in camps far from the rest of the city.
Many complain of their passports being taken, wages unpaid, terrible accommodation and low pay. They are also tied to their employers, the so-called kafala system, which has been described as a form of modern slavery. It prevents workers changing jobs whilst also requiring permission from the employer to leave the country. This has led to abuses.
It is a scandalous issue across the Gulf, but whilst little is being done in Saudi and the UAE, the 2002 World Cup has forced both FIFA and Qatar to at least try and confront the problem.
So I went to the Workers Cup, a competition organised by leading lights in Qatari football and paid for by the companies, where the laborers who build Qatar come together every Friday to play for their company teams in a bid to win the cup and with it a cash prize (and a mobile phone).
I spoke to dozens of players and workers. Some were happy, many were not. Conditions and pay were the common theme. But they were being paid on time. And most still had their passports. But the atmosphere, which was full of fans from the camps too, was incredible and I got horribly sunburned. Afterwards we went back to one of the camps: isolated and lifeless. It showed just how big the scale of the issue is.