At a tiny, jam-packed tea stall in Bangladesh’s southeastern district of Noakhali, local people were glued to the TV screen, watching the World Cup football match of their favorite teams. They cheered at their team’s prospects, screamed at their faults, and sometimes pricked their opponents.
Among them was Nurul Hasan. A man in his middle age, Hasan seemed less knowledgeable about the technical football side of things but was surprisingly curious and meticulously erudite about the stadium where the match was taking place, Stadium 974. He was taking delight in talking about the stadium and its surrounding area to his fellow villagers. When I asked, he said he had been in Qatar for the last four years, working as a migrant worker to construct the stadium.
Those extravagant stadiums in Qatar are now buzzing with football fans and athletes representing their countries at the largest sporting spectacle in the world, with rippling football fever all across the world. The bustling wind of the World Cup is also gusting through every corner of the small South Asian country of Bangladesh – from the megacities to the most rural regions; from the capital city of Dhaka to the port city of Chittagong; from the five-star hotels to the village tea stalls.
During every quadrennial World Cup occasion, the football hype here boils over to a level that stands starkly disproportionate to the country’s traditional sports history or its stature on the international football stage. Indeed, the level of enthusiasm for the World Cup might spark disbelief from someone familiar with the dismal audience presence at any of the country’s national football events. Ranked 192nd among the 209 FIFA members, Bangladesh has never made it past the final round of World Cup qualifying, much less participated in one.
Despite that, the whole country is now in a full festive mood, what the Washington Post described as a “curious frenzy.” Even FIFA itself highlighted Bangladeshi fans’ passion in a tweet to showcase “the power of football.”
Though not present on the field, Bangladesh is intrinsically involved in the Qatar World Cup in many ways, notably its people’s backend contribution to the behemoth construction projects taken on since Qatar was awarded the right to host the mega tournament.
Currently, over 7.5 million Bangladeshi people are employed in Middle Eastern countries, including some 400,000 in Qatar according to an unofficial estimate. That figure has surged over the last several years due to the rise of construction activities in Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis worked day and night on the astronomical infrastructure projects – from stadiums to hotels to entertainment facilities – undertaken to make the World Cup a success.
Over the course of the 10 years between Qatar winning the World Cup and the opening kickoff, several hundred Bangladeshis died in Qatar, though not all those deaths were directly linked to projects related to the tournament.
In addition, more than 400 Bangladeshis are now actively serving in Qatar as FIFA official volunteers, and others are working in key support roles, such as the 8,000 Bangladeshi taxi drivers.
Back to the story of Nurul Hasan. A proud father of two, he is now living with his family of six in a semi-concrete house with all the essential amenities – enough to sustain a semi-comfortable life. Just four years back, he was in real hardship, living a marginal life in a constant fight against unbearable poverty. But over the four years of his expatriate life, his earnings sent back to his family from Qatar substantially changed his life.
Bangladesh benefits significantly from outmigration and the remittances that migrant workers send home, which amounted to over $24.7 billion in the fiscal year 2020–21. This has a considerable positive effect on easing Bangladesh’s labor market pressures and restoring the country’s balance of payments. Just as outmigration and the subsequent inflow of remittances uplifted the life of Hasan and his family, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of foreign remittances, mostly from Middle Eastern country like Qatar, are contributing to the socioeconomic development of Bangladesh. That has enabled the country to be elevated from a low-income country to an emerging middle-income one.
But the story is not all rosy. When asked how his life abroad was, Hasan replied, “Expatriate life is miserable.” He detailed the ordeal he had gone through along the way: exorbitant recruitment fees, wage theft, poor living conditions, and so on. His long tale implied that the Qatari authorities are not solely responsible for all the shortcomings that persist in the very structure of the lengthy migration process, beginning from Bangladesh itself to his temporary home in a foreign land. One silver lining is that the Qatari government has embraced the World Cup as an opportunity to redress the long-standing systemic issues at home, from overhauling the Kafala system to restructuring the minimum wage for migrant workers.
While leaving the tea stall, I asked Hasan about his take on the fact that for the first time a Middle Eastern country is hosting the FIFA World Cup and about his and fellow Bangladeshis’ contribution to such a grand event. Hasan, his eyes brimming with pleasure and joy, said, “Qatar is a Muslim country, and Qataris are our brother. It’s a great joy for us.”
Hasan’s heartfelt utterance resonates with what millions of Bangladeshis feel about the Qatar World Cup as part of greater sporting history. We can hope that Qatar will remember Bangladesh’s contribution and do more in the future for Bangladeshis.