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Netflix, FIFA, and the Elephant in the Room: New World Cup Documentary Is a Failure for Social Reform

Netflix’s new World Cup documentary reveals a corrupt partnership, resulting in a failure to tell the full story of the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the tournament.
Seychelle Marks-Bienen
Featuring exclusive coverage, the six-episode series “Captains of the World” premiered on Dec. 30, 2023, aiming to capture the scenes behind what FIFA President Gianni Infantino called “the best World Cup ever.”

This December marked the one-year anniversary of the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup, and to commemorate the occasion, Netflix released a documentary called “Captains of the World,” spotlighting the perspectives of team captains, coaches, reporters, family members, spectators, and more as they came together to reflect on one of the most drama-packed, controversial World Cups in history. 

At first glance, the documentary was flawless — beautifully shot, powerful, tons of rare footage of the most exclusive players; it was everything you could want in a good sports documentary. But despite the glowing reviews, many of which I initially agreed with, it wasn’t until I watched this documentary for the second time that I realized there was something fundamentally wrong with its production. 

As an avid soccer fan, the release of this documentary was a long-awaited event for me, and it initially met every one of my expectations. I was not only moved by the way the directors managed to make the thrill and anticipation of the tournament come alive again, but the ways in which they delved into the individual journeys that led each team to the World Cup, encapsulating everything from their country’s culture to their history of soccer to their style of play in order to tell their stories.

More than anything else, it felt raw, as if some of the world’s most famous and respected stars, such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Thiago Silva, Son Heung-min, Luka Modric, and countless others, were confiding in a close friend, allowing us to step into their world as they discussed their personal lives and shared moments of incredible vulnerability throughout the tournament. Regardless of how their team performed, nothing about their interviews felt bitter, pretentious, or self-promoting; they simply wanted viewers to gain a deeper understanding of their cultures and appreciate the adversities they all had to overcome in order to reach the soccer world’s biggest stage. 

The facade of the documentary was that it told the stories that people had neglected to tell before, bringing previously-suppressed voices to the forefront. For example, it highlighted teams such as Morocco, Japan, South Korea, Senegal, and other “underdogs” whose stories are frequently drowned out by soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and France, making a concerted effort to emphasize that it was time for the status quo to change. 

There was also a significant amount of screentime dedicated to addressing some of political controversies that occurred during the tournament — such as the Iranian team refraining from singing the national anthem to stand in solidarity with civilians protesting the totalitarian regime —  as well as the massive underlying issue of poverty that people were facing in Morocco and Argentina and other areas of the world, preventing many fans from traveling to see their countries play. 

It’s indisputable that the directors were trying to convey an overarching message to viewers: the World Cup is more than just a trophy, and there are many issues going on behind the scenes that we are doing our part to address by including them in this documentary. And while the issues they touched on are undoubtedly important, it wasn’t until I noticed the massive “FIFA+” symbol flashing across the screen at the start of every episode that it came to my attention that this documentary contained gaping holes — ones that made Netflix appear all too hypocritical.

While claiming to focus on political injustices that affected the tournament, they had failed to address the biggest elephant in the room of them all.

After a simple Google search, I realized that this documentary wasn’t solely produced by Netflix — it was a collaboration between Netflix, FIFA+, and Fulwell 73. And by collaborating with FIFA, they had ensnared themselves into staying completely silent about the corruption that was secretly occurring behind the scenes of the highly-revered tournament. 

From the moment Qatar was selected to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010, FIFA began sponsoring a cascade of horrific human rights abuses. In preparation for the tournament, Qatar had to build and reconstruct a total of eight stadiums, and over 90% of the workforce consisted of primarily South Asian migrant workers. But despite FIFA claiming that their corporation “embraces its responsibility to respect human rights across its operations and relationships” in bold letters across the Human Rights tab of their website, the conditions the migrants were subjected to were nothing short of appalling. 

In a report by Amnesty International, a migrant who was operating as a metalworker for Khalifa Stadium compared the working conditions to living in a prison, stating that the workers were subjected to excruciatingly long hours in triple-digit temperatures. When they complained, they received threats from project managers telling them that if they wanted to remain in Qatar they had to “be quiet and keep working.”

Even more shockingly, the conditions were so debilitating that many workers died in the process of building the stadiums, though the exact figure is unclear. Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup Organizing Committee, was on record saying that the estimated amount of deaths was between 400-500, and despite the fact that this number was already significantly higher than what other Qatari officials had previously claimed, Human Rights Watch estimates that the actual amount of deaths resulting from infrastructure work for the World Cup is in the thousands. 

But the issue is even more deeply rooted than workers being subjected to dangerous environments. 

