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World Cup 2022: Football fever grips Asian and African expats

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It was a hot night in the Eritrean capital Asmara. The sun had set, but the air was still warm.

Cafes, restaurants and cinemas were teeming with people, but instead of the raucous atmosphere that had defined most World Cup matches until this point, there was a hushed silence. The tension was palpable.

Eritreans had been waiting for a night like this for decades. Seconds felt like hours and minutes like days. Then there was an eruption of noise.

‘We have a lot of genuine supporters in Qatar who are from the south of India. They love football and they are genuine fans’

– Nasser Al Khater, CEO 2022 World Cup

Yassir Abdella was watching at home on TV when Senegal’s Asamoah Gyan missed his penalty kick against Uruguay in the dying moments of the 2010 World Cup quarter finals.

Cries of anger reverberated across the city of 900,000 people. The reaction was understandable. Such was the love for African players that a loss for Senegal was a loss for Eritrea.

Locals had fallen in love with the beautiful game after African greats Nwankwo Kanu, Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor moved to England and began setting the Premier League alight.

Abdella, who now resides in Qatar, said the atmosphere back home was unparalleled, but he expected just as much enthusiasm on Sunday when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in the Gulf nation.

Support is not political

Qatar’s passion for football has grown exponentially in recent years through academies, accessible pitches and promotion. Local teams are ardently supported by fans who attend matches religiously, wearing their team colours with pride.

There have been suggestions on social media that some residents are being paid by Qataris to support the host nation, but several expatriates told Middle East Eye they were genuine fans and would be throwing their support behind the Maroons.

Qatar World Cup: Can the host nation advance from the group stages? Read More »

Abdella, who works as a credit fulfilment officer at a Doha bank, said the support of Eritrean expats extended from Qatar to Argentina, Brazil, Morocco and reigning champions France.

“[Eritrean] supporters of Arsenal usually support France due to the large number of French players who were brought to the London side by former coach Arsene Wenger,” he said.

According to Abdella, despite Eritrea being a former Italian colony, support for World Cup nations was depoliticised.

“The Italians colonised Eritrea for a long period, from 1890 until their defeat in World War Two, and are the ones who built Eritrea’s infrastructure – to the point that Asmara is called little Rome. Yet we hardly follow the Italian league,” he said.

“After World War Two, the British Military Administration controlled the country for a decade, dismantled the whole economy and took industries away. Still, we watch the [English] league,” he added.

United by sport

While Qatar has become synonymous with the World Cup, the game of choice for most South Asian expats who make up the bulk of the country’s population is cricket.

On Friday and Saturday mornings – the weekends in Qatar – thousands of cricketers wake before dawn and head to the city’s open spaces. In the absence of any grass fields, they play on patches of urban wasteland and empty parking lots.

Still, most Indians will be supporting a Latin American team, a sportswriter who worked with the now-defunct Doha Stadium Plus magazine told MEE.

Expat-dominated fan clubs have been hosting events for years, and have become noticeably visible in the build-up to the World Cup. They’ve organised meet-ups, rallies and processions, football tournaments, and quiz competitions.

‘There’s a football culture among expats from the urban and eastern parts of Sri Lanka’

– Chinthana Wasala, sports journalist

Earlier this week, thousands of Indian fans, many beating drums and dancing in a carnival-type atmosphere, gathered in the centre of Doha to catch a glimpse of the bus carrying the Argentinean national team.

Members of the “Argentina Fans In Qatar” club, who claim more than 5,000 members, brought cut-outs of legendary footballer Diego Maradona as they expressed their love and support for the two-time world champions.

Sadly, controversy ensued and media outlets began fuelling allegations that fans were being paid. Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of the 2022 World Cup, called the reports “baseless”.

“I know that in Kerala, football is the number sport. Everyone thinks that cricket is the number one sport, but football actually is the number one sport there,” he told reporters.

“We have a lot of genuine supporters in Qatar who are from the south of India. They love football and they are genuine fans.

“We know that they have tournaments that are professionally organised. They have sponsorships, they have a lot of support behind them, organised on a weekly basis, and they are true fans of football.”

‘Heart bleeds yellow’

Jazeel Abdulmajeed, an epidemiologist based in Doha, told MEE that while World Cup fever had gripped the country, not everyone was rallying around Argentina.

“Once every four years, the heart bleeds yellow,” Abdulmajeed said, referring to the Brazilian team’s shirt colour.

Growing up in Abu Dhab, he said, he “cheered for Romario in 94, wept with Ronaldo and Rivaldo in 98, and then shed tears of joy in 2002”, when Brazil overcame Germany to secure World Cup victory in Japan.

Businessman Nihad Ali grew up in Qatar and has been following the English Premier League closely since the early 2000s. He fell in love with the Chelsea team and immediately took a liking to the now-retired German midfielder Michael Ballack.

“I devoured sports pages and waited for a Qatar TV Friday review of premier league until I went for graduation in India,” he told MEE.

He inevitably became a fan of the German national team, and his heroes now include Oliver Kahn, Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer.

But it’s not just the hardcore fans who are getting caught up in the excitement.

Salesman Faiz Kallingal, who has been in Qatar for several years, was never fanatic about the game itself. However, he’s embraced the World Cup and has even bought a couple of match tickets

“How can I waste the opportunity when the World Cup is happening this close,” he said.

Popular among Indians

The sportswriter, who asked not to be named, said fan rivalry amongst Indian nationals was strange, given that the south Asian country didn’t have a stake in global football.

He pointed out that divisions were also playing out back home, and in a recent Malayalam film “rival fans could be seen taking out ‘funeral processions’ of a defeated team”.

But in Qatar’s heavily disciplined public sphere, where public protests and aggressive taunting could land you in prison, Indian football supporters said they were just as enthusiastic and passionate as their African, European and South American counterparts.

Qatar World Cup 2022: Organisers u-turn on alcohol drinks sales at stadiums Read More »

The most popular fan clubs for Indian nationals in Qatar are Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, but support also extends to the Portuguese national side and teams.

“Portugal fans largely consist of Indian Goans, for historical connections,” Ali said.

Things are a bit different amongst Qatar’s Sri Lankan community. Rugby is their second love after cricket, but football is increasing in popularity.

“There’s a football culture among expats from the urban and eastern parts of Sri Lanka,” Chinthana Wasala, a sportswriter at the Qatar Peninsula, told MEE.

Wasala said that while older Sri Lankans were fans of Brazil and Argentina, taxi drivers, delivery boys, engineers, hoteliers and construction workers expressed support for England, Germany and France.

Solidarity and the fan experience isn’t the only thing that excites many expats about this year’s World Cup.

As the hours ticked down to kick-off, many said they were proud that Qatar would have the first demountable stadium, which would be reassembled elsewhere after the tournament finishes.

Source: Middle East Eye

Photo: AFP

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