by Umaid Wasim

Finally, the countdown was over. As the time on the giant clock at the Doha Corniche, which had to be readjusted after the opening game was brought forward by a day, struck zero days, zero hours, zero minutes and zero seconds, it was time for the biggest football party in the world to kick off in Qatar.

The Gulf state had 12 years to prepare for the first FIFA World Cup in the Arab world and opened it with an audiovisual spectacle.

The opening ceremony was dazzling; Qatari deliverance on show. Since it was awarded the World Cup following a suspicious vote in 2010, Qatar has fought just about everything to keep it. Never has a World Cup host undergone this level of scrutiny.

Just about everything has been questioned about Qatar. The money was never in question but the beliefs it holds were. There has been a transformation but Qatar has still managed to hold its own. Unfortunately, its team couldn’t do the same. It couldn’t even come close, overwhelmed and overrun by Ecuador in the opening game.

The 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium, shaped like a Bedouin tent, was an ode to Qatar’s history, while gleaming, modern skyscrapers pierce the rest of Doha’s skyline, adorned with posters of some of the best players featuring in the tournament.

Qatar’s national team, though, made the wrong kind of history. It became the first host team to lose the opening game of the World Cup, flushing away the crescendo of excitement in the country that had only reached its zenith a day before the opening game. It was a performance so bad that the stadium started emptying even before the hour mark.

It gave rise to new questions being asked about whether fans had only assembled at the stadium to watch the glittering opening show. This after all, was the biggest football game ever in the region; the opening game which would eventually be superseded by the final in terms of significance.

AL KHOR, QATAR – NOVEMBER 20: Empty seats in between fans during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between Qatar and Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium on November 20, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Only a section of local fans stayed till the end, chanting in waves behind the goal that Qatar was defending in the first half. It was on that side of the pitch that Ecuador got both their goals. Qatari fandom was in question and, this time, they had no answer. In his news conference afterwards, coach Felix Sanchez said he had other things to worry about than fans leaving the stadium.

Qataris make just over 300,000 of the three million population of the gas-rich country. The rest are made up of migrants, most notably from South Asia. And it’s they who are present everywhere — from the volunteers at the tournaments, to the streets and even the Fan Festival.

The World Cup might be going on in the Arab world but it’s effectively a World Cup for South Asia.

It’s one of the reasons precisely why FIFA president Gianni Infantino made a comment on “Indian-looking fans of England, Germany or Spain” at the World Cup in his tournament-opening news conference. Launching a tirade against the Western media’s niggling questioning of Qatar, he spoke about the notion that fans at the World Cup didn’t look like real fans. Infantino dubbed that notion as “racist”, saying the sport was for everyone.

But it is the South Asians who are making the most of the opportunity of having a World Cup so close to home. While most fans of Saudi Arabia, also participating at the World Cup, are preferring to drive in and out of Qatar for matches, and fans from Tunisia and Morocco — the two other Arab participants — are being seen in Qatar, it’s the South Asians who are making up most of the numbers. With their relatives settled in Qatar, fans are jetting in from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal to witness the tournament.

“I’m hosting a lot of people during the World Cup … several of my friends and cousins are coming in to see it,” Mohsin Yasin, a Pakistani residing in Doha, says. “It’s unlikely that we will get a World Cup just a flight away from Pakistan in the near future. That’s why you see the desi fans in great numbers here.”

When five-time champions Brazil touched down in Qatar, there were only a handful of Brazilian fans receiving them at their team base. But making up the numbers were a huge number of supporters from the Indian state of Kerala. They didn’t get to see any of the players, but they were there, showing their allegiance to the team they follow so much.

Qatar has a significant population of people from Kerala. It’s a football-mad state and for fans who have travelled from there, this is an opportunity that won’t come again in the foreseeable future. “We had friends who work here so the accommodation was sorted. All we needed to do was to get a match ticket,” a group member said.

To facilitate fans who purchase a match ticket, Qatar introduced an entry permit named Hayya, which in Arabic means “Come”. Those with Hayya can not only touchdown in Qatar but they also have free access to the metro and public transport.

The Doha Corniche has been closed for traffic to allow fans to gather. A free bus service drives them across the Corniche, overlooking the bay, and all the way down to Souq Waqif, the traditional market. It’s something that’s drawing people in and with Qatar’s social culture similar to South Asia, families are also coming.

A Bangladeshi family of 10, with two children in their strollers, is also going down the Souq. “It’s fantastic,” says Sohel, the head of the family. “We had been waiting for the tickets to go on sale and my brother and I decided to come with our wives and children. We will all go to watch the match.”

There have been videos circulating of Fan Zones set up by Qatar being eerily quiet. And while many from the Western world might not be coming to Qatar, fans from South Asia keep on arriving. For them, there is no need to stay in the fan zones; they have family and friends here. And they’re having a ball.

In a boon for the tournament, the sweltering heat in Qatar has given way to a cool breeze as winter approaches. It’s just like the weather back in South Asia at this time of the year. The best part is that there is still time to experience it all.

The writer is Dawn’s Sports Editor

He tweets @UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 27th, 2022