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“All part of the game”

The Khalifa International Stadium in the Qatari capital of Doha was built for moments like these. Thousands of fans from across the world line its stands to watch the first semi-final of the 2019 Fifa Club World Cup, a yearly tournament in which the champions of six continents compete for the right to call themselves the best club team in the world. Today the champions of South America take on those of Asia: Flamengo from Brazil against Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia. Tomorrow, Liverpool will play Mexico’s Monterrey for the other place in the final.

While for most of its life the Club World Cup has been a largely unloved inconvenience for European teams, for South American clubs it has offered a prized opportunity to show their rivals where the real talent in world football lies. While Liverpool fans complained about fixture congestion and the six-hour flight to Doha, Flamengo had brought nearly 30,000 fans from the other side of the world. I’d flown with them from Rio to São Paulo to Doha, via Casablanca. When the team coach left for the Galeão airport thousands of people took a day off work to line the streets and cheer them on their way.

This year’s competition, though, promises more of a spectacle than usual – and not just because some of the biggest stars of the game will be here, including Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Flamengo’s striker Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa. It is also, after nearly ten years of speculation, lurid revelations, accusations of worker mistreatment and geo-political shenanigans, a chance for the world to finally see what a global football tournament in Qatar really looks like.

There are big questions to be answered. How will Qatar handle thousands of boisterous fans? Can a country where the average attendance of a league match is 672 – despite the average capacity of a stadium being 14,000 – genuinely fall in love with the beautiful game? What has become of the thousands of workers involved in the construction of the tournament’s infrastructure? And will Qatar’s huge bet on the World Cup – which by some estimates will cost the country as much as £150 billion – pay off for the country?

At the Club World Cup, the fans certainly seem to be having a good time. In the stands behind the goal, as kick-off nears, a motley crew wearing Flamengo’s black and red striped shirts is being roused to song by an exuberant conductor. Barely in his twenties, Benfica is a member of the Raça Rubro-Negra, Brazil’s biggest torcida organizada – organised fan group – which has existed since the 1940s. “I’m a director,” he says, responsible for “choosing the songs and motivating the crowd”. The Raça Rubro-Negra began singing an hour before kick-off. They have even written a song especially for the occasion. It celebrates the time Flamengo beat Liverpool 3-0 in the 1981 Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner to the Club World Cup. With his back to the field, Benfica leads the crowd:

In December 1981, you put the Englishmen in circles.
3-0 against Liverpool, it left a mark in history.
And in Rio there’s no one like you, only Flamengo is world champion.
And now your people ask for the world again!

The game begins, and the singing stops abruptly in the 18th minute when underdogs Al Hilal take a shock lead. Benfica demands his choir start up again, but louder. With their Brazilian-style drums keeping time, the torcida urges Flamengo forward. They score three without reply. Men weep with joy. A woman repeatedly kisses a necklace with the face of Jesus on it. Flamengo are in the final. Benfica stands on his chair and finally turns towards the pitch. “Fuck you, Europe!” he shouts.

Despite years of digging, when Qatar struck sporting gold, the country wasn’t quite prepared for what followed. When the small sheikdom in the Persian Gulf boldly announced it intended to bid for the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals, very few people outside the Middle East could even point to Qatar on the map. After Fifa’s technical committee had assessed the submission, they designated Qatar as high risk due to the extreme summer heat (the 2022 competition has now been moved to winter). And when it came time to announce the chosen host, and the-then Fifa president Sepp Blatter pulled a piece of card out of an envelope with Qatar written on it, even he sounded surprised.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar poses in 2010 with then-Fifa president Joseph Blatter and Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov in Zurich, shortly after hearing that Russia and Qatar will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

Yet the victory, if you looked a little closer, was not much of a surprise at all ‒ and not just because of the persistent allegations of corruption that surround the day of the big announcement in Zurich in December 2010. Over the previous decade, Qatar’s monarchy, through its web of investment vehicles and government departments, had ploughed a large chunk of its huge wealth into sport as a soft-power shortcut to global recognition.

