A Respite of Soccer for Qatar’s Laborers

Fans of Gulf Contracting, a construction firm working in Qatar that advanced to the May 6 final of the Workers Cup in a shootout.
Fans of Gulf Contracting, a construction firm working in Qatar that advanced to the May 6 final of the Workers Cup in a shootout.

DOHA, Qatar — It was not yet 8 a.m., but already a fierce sun was beating down as the Taleb Group soccer team arrived at the technical committee building of the Qatar Football Association. As had been the case on Friday mornings for the past few weeks, even at such an early hour, the players who passed the white minaret at the center’s entrance on their way toward its state-of-the-art soccer fields were not the first to arrive.

As they approached the fields, the players were met by a crowd of about 50 young men, some singing African folk songs, others wearing counterfeit Manchester United and Real Madrid jerseys or banging metal dinner trays with soup ladles. Not all of the fans were there to cheer for Taleb, however; others carried placards bearing the name of Larsen & Toubro, the opponent in Friday morning’s crucially important game: a semifinal clash in the Workers Cup.

“This tournament will make people know that we are footballers, and not just laborers,” said Jerry Ayitey, a 22-year-old construction worker from Ghana who plays as a defender for Taleb Group.

As he spoke, another group of fans passed by as they circled the field, banging makeshift drums and singing “Praise Be to God” in a Ghanaian dialect. “We work 10 hours a day,” Ayitey said. “But my dream is to have a team in France, England, Spain, Russia.”

Each team in the four-year-old Workers Cup represents a local company, one of the dozens of firms at work in the country’s building boom. Medgulf Construction. Nakheel Landscapes. Byrne Equipment Rental. Gulf Contracting. The players — carpenters, drivers and masons — are just a fraction of the thousands of migrant workers who are actively building Qatar into a modern state. They are the muscle and backbone of plans to develop the emirate into a global player in everything from finance and energy to sports and the arts.

But the treatment of that army of migrant workers has been the simmering back story of the 2022 World Cup ever since FIFA awarded Qatar the hosting rights in 2010. Investigations by a variety of news organizations and labor and human-rights groups — including one last month by Amnesty International — have found forced labor, squalid living conditions and alarming death rates among migrants.


There were 24 teams competing in the Workers Cup during the fourth year of the event. Credit Olya Morvan for The New York Times
Qatar, under pressure from FIFA and global opinion, said it had taken steps to improve conditions and protect laborers working on construction projects and living in camps outside the capital, Doha, and other cities. The Workers Cup is co-sponsored by Qatar’s grandly named Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the official body charged with the construction and infrastructure projects related to the World Cup. It created the tournament three years ago, it said, as part of its concurrent mission “to encourage positive social change within Qatar.”

Twenty-four teams started the fourth edition of the Workers Cup in mid-March, but by Friday morning, only four remained. Taleb Group is a local construction firm that started in real estate; Larsen & Toubro is an Indian-based engineering and construction conglomerate with Danish roots.

On his one day off each week, Ayitey joins dozens of other workers for matches in this fiercely contested competition. Some dream of playing professionally. Others claim to have already played top-tier soccer in Africa or Asia but said they had decided to come to Qatar to drive buses and build high-rises instead because the paychecks were at least regular.

Tens of thousands of Qatari rials are at stake for the Workers Cup winners, as well as a camera or a phone for each player and the chance of playing in the final at the stadium of Al Ahli.

But thousands of workers from the labor camps also attend the matches as spectators each Friday, often giving the games better attendance, and a more colorful atmosphere, than almost any game in the country’s top professional division, the Qatar Stars League, which sponsors the tournament.

“I joined the team as a player, but my profession is engineer, so I couldn’t continue,” said Mohamed Saadeldin, Taleb Group’s 30-year-old Egyptian coach.

Continue reading the main story

To Referee Is Human. To Go to the Replay, Divine. APRIL 22, 2016

Pay Disparity in U.S. Soccer? It’s Complicated APRIL 21, 2016

William Edward Behe 58 minutes ago
the real sport here is the battle of rich versus poor, a contest the Royal oligarchy of Qatar wins by default. times have not changed much…
Martha Shelley 58 minutes ago
@ Mazava Atsignana, who writes, “Yes there are women in Qatar but they are at home cooking and cleaning , taking care of the children . Many…
Carol M 59 minutes ago
The point of this article isn’t to discount the harsh working conditions, but to look at the workers as full human beings, more than just…


After defeating Mowasalat, a multinational team of Kenyans, Eritreans, Moroccans, Egyptians and Ghanaians, in a semifinal, members of the Gulf Contracting team dined on buckets of chicken. Credit Olya Morvan for The New York Times
“It is a cup for labor, so they fired me!” he added with a laugh. “But at least they made me the coach.”

Before the match, hundreds of fans began to fill the bleachers, which stretched halfway along one edge of the field, as Saadeldin wrote out his lineup on a scrap of paper while his assistant, a laborer, read out the players’ names. The crowd heavily favored Larsen & Toubro, whose entire team was Ghanaian. Moments before kickoff, the team lined up in front of its fans to sing an impromptu version of Ghana’s national anthem. Then the dancing, and the drums — fashioned from boxes and old food tins — restarted.

Despite the overwhelming support for its opponent, Taleb Group took a 1-0 lead and still held it with 10 minutes to go when a fleet of sport utility vehicles arrived nearby. In the wake of the damning Amnesty International report into Qatar’s slow pace of reform on workers’ rights, FIFA’s new president, Gianni Infantino, had arrived in the country for two days of meetings and inspections. During his time there, he met the 2022 World Cup organizing committee and the country’s emir and visited a new city built to house migrant workers.

