“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor,” writes Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus has his rock, we all carry a burden related to labor in some sense, but no one’s “rock” weighs as heavy as the one placed on the workers in the labor camps of Qatar.
Replace the gods that punished Sisyphus with the construction companies contracted to build the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and swap Sisyphus for the thousands of migrant workers who seek payment and purpose by way of building the stadiums that showcase their favorite sport on a scale previously unbeknownst to them. That is where the trailer for Adam Sobel’s debut documentary The Workers Cup begins. “People come here to fulfill their dreams” is said as the trailer begins and, slowly but surely, reality warps that dream into a labor-exploitative nightmare. The workers know this, but they work on; the big companies know exactly who they are exploiting and why, and yet, they exploit on—profit and deadlines being their sole drives.
Trapped, broken and let-down, the workers seek better lives through building something they love in a quasi-religious sense but don’t find the joy they were looking for. An executive says, “They are coming with too much hope,” but why shouldn’t they leave home in search of hope and purpose? The World Cup is the great equalizer in the world of sport and in the minds of these men, they play a small but pivotal role in shaping the canvas for the world’s biggest and arguably most important sports showcase. Yet, hope isn’t found in the cracked concrete underneath a jack-hammer, nor is it found in the barracks these workers sleep in—it is found on the soccer field. The smell of grass, the calling of a play and the uptick in one’s heart rate as they attempt a shot on the opposing team’s goal is what these people love. It fuels them. It gets them through their impossibly hard days full of thankless labor that teeters on indentured servitude.
Construction company leaders and executives see how their orders and economic aspirations are breaking their workers and they decide to host a World Cup on a far smaller scale and thus, the Workers Cup is born. Workers get to compete in their own soccer tournament on the hallowed ground that their blood and sweat helped build. Still, this is by no means an act of kindness from those in power. No, it is just a way to keep their workers happy and morale high as one of the executives exclaims that “they’re now more loyal to the company,” and, in doing so, a false sense of hope is born. Is that hope so false, though?
These workers who compete in the Workers Cup hope that soccer scouts will see them and give them a chance. They all want their key to a better life, to cast off their Sisyphean rock and find happiness in the act of simply living through sport. Can this be so? Only time will tell, and the film seems to shift between an examination of the exploitation of labor and an underdog story by way of soccer; a game these men are quite literally staking their lives on. But “it was never about the worker … the company’s interest is to set up for the 2022 World Cup, but I also hoped we’d maybe not be considered as workers, but as footballers,” and, just like that, hope is born.
Check out the trailer for The Workers Cup below to witness the complicated relationship we have with sport and how it can divide us in a caste-like structure as much as it can bring us all together. The film opens in select theaters on June 8.