In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani seized power from his father, Sheikh Khalifa, in a bloodless palace coup and the country began to modernise at speed. The ministry of information was abolished, paving the way for the establishment of the Al Jazeera news network. Meanwhile, the exploitation of the world’s third-largest gas field off Qatar’s north-east coast, beginning in 1997, transformed the peninsula into the richest country on Earth per capita in 2010.

It was under Hamad, and following the lead of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that Qatar began to invest heavily in sport in general and football in particular. Huge sums were poured in to secure golf and tennis tournaments, not to mention the local football league to which fading international stars were enticed for one last payday. In 2005 I was present in the main hall at the grand opening of the Aspire academy in Doha to witness the spectacle of Diego Maradona and Pelé appearing on stage together, secured with the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While the strategy was enough to secure the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has borne heavy costs for asserting itself as a regional power and arousing the jealousy of its neighbours. Amid the complex diplomatic fallout from the Arab Spring – the series of democratic uprisings across the Middle East that began in Tunisia in 2010 and spread across the region, terrifying the Gulf Arab states’ autocratic elites – Qatar, which embraced most of the uprisings, found itself increasingly ostracised by the countries that surround it. By June 2017 the situation had escalated to a full-blown diplomatic crisis, when Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severed relations with Doha and announced a full air, sea and land blockade, claiming Qatar was supporting terrorism and Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemy, Iran.

Laws were passed in Bahrain and the UAE providing for ten-year prison sentences for anyone offering “support” for Qatar. When Qatar played the UAE in the semi-final of the Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi in January 2019 – and hammered them 4-0 – the Emirati crowd pelted the Qatari players with their shoes, a searing insult in Arab culture.

But the country has so far weathered the storm. Building materials for the World Cup had to be rerouted and new suppliers found. Supermarket shelves were emptied in the immediate aftermath of the blockade, but Turkey stepped in to supply food and other perishable goods. Years of high gas prices meant that the country had a huge budget surplus which it used to stay afloat. And construction has continued: new skyscrapers have transformed Doha’s corniche into a mini-Manhattan, with the lavish Museum of Islamic Art and the Arab Museum of Modern Art adding cultural clout. Elsewhere whole new cities have been built, like the futuristic Lusail, a few miles north of the capital, where the 2022 World Cup final will be held.

Despite the regional political turbulence, the tournament itself has remained on course. Football appears to have trumped politics. So much so that a few thousand Saudi fans were celebrating in the Khalifa International Stadium when Al Hilal’s Salem al-Dawsari scored the opening goal against Flamengo. Twelve months earlier the club would almost certainly have been pressured to boycott the tournament and any supporters might have faced jail for fraternising with the enemy.

Still, the Saudi celebrations didn’t last for long. Their crushing disappointment at their 3-1 defeat to Flamengo would be soundtracked by Benfica and his joyful choir.

Following Flamengo’s victory, Doha’s box-fresh Metro system and “old” city, which has been rebuilt from scratch, are teeming with different clans of world football – the torcida of Flamengo converge with ultras (the most fanatical supporters) from the African champions, Tunisia’s Espérance, and the barras bravas (‘fierce gang’) fans of Monterrey, all drumming and singing in their own languages. Nervous security guards and policemen, unused to public displays of jubilation, hang back, clearly under orders not to intervene in this unfamiliar dance.

Fans of Tunisian club Espérance clash with riot police in the stands during the Club World Cup fifth-place match with Qatari club Al Sadd in Doha. Photo: Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport/Getty Images

Most of the revelling football fans are fuelled by nothing but coffee. Qatar is a strictly Islamic country, adhering to a similar form of ultra-conservative Wahhabism as Saudi Arabia, but alcohol is not outlawed. Instead, it is taxed at one of the highest rates in the world – I was charged £15 for a pint of Guinness in one sports bar – and served only in specially licensed areas such as hotels. “Qatar is a conservative country, it’s a modest country. Alcohol is not part of our culture. However, hospitality is,” says Nasser al Khater, the CEO of World Cup Qatar 2022.

Rather than allowing people to drink on the streets, a “fan park” has been set up for the Club World Cup where a beer costs around £5. It is located deep in the desert, a good 45-minute drive away from Doha. I make the trip here ahead of the semi-final between Liverpool and Monterrey; a bus deposits me outside this heavily guarded outdoor arena in the middle of nowhere. Once inside, I find disparate groups of fans roaming an atmosphere-free grassy plain. A hype man occasionally climbs on the stage in front of a huge screen – where the games will be shown live – to shout a few inane call-and-response chants. When they go unanswered he sheepishly clambers back down. While World Cup organisers are desperate to prove that a genuine football culture can take root in the country, they have some way to go yet.

Espérance’s fans had already made a name for themselves in Qatar. A video of their flight to Doha showing dozens of ultras singing and jumping up and down had gone viral. The celebrations didn’t last long: on arrival a dozen were arrested and immediately deported. Undeterred, the Espérance fans continued to push the authorities, defying the rules to smuggle dozens of flares and smoke bombs in to games.

Qatar’s stadiums had never seen anything like it. When Espérance demolished Qatari club Al Sadd 6-2, I looked on as the police were completely lost as to how to handle a large number of fans waving flares in the stands. The answer was to wade in with batons. I was briefly detained for filming the police’s heavy-handed reaction. With the eyes of the planet on them in 2022, it will be interesting to see how the authorities handle the exuberance of World Cup fans.

 

With Qatar’s heightened international profile has come heightened international scrutiny. The sleek stadiums, fan parks, new Metro system and skyscrapers would not be possible without the most contentious aspect of Qatar’s World Cup project – the country’s army of migrant workers, whose living and working conditions have been criticised by both international human rights groups and the global media.

Migrant labourers work on the construction of Lusail Iconic Stadium, an 80-000-seat stadium in Qatar which is scheduled to host the opening match and final of the 2022 World Cup tournament. Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

Low-paid workers form a vast immigrant underclass that makes up 90 percent of the country’s population yet have very few rights under the Arabic system of kafala, or sponsorship, that places their legal status, their freedom of movement and even their right to leave the country in the hands of their employer. Qataris have long argued that kafala is a simple question of self- preservation. As one local journalist had asked me: How do you think your country would handle immigration if you were in the overwhelming minority? But critics including the UN’s International Labour Organization have described the practice as a system of modern slavery.

I first met Arman in early 2016 as he was queuing for his flight from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport outside Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. He was about to embark on a new life as a migrant worker in Qatar. At the time Bangladesh was one of the biggest exporters of migrant workers to the Gulf and Arman was ready to board a plane to Doha to join them. He was one of a long line of workers wearing baseball hats and T-shirts branded with the logo of the employment agency that had arranged their trip.

The atmosphere was jovial, expectant. “We are all excited, because we have jobs in Qatar!” said Arman cheerily. He was, he told me, a recent graduate but this was the only way for him to get well-paid work; a position with the Saudi Bin Laden company (run at that time by Osama Bin Laden’s brothers) on the Lusail site, the centrepiece of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup development. “I know this company. It is a big name in the construction game. So I am happy. We are happy we are joining.” Arman said he had been promised a wage of 2,200 Qatari riyals, around £450 a month. He would, he said, be there for a “minimum” of five years.

I worried about what awaited him. Since 2005 I have reported on the terrible conditions of migrant workers in Qatar and other Gulf countries – the appalling low pay, the terrible health-and-safety records, the accommodation unfit for human habitation and the summer deaths from heart failure of men in their twenties and thirties due to working in temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius. The role of agents in finding the jobs meant that workers were often borrowing money against family land to pay to get to the Middle East. Once there they would be told their wages were a fraction of what had been promised. Unable to pay back their debt, they were effectively trapped.

Overseas workers eat at a cafeteria in Labour City, a vast government-built migrant camp designed to house close to 70,000 workers, in May 2015. Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP via Getty Images

While in Bangladesh I met Shariful Hasan, an investigative journalist who reported on the treatment of his fellow countrymen and women abroad for the Daily Prothom Alo. Hasan told me that he travelled to the airport every Friday, the day when the bodies of dead workers would be sent home. It seemed no one was counting the unnaturally large numbers of Bangladeshi men dying in the Gulf – usually of heart complaints – so Shariful would keep count: several thousand since 2011. The airport was so full of migrant workers headed to the Gulf that a long queue snaked outside its entrance: inside, illiterate workers asked me to help fill out their departure cards.

When I visited two camps in Qatar in 2016, the conditions were bleak. I was detained at one camp for trying to speak to workers inside. The workers I did speak to, mainly from Kenya, told me that non-payment of wages and racism was rampant. At the other camp, in Shahaniya in the middle of the country, I saw appalling conditions: rivers of sewage, 15 men to a room, unsanitary cooking conditions. The Ghanaian workers I spoke to felt hoodwinked, and said they were too ashamed to tell their families about the situation they had found themselves in.

When I put those issues to Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of the supreme committee in charge of delivering the World Cup, he pointed out that a camp for World Cup workers, called Labour City, had been built to high specifications, and that he was pushing for better treatment for them. “I look at worker welfare, where we can influence and have a say on that,” he said. “Ethical recruitment. Getting rid of worker fees so any new worker doesn’t have to pay. Accommodation, making sure it is healthy. How many workers to a room. We can address those. Safety in the workplace, transportation. Repatriation. These are the areas we are responsible for.”

There was a problem, however, with defining who was and who wasn’t working on World Cup projects. Arguably, every construction project was effectively adding to the infrastructure of the country to prepare it for 2022. But the prioritisation of “World Cup workers” led to a two-tier system in which some workers were treated adequately, while others were treated poorly.

 

Arman, it turns out, has been one of the lucky ones. In 2019, almost four years after our conversation in the airport, I meet him outside his camp on the road to Shahaniya where he greets me warmly. He waves me past the security guard at the front and starts the tour of his home. There are wide paved roads with grass verges lined with identical rows of clean prefabricated huts. “It’s cold!” he says, surprised, rubbing his arms. It is, indeed, cold by Qatari standards: 18 degrees with a strong northerly wind.

Since we first met we had stayed in contact by WhatsApp. Arman had become something of a bellwether for me to understand how things were going for those building the new Qatar: how the country had coped with the blockade, how food had become scarce in the weeks that followed. How the huge economic hit had resulted in a slowdown in work that wasn’t widely reported to the outside world. He’d told me how the company had arranged for him to have an operation to fix a serious medical issue he’d been carrying for years. That the wages were low but he could send back enough to keep his family happy.

The camp is orderly and clean and Arman lives with one other worker in an air-conditioned room. Food is served in a huge mess hall with different stations for the workers from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and West Africa. “Some people don’t like our food. It’s too spicy,” he tells me as we sit down to eat a chicken biryani.

Conditions here are much better than at the camps I had seen down the road, now heavily guarded and full of workers in the “grey” economy – those whose visas have expired but who remained and could now be exploited outside of the system. Still, Arman is keen to leave. Qatar was always a stop-gap, a stepping stone to the west where you could earn real money and live a free life. He would often message me with emails he had been sent offering him jobs on construction sites in the US for huge corporations based in Houston or New York. Every time I’d discover that the emails were convincing fakes. On top of all the other exploitative practices they faced, migrant workers in Qatar were being targeted by scammers posing as fake US employment agents. They just needed to send a few hundred dollars to start the visa process.

Despite the decent conditions, Arman’s accommodation is still a camp, isolated from the rest of the country. It is almost impossible for workers to leave it on their day off, especially in the summer. They live a life completely separated from the glitzy tourist pleasures on the seaside corniche. When I take a picture of the mess hall with my camera, four security guards arrive to stop me from taking any more. I realise I am being watched by the network of CCTV cameras around the camp – and I’m not sure if they were designed to keep people like me out, or people like Arman in.

There are very few public spaces in Doha where workers can gather on their days off. There’s the mosque, or the Church of our Lady of the Rosary, a vast Tower of Babel complex that holds mass for dozens of different nationalities and denominations: Lebanese Maronites, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Catholics, Christians from Ghana and Egypt. I speak to workers from Nigeria, most of whom were hired as security guards. They are recent arrivals and have no problems with late payment – just low wages and a feeling that, as Africans, they are at the bottom of Qatar’s racial hierarchy. But here, in the church, they feel like equals. It is as much a social space as a religious one.