But if Infantino wanted to watch any soccer, the Workers Cup was the only game in town. So he stood alongside local officials on the touchline, watching the final few minutes of the match as Larsen & Toubro pressed for an equalizer that never came.

When the final whistle confirmed Taleb Group’s 1-0 victory, its players celebrated wildly on the pitch. Its opponents lay on the turf, shattered. Many were in tears.

“We had one of our players down, we lost concentration; we thought their players would kick the ball out, but they refused,” said Yahaya Mohammed, a land surveyor who had helped press the failed Larsen & Toubro attack. He could barely speak through his tears. “I feel really bad,” he said. “I was looking forward to getting to the finals.”

Sports Newsletter
Get the big sports news, highlights and analysis from Times journalists, with distinctive takes on games and some behind-the-scenes surprises, delivered to your inbox every week.
Infantino, meanwhile, had retreated out of the sun and was holding a brief news conference. He announced an independent body that he said would oversee Qatar’s progress on safeguarding migrant workers’ rights. “FIFA is not the world welfare agency,” Infantino said. Nevertheless, he said, FIFA should “help with changes that go beyond football.”

Continue reading the main story

In more than 40 interviews with fans and players at the tournament, all said that their wages were now being paid on time. Only two said they had paid a recruitment agent to reach Qatar.

But several others raised a range of complaints, from low pay to the persistent poor standard of accommodations in Doha’s vast network of labor camps, which remain largely shut off from public scrutiny. One worker said he had not seen his passport for months; he said he had been told by his employer that the company was keeping it so that “it does not get lost.” Another likened his accommodations to a ghetto.

“Even a slum is better than this,” he said of dwellings in which he claimed workers sometimes live 14 to a room. “This is like a rabbit’s house.”

After Infantino’s news conference, his motorcade swept out toward the airport, past a parking lot containing the Porsches and Maseratis of the local dignitaries who had hosted him. While they had been inside, dozens of Ghanaian and Kenyan supporters had taken the chance for selfies with the cars.

Mohammed, his mood now soothed by a quick selfie with Infantino, stuck around after his team’s loss for the second semifinal, between Mowasalat, a government-owned transport company whose players are mostly bus drivers, and Gulf Contracting, a construction company that itself was embroiled in a recent scandal over its treatment of workers.


Gianni Infantino, center, the president of FIFA, at a Workers Cup match. He was in Qatar to discuss the 2022 World Cup, to be held there. Credit European Pressphoto Agency
As kickoff approached, the refilled stands heaved again with a crowd now in the thousands, almost all of them supporting Gulf Contracting.

“I know we are underdogs,” said Duncan Gondi, 28, a former bus driver who played for Mowasalat, a multinational team of Kenyans, Eritreans, Moroccans, Egyptians and Ghanaians.

“I know God will give us victory,” Gondi added confidently. “One thing I know is that God rewards people that work hard.”

As the game wore on, both coaches shouted instructions from the sidelines with greater urgency. Andy Clayton, Gulf Contracting’s 50-year-old English coach, prowled the technical area in front of his bench. Clayton played nonleague soccer in England when he was younger but later trained as a carpenter, moved to the Gulf and started coaching the team. He set up a tryout three months ago, picking his roster from a pool of 100 hopefuls.

“Qatar is a transient country,” Clayton said. “So from my team from last year, we only had four players.”

When asked about the treatment of his own workers, he said it was his belief that the situation was not “as bad as people say at all.”

Continue reading the main story

Fans of Gulf Contracting after its victory. It will play Taleb Group for the title. Credit Olya Morvan for The New York Times
“I would say that we’ll see 500 to 600 of our workers today from the camps,” he added. “Ninety-nine percent will be happy.”

What he did not see was a goal. The semifinal ended in a scoreless tie and went to penalties. As the tension increased, both teams missed spot kicks until Gulf Contracting’s Jasper Abbey, a 24-year-old mason from Ghana, scored the winner from the spot, clinching a place in the final.

Fans streamed onto the field and ran to the bench to celebrate the victory, hoisting Abbey and Clayton onto their shoulders and carrying them on a lap of honor amid a riot of music and dancing.

“I am too much happy,” said Abbey, who was out of breath. “Look at the fans — 2,000 of them! I could not let them down.”

Clayton, too, was overwhelmed.

“In all my life in football,” he said, “that is the greatest thing to have happened to me.”

With no letup from the sun, the victorious players and their fans piled into buses for the return trip to their labor camp in Umm Salal, a half-hour north of Doha. It is these camps that have brought the most scrutiny to Qatar’s World Cup preparations. They are vital to the building boom and its preparations for the World Cup — Qatar’s tiny population could never complete the projects on its own — but they remain a land apart from the country they serve.

Security guards at the front gate at Umm Salal prevent unauthorized people from entering and also keep track of those leaving. Signs urging vigilance in health and safety cover nearly every wall. The camps are tidy but isolated from any settlements. It is nearly a mile walk to the nearest shop outside the gates, but any journey by foot in the summer, when temperatures can reach 120 degrees, would be all but impossible.

For the next few weeks, though, the summer heat is far away. For the Gulf Contracting team, all roads lead to the final of the Workers Cup against Taleb Group on May 6, and the prizes that a victory on the pristine turf of the Al Ahli Stadium would bring.
The reward for Gulf Contracting’s semifinal victory on Friday was comparatively modest. Buckets of KFC chicken were brought in to a common dining room, and the players devoured it, grateful to have a break from their usual spicy, south Indian menu.

“Every game, we raise our game,” said Abbey, the hero of the penalty shootout. “And we give thanks to the almighty.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *