Does Qatar's Soccer Policy Put Players at Risk of Exploitation?

Qatar's policy of naturalising players for its national team attracts footballers from across the globe to try their luck in the country. But, given the potential pitfalls of the kafala system, this can leave them vulnerable to exploitation.
January 9, 2017, 2:55pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There has always been a degree of snobbery in England about the idea of foreign-born players being called up to the national football team. Except for some ill-founded rumours about Mikel Arteta playing for the Three Lions under Fabio Capello (really Fab, another unwieldy central midfielder in that 4-4-2?), there has been little appetite for naturalisation. As such, almost all the players responsible for the national team's dismal performance at every major tournament in the last 20 years have been blue-blooded Englishmen. I'm looking at you, Le Saux.


However, for some countries, such as 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, naturalising players presents a quick way of drafting talent into the national side and bolstering what would otherwise be a measly homegrown roster.

"Before, the QFA [Qatar Football Association] was recruiting stars players such as [Frank] LeBoeuf and [Gabriel] Batistuta," says Dr Mahfoud Amara, who researches sport migration at Qatar University. "This trend has continued with Xavi, but it seems the age of the migrant professional players signing contracts to play in the league is decreasing."

One key reason for this is that younger players are less likely to have established themselves and played for a national team, meaning they are eligible to swap allegiances and turn out for Qatar. Amara explains that this is the case for French born Karim Boudiaf, who moved to Qatar when he was 22 and has since been capped 25 times, and Boualem Khoukhi, an Algerian born player who moved to the country at 19 and has been capped 29 times.

The drive for younger players may also be a reaction against the strategy of cherry-picking big name players that Qatar pursued for its national handball team. Handball, unlike football, has lax rules governing players switching national allegiances. Qatar took advantage of this by stacking its team with foreign stars, a story previously covered by VICE Sports. They reached the 2015 Handball World Championships final in Doha, but failed to win a medal at Rio 2016, limping out against Germany in the quarter-final.

Ghana-born Mohammed Muntari has played 15 times for Qatar over the past two years // PA Images

"Recently, particularly after Rio 2016, this policy is being questioned," says Amara. "There is a move, at least in football, to depend more and more on local talents and put more money in grassroots."

With the Qatar national side struggling to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, winning just one of their five games so far, there has been talk of the QFA slowing down or stopping its naturalisation policy in favour of developing youth prospects at the country's Aspire Academy. National team manager Jorge Fossati has warned against this, threatening to walk away from the job if it is enforced. "If the federation wants to go another way, I'll respect its decision 100 per cent. And it'll be better for the Qatar national team to have another coach who supports that view," he told Doha Stadium Plus magazine.

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Since taking the Qatar job in September 2016, the Uruguayan has relied on foreign talents such as Brazilian-born Rodrigo Tabata and Uruguayan-born Sebastian Soria. It's likely Soria and Tabata will only feature until the 2018 World Cup, by which time the former will be 35 years old and the latter 37. Despite this, the future of the national team, even in the medium-term, looks like consisting of a number of foreign-born players. In their most recent qualifier, a goalless draw with China, Qatar fielded eight foreign-born players in the starting 11.

Qatar's labour market is made up of around 90 per cent migrant workers, so it could be argued that the national team simply reflects Qatari society's reliance on foreign labour. However, when disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter thinks Qatar's naturalisation policy might be ruining the integrity of the game, it's probably safe to conclude that it's a problem.

* * *

There have been many news stories covering the abuse and ill-treatment of migrant workers drafted in to build infrastructure for Qatar's World Cup. Workers are regularly exploited, passports are stolen, wages go unpaid, but the pitfalls of Qatar's regressive labour laws affect migrant footballers, too. Despite changes to the laws last month, charities have argued many workers are still vulnerable to exploitation by the kafala – literally 'sponsorship' – system.

"Because it puts so much responsibility in the hands of the employer, gives so much power to them, the conditions that migrant workers live in vary massively, just depending on their employer," says James Lynch, deputy director for global issues at Amnesty and formerly a British diplomat in Doha. "What we can say is that human rights abuses against migrant workers are pretty routine, they're pretty widespread, and they can be very serious."

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The controversial system ties workers to a specific employer, preventing them from changing jobs or even leaving the country without permission. Ari, a 26-year-old Togolese footballer, fell victim to the kafala system in 2014. A professional in the Togolese third-tier, he decided to leave his home country in search of a better life and borrowed money from his parents for a visa. A friend in Qatar promised him a job as a footballer, earning enough to pay his parents back within a few months. But, when he arrived, things didn't turn out as he'd expected.

"They took my passport; they stole it," Ari told VICE Sports. "They said [to] me that it was the law in this country… I immediately thought that we were going to become slaves. They then took us to a house where we would live and in the morning they gave us the security uniforms."

Qatar's domestic league has attracted superstars like Xavi, but less is heard about players at the other end of the scale // EPA

Ari was told he'd be employed as a security guard at Qatari firm QTRS, working from six until six without a weekend. He was stationed at the French Embassy for eight months, but diplomats informed him they couldn't help his situation. Charities such as Human Rights Watch also struggled to assist him because there is no Togolese embassy in Qatar. Perhaps more excruciatingly, Ari then worked at the airport, earning 1,110 Qatari rials (£247) per month while watching people leave a country he dreamt of escaping.

"After 14 months at the airport, I said that I would like to come back to Togo; they told me that I needed to pay 2,000 rials if I wanted to get back my passport," says Ari. "I refused, but they finally agreed to return my passport and I returned to Togo on 5 December 2014."


It turned out that the visa Ari had paid for specified his job as a security guard, but because he can't read English he didn't realise this, and the sponsorship system meant he was at the mercy of his employer once he arrived in Qatar. He is now back in Togo playing professionally, but his story is not unique.

Abdes Ouaddou, a Moroccan defender, rose to prominence by winning a case against Qatar SC, after a pay dispute meant he had his visa withheld. He now uses his profile to speak out against the kafala system. Similarly, French-Algerian striker Zahir Belounis was denied an exit visa after a pay dispute with the club he was playing for, El Jaish. He claims the 19 months he spent trapped in Qatar "destroyed" him.

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"It was very, very hard," said Zahir. "Now, thank God, I came back to a normal life with my family, but it was completely awful. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, says the spotlight on the country ahead of the 2022 World Cup means Qatar is "to an extent" trying to address criticism of its labour laws, "by engaging in processes of reform, which do not necessarily meet the expectations of international bodies such as Amnesty."

So why are players attracted to Qatar? The obvious answer is money, but Babar says that players might also be motivated by the benefits of citizenship. Although few players gain full Qatari citizenship by playing in the country, she suggests many use it as a stepping stone to getting a passport elsewhere – in countries such as Canada and Australia, as well as Caribbean Islands like St Kitts and Nevis, where you can purchase citizenship.

"They're coming here, they're earning solidly, they've got security for some years," she says. "If they're here as athletes they're probably doing quite well financially, travelling; they've built up credibility, which allows them to access that citizenship more easily than if they'd stayed where they were."

But Qatar's regressive labour laws mean that young players attracted by money, or perhaps a shot at a more valuable passport, are vulnerable to exploitation in a way that the stars who moved to Qatar in the past were not.

"It could be nice, it could go well," Zahir says. "But wait until the kafala system is abolished. The money is good, but the passion, the love and the sport is more [important] than anything."