Many of us in the sports industry have been talking about Qatar for years. Now, less than a week away from the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, it appears the rest of the world has woken up.
A conundrum posed in a recent UP Newsletter - 7 Gifs of a World Cup ambush - made the following point regarding the narratives that media arriving in Qatar may now be looking for:
First job is to get some local colour on tape, for use in telling the authentic story of football in the area: Local kids playing footy in back alleys; old players telling tales of their enduring relationship with the host city; a bit of poverty porn. Etc.
Problem is, those stories don’t exist in Qatar. Or if they do, they ain’t getting told anytime soon.
As someone who has personally unearthed these stories, I would beg to differ. These stories (people!) really do exist. You just have to know where to find them…
We rarely hear from those who have been most impacted by Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup (and the country’s laws, culture and politics): the people who actually live and work there.
Jasira Sirajudeen from Kerala in India. She was a Fan Support Volunteer during the FIFA Arab Cup at Al Thumama stadium.
Credit: Inamul Hasan Najeemm
With a few standout exceptions (e.g. hummel), brands in particular seem reluctant to talk in-depth about Qatar, often because there is a lack of deep knowledge and understanding about the country, and the fact it is located in a part of the world with many complicated issues layered on top of one another.
Without a clear opinion or message, it is easier to stay silent or just dismiss (or attack) Qatar. The reality, as always, is more complex. But don’t just take my word for it.
At Goal Click - a global storytelling platform and network I founded in 2014 and have previously written about for this blog - we aim to inspire understanding of one another through the universal language of football.
We do that by finding and telling the authentic human stories that the sports world craves. And we do it all over the world, from refugee camps in Jordan and LGBTQ+ players in England, to women’s football in Iran and grassroots communities in Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Qatar.
Reem Al-Haddad’s father teaches her brother the proper traditional way of tying the cultural dress “thobe” in order to allow for more comfortable play at Sealine desert. Credit: Reem Al-Haddad
Back in 2019, we first shone a light on Qatari football culture and in 2022, in collaboration with The Sports Creative and Qatar Foundation, we launched GOALS - a series of powerful, unfiltered and diverse stories from people living and working in Qatar.
From workers and students to artists and football coaches, people representing more than 20 nationalities - the majority of whom are women - have been documenting their own perspectives on football culture in Qatar, community, and life in the year of the World Cup.
All of us have a view on the issues facing Qatar. But without the voices of the people living in the country, the conversation is incomplete. No brand seems to be speaking to them or giving them a platform (yet).
When was the last time you heard from a Ghanaian electrician? Much has been said about the treatment of migrant workers - and clearly there have been (and still remain) issues - but if you ask Richmond Etse, an Electrical Technician working at EMCO, he has felt welcome in Qatar and is able to pursue his dream to buy a home for his family in Ghana, while rediscovering his passion for football.
Likewise, Sirajul Islam - a Bangladeshi who moved to Doha in 2015 as a construction labourer - found new opportunities to gain a coaching qualification and is now training a team in the Bengali Community League.
A pre-match opening prayer of NAAAS Strikers during a workers’ tournament in Asian City. The players come from Ghana and Kenya. Credit: Inamul Hasan Najeem
The rights of women and girls rights are another key topic, but if you read Reem Al-Haddad’s story she explains that “Qatar has many laws in favour of women, women do make their own decisions, and many women are taking leadership roles and have high quality education.”
Our storytellers like Iranian coach Mahboobeh Razavi tell us that women’s football is thriving in the country and “there is a bright future ahead”. Perhaps we are not too far away from a Qatari bid for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Unusual spectators: Camels in Mesaieed Desert keenly observe a cameleer practicing his football skills. Credit: Mehreen Fazal
The fact is, despite never having as many channels for communication, we still live in a world where many voices are overlooked, marginalised or silenced. For that reason, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar has shown why the need for authentic first-person storytelling is greater than ever.
Our series explores the perspectives of migrant workers, Qatari and non-Qatari women, and volunteers at the Afghan Compound (after Qatar airlifted 80,000 Afghan evacuees from the country following the Taliban takeover in 2021).
The first World Cup in an Arabic country reflects the current direction of football and sport. The complex issues it raises challenges everyone involved in the game. It is only going to continue and it does not stop when the tournament ends in Qatar.
Contrary to FIFA attempts to ‘focus on football’, we at Goal Click believe now is exactly the right time to speak about these issues, the progress that has been made, but most importantly the change that still needs to happen (and be maintained).
The Palestinian team eagerly watching their counterparts at the 2022 Street Child World Cup. Credit: Marwa Abdalla
The World Cup in Qatar has accelerated social change and Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have acknowledged progress. Regardless of whether it has been ‘forced’ or not, change is happening and that is what our storytellers have told us.
For example, British-Pakistani Mehreen Fazal, who had negative experiences with racism in football when growing up in the UK during the late 1980s, first visited Qatar in 2007 and moved permanently in 2020.
Mehreen, who volunteered at the Afghan Compound, says the tournament has, “enabled the development of an enduring human rights legacy, which should influence positive social reform in the entire region.”
A silhouette of my cousin Turki showing off his skills at sunset at Al Gharrafa Park. Credit: Haya Al Thani
This really is worth bearing in mind when considering the legacy of this World Cup globally. If post-Qatar, a similar level of scrutiny continues in the world of sport on all events, sponsors, and governing bodies - with human rights as the fundamental prism by which we pass judgement - it may be looked back on as a watershed moment.
No brand or person can change the world on their own. But we can all help create a necessary debate about human rights in all countries and in this case, the experiences of people in Qatar. But the best way to understand people is to hear directly from them.
And locally, the truth is, the impact and legacy of the World Cup has been far greater than many realise. You just need to speak to the right people to understand how.
Matthew Barrett is the Founder of Goal Click.
The GOALS Exhibition takes place from 16 November to 10 December in Education City at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar.