One of the most memorable scenes of the 2018 FIFA World Cup did not play out on the football pitches of Russia, but on a public park in Moscow that the organisers had converted into a viewing area for fans unable to make it to the matches.
Hassan Sedky, a wheelchair-bound fan from Egypt, found himself in the middle of the park, straining to catch the action on the big screen. Before he knew it, Sedky, in his red Egypt jersey, was being hoisted up in the air by a group of Colombian fans in yellow and Mexican fans in green. As he held aloft the Egyptian flag to deafening cheers from the hundreds of fans around him, Sedky must have felt like he had just won the Cup.
A lot of the FIFA marquee event will inevitably be about football and the best footballers in the world. As is the case with almost everything these days, geopolitical and socio-economic realities will cast a shadow. Ahead of Qatar 2022, the major talking points, quite rightly, include corruption allegations, the mistreatment of migrant workers and homophobia.
But underneath all the headlines, the World Cup is unparalleled as an exercise in cultural exchange. It is where people meet and discover they are not so different from each other.
This has been true of every edition of the World Cup so far. In Russia four years ago, fans who booked their tickets expecting hordes of Russian hooligans returned with tales of babushkas in trains handing out sweets to foreigners. After the initial round of matches, a remorseful British fan admitted to this reporter that he was only staying for one more week. “Volgograd [venue of England’s first game against Tunisia] was the best experience that I have had,” he had said. “If I had known things were going to be like this, I would have stayed a lot longer.” It is perhaps ironic that, for all the goodwill that the tournament generated, the callousness of Russia’s leaders means that its people are no longer welcome on this stage four years later.
United by sport
Russia 2018 was arguably the first Google Translate World Cup. Moscow’s Red Square and Nikolskaya Street, two of the busiest hangout spots during the tournament, were witness to fans stopping to click selfies and chat with one other, despite often not having a common language between them. You could spot fans from Panama, many of whom had to take four different flights to get to Russia, pose with a group of Tunisians. Iranian fans drew cheers wherever they went, for the women among them were finally free of their headscarves. When a young Polish fan in Kazan found himself in tears after his team crashed out with a loss to Colombia, he was immediately surrounded by a group of Colombians trying to console him with chants of ‘Polska’.
This bonhomie will be true of Qatar 2022 too, when Ecuadorians will meet Mexicans and Canadians will meet Croatians. But this time, there will be a flavourful addition to this potpourri of nationalities — Indians.
The nation of 1.4 billion people may never have made it to the World Cup, but the tournament itself has always been a major deal in football-crazy pockets. Once every four years, parts of Kerala, Goa, West Bengal and the Northeast drape themselves in the yellow of Brazil and the sky-blue of Argentina. Local politicians and actors on billboards are replaced by Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. Without the option of supporting their own country, these villages and cities fracture into miniature versions of the football world.
This originally started out as a Brazil vs. Argentina rivalry — the debate between fans mesmerised by Pele, Zico and Socrates in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and those whose introduction to football coincided with the rise of Diego Maradona. Then, as globalisation and colour TV invaded households, telecast of the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga created fans for other teams as well. Germany, England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands found devotees.
But until now, India’s World Cup fever was more or less restricted to its borders. This time, it will spill over into Qatar in a big way.
Part of the reason for this is geography. Qatar, just a four-hour flight away, is the closest World Cup to India in terms of both distance and time. The other part is demography.
There are more Indian migrant workers in Qatar — an estimated 24% of the population — than Qatari citizens themselves. Not only will a large majority of the diaspora be ever-present at the World Cup as fans and volunteers, they will also play host to others making the trip from India.
This factor puts Indian fans in a unique position. Cost of accommodation has been one of the biggest gripes for fans traveling to Qatar. The cheapest option — shipping containers repurposed as tiny cabins — costs $200 (more than ₹16,000) a night. A proper hotel room can set one back by lakhs of rupees. But for many Indian fans, with friends or family in Qatar, accommodation will be free.
India among top 10 countries in ticket sales
This has in turn boosted ticket numbers. After the second phase of sales earlier this year, stats released by FIFA indicated that India was among the top 10 countries in terms of volume of tickets allotted.
Among many football fans in the country, the usual pre-World Cup chatter has been replaced by excited exchanges of travel plans. Take I.M. Vijayan, for instance. The former national team captain, and one of the greatest footballers India has produced, has been a fervent Argentina fan since the days of Maradona. Qatar 2022 will be his sixth World Cup, but it will be a lot different from the rest.
“Earlier, I used to go for a week or so and watch a couple of matches,” Vijayan says. “This time, I have tickets to every match. A few Qatar-based friends are taking former footballers to the World Cup and sponsoring all our tickets.” Joining him will be another former captain, Jo Paul Ancheri.
Meanwhile, the Indians who are already there have started their celebrations. Expat-dominated fan clubs of various teams have been hosting a number of events in Qatar in the build-up to the World Cup. These involve meet-ups, rallies and processions, football tournaments, and quiz competitions!
Praveen Babu, an operations manager from Kerala, only moved to Qatar in November last year. But one of the first things that the life-long Brazil fan did was to connect with fellow followers of the Selecao. “I’ve got tickets to five matches, including all of Brazil’s group games, and I have signed up as a volunteer as well,” he says. “The Brazil fans here have been counting down to the Cup in a grand manner. We organised a football tournament, a fan meet-up and a Brazil jersey distribution event. Officials from the Brazil embassy here too were present at one of our events. Brazil Fans Qatar will also be on hand to provide any assistance to fans who arrive here for the World Cup.”
A chance to see Messi play live
A similar event organised by Argentina fans saw almost 3,000 people turn up, a majority of them from India. “We have members from many countries, but most of us are from India,” says Latheef Kallayi, who works as a cost controller in an F&B company. “We are all excited because we will finally get to see Messi play live.”
It is not just the hardcore fans who are getting caught up in the excitement. Hyderabad native Venkateshwar Rao Ailneny, who has been in Qatar for over eight years, was never fanatic about the game itself. However, he has embraced the World Cup this time, buying a couple of match tickets and signing up as a volunteer. “I have always felt that when you get the opportunity to be a part of such big events, you have to help make it a great success,” he says. “Being involved in the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It has only been a few days as a volunteer, but I know I will cherish the friendships I have made here.”
The tournament is only beginning, but Ailneny has already discovered what you take home from a World Cup. Of course, there will be stunning goals and breathtaking skills. But it is the people you meet, the friends you make and the colours you see that you ultimately cherish. You remember instances, like when a few hundred football fans from all around the world spontaneously decided to lift Sedky up in the air.
And years later, when someone revisits the most iconic moments from Qatar 2022, it is likely there will be a few Indian faces in the frame. For once, India won’t be missing from the FIFA World Cup.
The freelance sports journalist frequently writes on football.