The system that the Qatari government implemented — and that FIFA subsidized — in order to complete their projects was specifically designed to entrap workers. To even come to Qatar to work, all workers had to receive a “sponsor,” or employer, and in order to change jobs or leave the country, they had to receive their sponsor’s permission. If any sponsor happened to withdraw their sponsorship, the migrants could be easily deported with no further questioning. In addition, as depicted in the same Amnesty International report, employers were known to confiscate workers’ passports, deny them visas to return home, withhold their paychecks, force them into unsanitary labor camps after denying them residence permits, and deprive them of other identity documents, leaving them vulnerable to arrest. All of these tactics were used as threats when workers complained about their conditions. 

After leaving their homes behind and taking out recruitment loans (which, despite being illegal in Qatar, were widely used throughout the tournament preparation), workers arrived in Qatar to find that not only were many of their salaries significantly less than promised, despite going into debt to get there, but that escaping the situation would be near impossible. Thus, their only choice was to silently accept the terms, and fall to the exploitation of the Qatari government. 

FIFA’s response to the situation was non-existent.

Though FIFA President Gianni Infantino stated in an interview with CNN that “every loss of life” in regards to the tournament was a “tragedy,” and that FIFA did “whatever [they] could” to protect the health of workers, it was obviously an empty statement, as even months after the World Cup, thousands of workers were stuck in Qatar with no compensation from the Qatari government or FIFA, despite being promised that they would receive the benefits they were owed. 

Meanwhile, Infantino was praising the state-of-the-art stadiums and telling the press that this World Cup was “the best ever,” that there were “no incidents whatsoever” off the pitch, and that it was a “catalyst for positive change in the country,” even going on to state that “hundreds of thousands of workers today have much better conditions than before this [FIFA] World Cup happened, thanks to the changes that happened.” 

Unfortunately, the failure on FIFA’s part to address human rights abuses didn’t even end with the conditions migrant workers faced. 

During the tournament, captains of seven European nations were set to wear rainbow armbands blazoned with the statement “OneLove,” meant to protest Qatar’s criminalization of homosexuality. However, upon catching wind of their plan, FIFA issued a statement — or rather, threat — saying that any player who displayed the armbands would receive a yellow card.

The decision from FIFA was a crafty one, with a very clear underlying message: at the end of the day, we make the rules, and there’s nothing you can do about it. While the teams had been expecting to face penalization in the form of fines, which they were prepared to pay, the nature of the threat of a yellow card meant that if any player were to receive another yellow card during a game, they would be ejected from the field of play, a consequence that teams simply couldn’t afford. Unsurprisingly, after FIFA’s statement, no OneLove armbands appeared throughout the rest of the tournament.

Time and time again, FIFA has demonstrated exploitation, bullying, overly materialistic values, and a general disregard for human life and equality throughout their operations within the soccer world, where they wield more power than just about anyone else. Yet Netflix chose to partner with them on a documentary that supposedly encourages conversations about the importance of acknowledging the overlap between social justice and the sports world, telling viewers that those conversations don’t have to be separate — that both spectators and players can be a tool for change. 

However, in light of their partnership, this was an incredibly hypocritical and somewhat artificial message to send, and while I once praised every aspect of this documentary, I couldn’t help but feel like Netflix had betrayed their viewers after I realized that they had left out crucial details of the 2022 World Cup. 

As a corporation, the shows and movies that Netflix chooses to produce and distribute to the public have immense power and influence on people, especially younger generations, who seem to spend more time consuming media than anyone else. Yes, Netflix isn’t a news outlet, and at the end of the day their job is to keep people entertained, not necessarily informed, but they’re profiting off of a false narrative. 

To make a documentary covering essentially every aspect of the World Cup — controversy and all — but to intentionally leave out the stories of the thousands of people who suffered and even lost their lives to make it all happen, all the while being silenced by the very people in charge of the tournament, is a job not complete. 

The moment Netflix partnered with FIFA, they forfeited all hopes of the actual social reform that could have occurred as a result of this documentary. Though discouraging, the reality of the world we live in is that a lot of the time, money takes precedence over all else, especially when the consequences of striving for justice and telling the full story mean losing an opportunity to profit.

The workers that lost their lives and suffered at the hands of FIFA and the Qatari government’s irresponsibility and greed in order to make the World Cup happen deserved better, and I hope that in the future, when presented with the opportunity to tell the full story, Netflix and other media sources will keep integrity and transparency, rather than profiteering and expediency, at the forefront of their decision making.

In the meantime, as consumers, our job is to always be searching for the full story when consuming media, not just the sides that corporations are presenting to us.

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