The following article first appeared in Issue 39, released in December 2020.
The story of the Nepalese labourers building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.
Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal. November 2018.
Football is the icebreaker. It always is. Within seconds of sitting down in departures my neighbour and I have exchanged the basics; who we love, who we hate.
My new friend is Sagar and he is having an eventful weekend. He retired as an amateur goalkeeper yesterday, passing on treasured gloves to his younger brother. He’s never heard of Ted Sagar, the Everton goalkeeping legend. In any case, Nepal’s Sagar is an avowed Red. He opens his jacket to show me a new Liverpool shirt. He has a dream of standing on the Kop.
For the time being, the Anfield visit must wait. There is a World Cup on his horizon. Tonight Sagar will fly to Qatar. Tomorrow, before the sun has risen, he will begin work on a building site. Single and 23 years old, Sagar doesn’t know when or even if he will return to his homeland.
Noisily tumbling off the airport’s only functioning escalator, eight young Nepali men play a children’s game of chase. Sagar calls them over. All are from the Solukhumbu region, from remote Himalayan villages accessible only on foot, places where electricity is intermittent and there are no roads let alone escalators.
Sagar points out the two Arsenal fans in the group and the others jeer. The banter masks a palpable sense of apprehension. This morning they left behind farms and villages for the first time in their lives. Best clothes and best wishes.
The lads quieten as excitement gives way to resignation. Leaving soon. Each clutches a clear plastic folder containing travel tickets and brand-new green Nepali passport. And a work contract. These lads are not going on a holiday.
Of course, there is nothing new in this. Sport has always preyed on the weakest. When a labour crisis hit first century Rome, the Colosseum was only completed by bringing in captives from conquered lands. Two millennia later, unconquered Nepal is a country dependent on money brought in by visitors and of that sent back by workers abroad. For the past decade its men have left in droves to build modern-day Colosseums in the desert for Fifa.
This has seemingly become the lot of the Nepali people. To leave. Today is like every other. Almost 1500 people will fly out from Tribhuvan to begin new jobs. Overwhelmingly young and male, they travel overseas to earn money for their families. Hope is in their hearts. Contracts are in hand.
Half a million of the nation’s most skilled and best educated people depart annually, those whom any country needs if it is to build, to grow. Young, talented, hopeful. But poor and desperate.
Half will not return to this beautiful, welcoming place. For a lucky few, a better life indeed awaits. For some of the returners though, it will be to be cremated. Work kills. This also happens every day.
Chatter subsides. I reach into my bag, take out a packet of biscuits, pass it around the group and we talk.
For the better-qualified trio sat beside me, plum roles as security guards in Malaysia await. Dinesh, on a later flight, has a post lined up at a Riyadh branch of McDonalds. There, a twelve-hour shift will net him up to £6 a day. A science graduate, he plans to send home five of those six pounds to support his family. He seems genuinely excited.
Sagar and the escalator boys have lower prospects. Labourers off to Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Building sites in 50-degree heat await and salaries will be measured in cents per hour – when they are paid, if they are paid.
These men know too well the privations of life on the land in the mountains so, whatever the conditions, dangers, homesickness, a Middle Eastern building site is reluctantly welcomed. Sagar’s job has already come at a cost. To secure his post a ‘manpower’ company in Kathmandu has been paid half a million rupees. I sit back, mentally calculate and let that sink in. His family have somehow scraped and borrowed £500 so that he can travel to the Middle East.
That is serious money; I once gave a fellow teacher in Nepal £5 so that he could visit home. The man wept.
Despite Nepali government attempts to regulate manpower agencies and outlaw such inducements, there are around a thousand intermediaries in Kathmandu offering overseas work. It’s a game the state cannot win as poorly equipped and low-paid officials struggle to keep up with ruthless agents amid endemic corruption.
Each of the men relates a similar story, the huge price to be paid long before they first shoulder a hod of Fifa’s bricks, weighed down by debt and obligation to loans that will take years to repay. Passports will be taken away on arrival in Doha. Unions outlawed. Rights and conditions promised back home become little more than a desert mirage.
Such is the life of modern-day colosseum builders. Free men treated like slaves. For a World Cup. For Nepali women who escape to overseas jobs as domestic workers the conditions are genuinely akin to slavery. Horror stories emerge daily.
Unsurprisingly, none of the lads wishes to dwell too long on my probing. Nothing to be gained pondering what the next few months and years may hold. Rather, our talk turns to last night’s English Premier League; our bread and circus; Pep and Klopp. De Bruyne, Mane and Salah. They are well-informed. Football plays a big part in their lives.