And then there’s cricket. A few minutes’ walk from the church, on a patch of land between a school and a six-lane highway, a tournament is taking place between four teams of Indian workers from the same electrical engineering company.

I speak to the players, next to a makeshift scoreboard, as we watch the game unfold. Everyone has the same story. Most are from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Life is certainly hard. But they have seen their conditions improve over the past few years. Some remember the bad old days of ten years ago. There is a genuine joy and camaraderie – something that is often lost in the reporting of migrant workers in the Gulf, who are far away from their wives and families. Juice and chocolate biscuits are shared and passed around. “It’s not easy for these guys – they have tough lives away from home,” says Sajman, one of the foremen from the company, who is keeping score. “We play here and for one or two hours we are somewhere else.”

 

It is the day of the final and Benfica and I arrive at noon for an 8.30pm kick-off to hang the banners he has brought from Brazil. Doing so is a lengthy process – Fifa has to individually approve each flag to make sure there are no political or racist symbols or words. After passing through three lines of security, we begin tying the banners to the front of the main stand with pieces of string. Once finished, we take our seats in the empty stadium and wait for the start of the match.

Eight hours later the Khalifa International Stadium is full for the first time since it was built. It is a re-run of the 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo: Flamengo versus Liverpool. Liverpool fans have travelled from all across the Middle East, even from nations blockading Qatar. The majority of Flamengo’s fans crowd in to the stand behind one of the goals, with Benfica at the centre of it all. It immediately becomes clear that Liverpool is a different proposition to Al Hilal. They dominate possession, but somehow Flamengo keep them from scoring and the teams go into half-time 0-0. As the game progresses in the second half, Flamengo continue to stem the tide, but it looks like it’s all over when Liverpool are awarded a penalty in the dying minutes.

A Flamengo supporter next to me kisses a picture of St Jude, Flamengo’s patron saint, and prays for divine intervention. VAR decides it wasn’t a penalty after all. The game goes to extra time but Flamengo can’t hold on. Brazilian international striker Roberto Firmino scores the winner for Liverpool. While the Liverpool fans are moderately happy with their new piece of silverware, among the Flamengo fans children and adults are crying. Benfica and I wait for the players to leave the pitch before we cut down the banners and pack them away, ready for the long journey home. Benfica is disappointed but was at least satisfied with the effort his players put in. “This is all part of the game,” Benfica says, his voice now hoarse. “Flamengo believed until the end. That is all that matters. They honoured what we do here, so it was all worth it.”

This was a tournament of just six teams. There will be supporters from 32 in 2022. But the Qataris consider the club contest prelude to have been a success. “Our plans were previously theoretical and today they are being applied on the ground. Overall I think the Club World Cup has been a great success as a test event,” says Hassan al-Thawadi. “There are three more years to go to learn, so I have no doubt that by 2022 we will be ready.”

Intense international pressure finally forced Qatar to change its laws and in January 2020 new legislation entered into effect to abolish the practice of kafala. A “non-discriminatory” minimum wage was put in place, outlawing the practice of paying workers a different wage for the same job, depending on which country they were from. Wages would be paid directly and electronically, with a reporting system set up to flag late and non-payments, as well as passport confiscation. But, as ever, the laws are only useful if they are implemented. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International remain sceptical of Qatar’s reforms, claiming that the rules are not evenly implemented and do not go far enough.

For Benfica and his torcida there is a 7,000-mile journey home. Despite the defeat and the incredible costs involved, the tournament has been worth it. “Honestly I was wondering how I would get the money to come to Doha, but the Flamengo fan is capable of any sacrifice to realise this dream,” he says. The answer for Benfica was to take out a loan. “For Doha I have instalments to pay all the way to the end of next year,” he says. Qatar’s bill is considerably higher – but then making footballing dreams come true is an expensive business.

 

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