Thanks to GOALS, stories about football and society in Qatar are being told in the pictures and words of its people

Criticism, debates, demonstration acts and press conferences. The World Cup in Qatar is among the most talked-about sporting events in history and has become a catalyst for international public opinion, which is committed to dissecting social contradictions, political entanglements, power games and dark sides of the relationship between FIFA and a still too little known country.

Thanks to GOALS – a collaboration between Goal Click, The Sports Creative, Qatar Foundation, and Generation Amazing – we have the opportunity to travel and inside Qatar, listening to the words and looking at photos taken by more than 40 contributors, representing 20 different nationalities, who live and work in the country. The GOALS storytelling program brings together students, artists and communities capable of representing Qatar’s social texture and its connection to football – a project that opens up different horizons on key issues such as women’s progress and gives us a more nuanced and in-depth view of the country overlooking the Persian Gulf.

We asked Matthew Barrett, Founder of the project’s content partner Goal Click to share with us the genesis, meanings, and nuances of this project. Enjoy reading.

Photo by ©Reem Al-Haddad
Photo by ©Reem Al-Haddad

How did this project come about and how did you get in touch with these contributors?

In 2021, the GOALS project was conceived and established as a partnership between Qatar Foundation, The Sports Creative, Goal Click, Generation Amazing, and Salam Stores. GOALS is a leadership and storytelling skills development program. GOALS formally kicked-off in November 2021, bringing together more than 40 individuals, the majority of whom are women, representing 20 nationalities.

From workers and students to artists and community football coaches, they tell their own unique first-person perspectives on Qatari football, community, culture, and life in the year of the 2022 FIFA World Cup through analogue and digital photography, written and spoken word, and video. GOALS storytellers were sourced predominantly through nominations and people connected to our partners.

Photo by ©Joris Laenen
Photo by ©Inamul Hasan Najeem

What did you want to show through these images and testimonies?

Much has been written about the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but we rarely hear from those who live and work in the country. GOALS changes that and gives the people living and working in Qatar a voice and a global platform to share first-person perspectives on football, community, culture and life in the year of the World Cup 2022. Importantly, GOALS provides authentic and diverse representation of the real Qatar. Women and men of 20 different nationalities share their stories, from migrant workers and students to artists and community football coaches.

Goal Click’s founding purpose is to inspire understanding of one another through the universal language of football. With every project we support, we hope that people read the stories and see the storytellers’ images and come away with a broader perspective of a particular group of people, a country, an initiative – whatever the subject may be. GOALS is a brilliant example of this and the feedback we have received so far suggests people have come away from reading these stories with a new perspective on Qatar, its people and the impact of the World Cup.

Photo by ©Haya Al Thani
Photo by ©Inamul Hasan Najeem

What kind of relationship is there between Qatar and football?

You only have to read the stories to see how much passion there is for football in the country and how important it has been in the lives of many storytellers. Having published over 300 stories and been active in more than 100 countries, we know that every country has its own distinctive football customs and Qatar is no different.

As Abdulrahman, who has played futsal for the Qatar National Team since 2011, explains: Qatari football culture is unique. He talks of families gathering every week and playing football for hours on end, sometimes without shoes because they were being used for goals. Mahboobeh Razavi is an Iranian football coach who moved to Qatar to study an MSc in Exercise Science. She describes a football culture in Qatar that is “so full of energy” and when playing in tournaments she sees how much people, and especially girls, love to play football.

And it is not just a passion for playing that comes across from the stories of the GOALS participants, but fandom too. Khalid Al-Ghanim is a superfan of the national team with hopes that the FIFA World Cup in Qatar can be a catalyst for a changing discourse around football culture in the country. He is confident that people visiting the country and watching around the world will see that Qatar is a place that values the game. He notes: “It is not the same culture as in Europe or South America, but it is a culture that is special in its own way.”

Photo by ©Arham Khalid
Photo by ©Raja Aderdor

What were the details that struck you the most?

The biggest thing is how far women’s football has come in the 12 years since Qatar won the Bid to host the tournament, and the plans already in place to grow women’s sport after the World Cup. Many of the women who took part in GOALS talk about this change. 30-year-old Dowana Ismail Khalifa represents the Qatar women’s national team. She talks of a different Qatar today to the one in which she grew up. One where she can play football anywhere and there are dedicated academies, tournaments, and leagues for girls.

For her, it is incredible to see how mindsets are changing. “We have so much support and I am so proud to travel and represent Qatar. My experience makes me want to give back to Qatari girls, as they are the future of football”, she says. The extreme passion for football in Qatar and the wider region – and the thriving football culture – has also been a noteworthy detail. It is not something that people really knew existed here but it is abundantly clear that football, and sport more generally, is absolutely central to the development and progression of the country.

Finally, the diversity of Qatar has been inspiring to witness. We worked with 40 GOALS participants and represented 20 different nationalities. There are many different national identities and cultures present in Qatar. It really does represent the world in one place and everyone brings their own flavour. As Joris Laenan – a Belgian who is the principal trumpet player with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra – points out: “It is a melting pot of ideas, and people live together peacefully and in respect of each other. I very much value their kindness and hospitality.”