With an identical off-white scarf tied around each neck, the group could be mistaken for football fans off on a Euro adventure. The silk cloth has even more poignant meaning. It is a simple memento presented by loved ones, tied this morning by tearful grandmothers, parents, wives and children. A tradition: good fortune, wealth, long life and a promise to return.
Reminded of what is in my bag, I pull out my own tatty white, yellow and blue scarf, companion on every trip. Half a century of Leeds United memories dyed into simple cloth; some ups, many downs. It is passed around the group with reverence.
Malindo Air call my flight to Kuala Lumpur. My Nepal visa is expiring but I will return soon, one of many privileges conferred on one born in Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century. I sincerely count my blessings. Regularly.
We stand, shake hands and then, palms together, bow and exchange a final namaste.
They wish me good fortune. Lost for words, I walk on.
At the gate, I turn to look back; the pals are waving their white scarves at me.
I wave my Leeds scarf in return and walk on.
February 2020. Nearing the end of a cold, dry Himalayan winter. In Fifa’s Qatar, Nepali workers have been on strike. Most still underpaid, many never paid, still some dying. Thoughts turn to Sagar and the escalator boys. I’m back in Nepal to work at a school in the Annapurna foothills. Coronavirus threatens but thus far the mountains between here and China seem an effective barrier.
Chandrawati Bazaar lies eight hours west of Kathmandu and is tucked away in the Tanahun region. Tourists never visit this place. Many people here are dirt poor. It is a misused English phrase lost in time in my country. Here though, folk are, in the most literal sense, dirt-poor; kitchen stoves are made from earth, as is the floor, a simple rug is a sign of affluence.
There is no machinery to work the fields. Rice terraces are ploughed by water buffalo. More often nowadays, those urging their yoked beasts through knee-deep mud are women. Menfolk have flown.
A single-track road was paved two years ago. Two buses a day connect us to the highway. Electricity only arrived in the last decade and with it has come a window on the world beyond, creating a desire for something.
Our breezeblock classroom has a tin roof, the floor is solid-packed rubble, windows unglazed and open to the elements. It’s impossible to keep the dust out. 20-odd enthusiastic kids are crammed behind tiny homemade desks. Some have walked two hours through hilly terrain to study and this evening will climb back home.
Within a month, summer’s heat will hit the valley by mid-morning and it will be unbearably hot in here. The locals call the warm months ‘snake season’ – deaths from lethal bite soar. It is little wonder that Qatar holds fewer fears and far greater pull than might be imagined. Kids who have never heard of Disney know of Qatar.
Bipana is fourteen, a quiet but very bright and engaging girl in class nine. It has taken some time to get her to talk in an environment where girls are treated as second-class citizens and my attempts to build up their status and self-confidence are not always welcomed. Once she opens up, talk is of a man she hasn’t seen in over four years. Bipana’s father works in Qatar, no idea when he will return.
She pronounces the place ‘Cutter’ as do all Nepalis, with a guttural ‘r’ sound. It could be Glaswegian. Dad is yet another exiled construction worker, a labourer on one of eight space age stadiums being built to host the next World Cup. The money he sends back a few dollars at a time has given his daughter the opportunity denied every previous generation of women in the family.
She can go to school.
The lass loves school. A tough kid in a tough place, Bipana’s eyes well up as she talks of ‘Dadu’, the man who has missed so much of her childhood.
Every child in the school has a strikingly similar tale. Fathers, brothers, uncles have joined the millions working abroad in Qatar, Malaysia, Bahrain; building and supporting infrastructure non-existent in their homeland. Estimates suggest that well over thirty percent of the Nepali GDP is earned in this way.
Every six-year old is familiar with the word that provides their opportunity. “Remittance.”
Each village has a ‘Remit’ bank where a Middle East salary can be withdrawn in Rupees. For a fee, of course. There is a profit to be extracted from the poor at every stage. Not only Fifa will grow rich on the labour of Nepali builders.
I’ve been teaching here on and off for four years. On Friday afternoons the school has a sport and recreation session. Even here, where plots of land flat enough to grow food are precious, there is a narrow space hemmed by river and hillside given over to rudimentary football pitch. Rocks protrude from the bare earth. Goalposts are bamboo poles lashed together.
Boys here are no different to those the world over, they dream of becoming footballers. This their Anfield, their Bernabéu.
I recently organised a football ‘tournament’. Three teams of the boys in the top four years, round-robin format. Girls had to sit and watch – trying to break down boundaries and taboos takes time.
Excitement had been building all week and reached fever pitch hours before we began. The boys wore a wide selection of replica shirts from the usual suspects of English and Spanish giants, cheap copies of kits a staple of every market. Having optimistically scheduled matches with quick turnaround between games, my plan’s flaw soon emerged.
Just over half of the thirty boys had football boots or trainers. Most others wore flip flops, a few lined up barefoot. Footwear sharing meant a simple substitution could take several minutes.
