‘Offside’ comic divulges a personal reflection on Qatar’s dangerous labor conditions

Insider’s “Offside” comic exposes the realities behind preparing for the Qatar World Cup.


Aaliya Luthra

A closer look at “Offside,” the new comic published by Insider. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Afnan Abbassi, Staff Writer

Digital comic “Offside” is not only a story about soccer, but a personal narrative about the sport in the context of the widespread labor and human rights violations reported in the years leading up to the Qatar World Cup.

“Offside” tells the story of Abdul Azeez Sulaiman, an aspiring soccer player who lived through those harsh working conditions. Insider published the digital comic, also called a webtoon, in December 2022.

Sulaiman grew up in Ghana with dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. His father was unsupportive of his aspirations, and Sulaiman would get punished if he was caught kicking a soccer ball around. However, because of his determination to pursue an athletic career, he was promised an opportunity to play in Qatar. 

Unfortunately, when Sulaiman arrived in Qatar in 2016, there was no actual proof that he would experience a professional soccer career in the Middle East. Instead of playing, he was forced to work in construction to help build arenas for the upcoming World Cup. Sulaiman and thousands of other workers had to labor in 100-degree weather, with unsanitary construction equipment and little to no pay.

Illustrated by Deena Mohamed, edited by Anthony Del Col and art directed by Josh Adams, “Offside” tells the simplistic, yet realistic, story of Sulaiman with visual adaptations of his interviews. Through collaboration and support, the workers overcame the obstacles and instituted change within their experience in Qatar. 

The webtoon comic is predominantly colored in blues and tans. This cool-toned color palette adds to the comic’s simplistic viewing style. Simultaneously, it allows Mohamed to incorporate more colors when setting a particular tone. For instance, green is used when depicting a somber scene Sulaiman must endure, and pink is used when he is within the realm of opportunity. Further, the text within the comic is brief and presented in a large font, a contrast to a traditional paperback comic book with crowded comic strips and small text sizes.

The deceptive practices that Sulaiman had to endure after arriving in Qatar are a part of a larger network known as the Kafala system, which allows those in power within the Arab Gulf to sponsor and eventually gain control over migrant workers. Many have had their passports confiscated, and between 2014 and 2020, the BBC reported 35 worker deaths.

Sulaiman is eventually able to follow his alethic dream and play soccer for a lesser-known tournament, The Worker’s Cup, but he realizes that another mission is of greater importance than his own desires: the fight to improve workers’ conditions. He leads worker strikes, negotiates with authorities, and builds a reputation as a leader to the thousands in Qatar who left their homes as refugees in search of work. He soon became a role model for his friends and colleagues. 

While the comic sheds light on the abuse preceding the Qatar World Cup, it doesn’t negate the harsh working conditions in many other countries that hosted the tournament and others like it in the past. In Brazil, for example, around 19,000 families have been displaced to make room for the construction of both the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. The citizens of Rio de Janeiro were supplanted to allow for an influx of foreign investors and tournament supplies.

The majority of these reports on harmful working conditions are offered by media and news anchors not many are artistic interpretations of personal journeys. “Offside” produces a personal depiction of migrant workers who were forced to give up their dreams to support their families — and to survive. Sulaiman also eventually organized a soccer training camp in Ghana for aspiring, young soccer players like himself.

Sulaiman’s story portrays the exhaustive efforts it took to overcome adversity and actively improve the lives of those putting in the long hours and hard labor.

Contact Afnan Abbassi at [email protected].