Photo by ©Richmond Etse
Photo by ©Haya Al Thani

What did it mean to you that the majority of the contributors were female?

The rights of women and girls have been a key topic in the build-up to this tournament and we are delighted that over half of the storytellers are women, all of whom have challenged the stereotypes that exist. 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.”

Mahboobeh tells 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. Mehreen Fazal, a British-Pakistani woman who had negative experiences with racism in football when growing up in the UK during the late 1980s, moved to Qatar in 2020 and was able to attend her first ever football match during the Arab Cup that delivered an incredible atmosphere and “joyous scenes throughout the country.” The impact of football on the lives of the women taking part in GOALS has been overwhelmingly positive.

Photo by ©Adriane de Souza
Photo by ©Adriane de Souza
Photo by ©Iman Soufan

A huge multiculturalism comes out in the various reports. What does this theme mean in Qatari society and in Qatari football?

Qatar is a hugely diverse country and that explains why we have 20 different nationalities represented amongst GOALS participants. Many storytellers have talked about the diversity of the country and how that is shaping modern society. Haya Al Thani works for Teach For Qatar and talks at length about cultural changes in Qatar, and how it is “diverse in people, architecture, and culture” and over the course of the past generation “people speak different languages; people look different”.

Joris moved to Qatar 14 years ago. He says Qatar has always been a meeting place for different cultures: “There are so many nationalities here in this country, people from all corners of the world with different religions, habits, and diverse cultural backgrounds. I think the country should be proud of that.”

It is clear from the storytellers that football has played an important role in bringing this diverse and multicultural society together. As Ahmed, an Egyptian expat, explains: “Through football, I have met so many friends of so many nationalities. I have friends from Tunisia, Ghana, Jordan, and of course, so many Egyptians! Through football you play with people you would never meet otherwise. You make friends from different places and different cultures. This is the power of football.”

It is a cliche, but undeniably true, that football is a global language and sport has the power to unite people. 19-year-old Fahad was born and raised in Qatar to Indian parents. He was the only person of Indian descent in the compound where he grew up and did not speak Arabic. He says: “I felt like it was almost impossible for me to approach the other children and make friends with them. But, there was one language that we all spoke, one that could break through all the roadblocks and barriers in communication, and that was the language of football! Our shared love for the sport of football was enough to transcend all linguistic boundaries. “Football in Qatar is something that played a significant role throughout my childhood and to this day. To many residents and citizens of Qatar, football is a lifestyle. It is a part of our culture and central to our lives.”

It is clear from these GOALS storytellers that the multiculturalism and diversity of Qatar plays a huge role in the country’s identity in both social and sporting contexts.

Photo by ©Sirajul Islam

Human rights is a hot topic for this event. What insights have you gained from listening to these testimonies?

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. Clearly, more needs to be done, but from what many of the storytellers say, the impact of the World Cup has been incredibly positive. Mehreen, for example, who first visited Qatar in 2007 and moved there in 2020, will tell you the transformation has been phenomenal, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in regard to community cohesion, labour reforms and human rights policies.

For Mehreen, the tournament has enabled the development of an enduring human rights legacy, which should in turn influence positive social reform in the entire region. 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.

Photo by ©Inamul Hasan Najeem

After this exchange of visual and textual information, has your perception of this World Cup changed? If so, in what ways?

I think Haya, who we referenced earlier, sums it up best when she says: “Everyone likes to believe that their world is the default world; who is to say what the right way is?”

This World Cup will be very different to past editions, not least because of the timing, but mainly because of the culture of the country in which it is being hosted. It is clear from what the storytellers say that real change is happening and opportunities are becoming more accessible. Some changes are slow, but progress is being made. The women and girls of Qatar are often driving the change – and this will be one of the biggest legacies of the tournament. The truth is, when you read the GOALS series, the impact and legacy of the World Cup has already been far greater than many realise. In many previous host countries, the legacy conversation tends to be related to facilities or participation. In Qatar, we are talking about real social change that has been formally recognised by the likes of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Labour Organization. That is incredibly powerful to reflect upon when judging the impact of the tournament overall.

Photo by ©Reem Al-Haddad

Will you also create content related to the event in the coming weeks?

Absolutely. The GOALS Exhibition is taking place from 16 November to 10 December in Education City at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. This will showcase 120 images, plus audio, video, poetry and written word, from GOALS storytellers to football fans visiting Qatar during the tournament, as well as media and people working at all levels within the sports industry.

GOALS stories will continue in 2023 through a football for development legacy program for coaches across Qatar. The year-long program will be delivered by The Sports Creative, who will team up with coaches to co-create inclusive football activities supported by storytelling. Through football, participants will explore key themes, including identity, heritage, gender equality, and diversity.

Credits: @Goal Click
Text by Gianmarco Pacione