The pitch sloped towards the river so a misplaced pass to the wing saw the ball bobbing away towards the smouldering shrouded bodies being cremated at the ancient ghats. Five lads in a human chain retrieve. Five more minutes added on. These are logistical tasks unlikely to trouble Pep or José.
When Saturday comes, the football pitch, goals and all, becomes a vast laundry drying space. It is the one day of rest when the entire village comes together and uses the river as both makeshift laundry and bath house.
Saturday literally smells different.
In the evening we watch football.
Second in priority only to schooling, most families buy a television. It is given a status over basics like a comfortable bed or carpets, before even running water. It’s easy to spot homes in the village supported by workers abroad; there’s a dish perched atop straw roof.
There are a lot of satellite dishes in this valley. Space age technology in medieval villages.
From flatscreens nailed to walls of bamboo and mud, folk watch Indian soaps, local pop videos, American wrestling. And football. Lots and lots of football.
As in most of South Asia, Saturday nights are football nights. English football. Premier League. Beamed into remote mountain villages via an Indian channel with English presenters, pundits and commentators.
We sit in simple earthen living rooms where the scent of freshly washed hair and clean clothes mixes with earthy daily odours of woodsmoke and livestock.
Nepali people love football. Obsess over it. Sitting with locals on a football night, it’s not difficult to see why they would fall for the allure of the world’s richest league. It is a spectacle of impossible affluence, a glimpse of dream lifestyles in a far-off nirvana. Saturday’s TV package often includes a short clip of cities competing in the upcoming games. My home certainly scrubs up well in this glossy tourist board vision of England. From the Angel of the North to Norwich Cathedral the showcase never fails to draw gasps of wonder.
The Premier League is inescapable. To our north, porters in the breathless, mountainous Everest and Annapurna regions haul impossibly heavy loads while clad in Chelsea shirt, Arsenal shorts. Even buses are hand-painted to show off club loyalties.
Back in November 2017 a battered blue bus, bald tyres, tired and distracted driver, was chugging through the dusty hills away to the west, a rough paint job covering the rust and welding proclaims support for Chelsea FC and Adidas.
Unbalanced on every hairpin, dizzying drops to the riverbed a kilometre below; nothing scares Nepalis.
Schools had closed for a week and it felt as though an entire nation was on the move to cast a vote. This was the weekend of Nepal’s first fully democratic general elections. Truly historic days.
At midday, the news brought a few minutes of relief from the shrill Nepali pop blasted through tinny speakers. Even with my flimsy grasp of the language, I could make out that the first 90 seconds of the news bulletin was devoted to the election.
The next news item was twice as long and peppered with familiar names amid the Nepali – Vardy… Agüero… Kane – as the newsreader gave reports from the previous day’s English Premier League. There followed a preview of games to be played later. No more than 30 seconds wrapped up the rest of the nation’s news – 60% of the bulletin devoted to English football.
News sparks animated debate. Not about politics. Three lads squeezed into the doorwell of the bus were bickering and teasing. The subject of their argument: the decline of Manchester United.
To the global game, they show similar devotion. England’s national team is loved; fortunes are followed with no little knowledge as are those of Portugal and Argentina, thanks to you know who.
It may surprise you to learn that Nepal’s national team are reigning champions of South Asia. And Nepal reached the second phase of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup where they were drawn alongside Australia. In Melbourne, an average monthly salary is £2400; in Kathmandu even middle-class professionals earn little more than £75 a month. That’s half the salary on offer in Riyadh McDonalds.
Football can provide no escape to riches here. Nepal’s long-established star player is the goalkeeper and captain, Kiran Chemjong. Veteran of Indian and Maldives leagues, Chemjong is paid a salary of around £70 a month by the Nepali FA and can earn a further £350 in match bonuses. In 2014 he made national news by buying a car. It was second-hand.
Nepal is a nation dying to make its mark on world football. That, of course, has become all too literal. The lure of Qatari World Cup money has meant that for a decade one in four of the Gulf state’s population has been Nepali.
In desert heat Sagar and his pals toil. Some are worked to death. Latest estimates suggest that as many as 4000 Nepali construction workers will have perished in Qatar. 500 Nepali lives per stadium.
When Fifa’s jamboree is over, their deserted follies will stand as memorials for the men from the hills. Even without a national team to represent them in Qatar, Nepal’s legions of football fans will still be watching in Himalayan bazaars and bamboo huts in replica shirts. They will look on in awe, envy and with no little civic pride as the global stars shine in their ‘Cutter’, in their 21st century Colosseums built on their Nepali dreams, their Nepali labour and their Nepali lives.
This article first appeared in Issue 39, released in December 2020.
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