With less than a week left before the Kickoff to FIFA World Cup in Qatar, thousands of fans, overwhelmingly Indians, gathered at the country’s top destinations to display their support for favourites participating in the biggest football tournament.
But the spectacular events soon become the latest controversy against the first Arab nation to host the World Cup.
Qatar is accused of hiring migrants as fake fans by a section of western media and critics on social media. Fans in Qatar are outraged by the accusations, several labelling it “racism”.
Ahmad Hashim, Editor of Qatar Football Live, is “tired” of dismantling the “stereotypes” media have about the country’s diverse football culture. Born and raised in Qatar, Hashim belongs to a migrant family from India’s southern state, Kerala.
The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has rejected accusations after videos of Indian expats cheering on the England team in Doha went viral on social media.
“West have no clue about the rich footballing culture of South Asian countries. For them [critics], every migrant here is a construction worker, living a miserable life,” Hashim told Maktoob.
Since Qatar won the hosting rights of the World Cup in 2010, criticism mounted over the oil-rich country’s treatment towards migrant workers and its human rights record. A new report by International Labour Organization, released weeks before the tournament says Qatar has made progress in its labour reforms but challenges in their implementation remain.
Hashim is considered an expert in football. When Qatar’s prestigious media network Al Jazeera wanted to know about the preparations for the country’s first World Cup Campaign, they picked Hashim to make comments.
“With respect to the football fever happening in India, these were barely anything. Indians celebrate football and they are hardcore fans of European and South American footballers. The Indian expat community in Qatar also have rich football culture,” Hashim said.
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 CEO Nasser Al Khater called the allegations “baseless”. “We reject the belittlement of a group of people living in Qatar,” Khater said in a statement to Qatar News Agency.
Several European media expressed their doubt about people from South Asia cheering for other countries.
“Several fans could be seen who did not seem to belong to the countries they were representing in the parade,” Marca, Spain’s national daily sports newspaper wrote. “Real fans or paid actors?” Germany’s state-owned international broadcaster Deutsche Welle asked.
“Fan-based social media groups are behind it,” says Fasila Saidalavy, a football enthusiast living in Qatar for over 25 years. “Qatar is encouraging such events with facilities at specific venues as World Cup is approaching. Unlike before, there was no need for prior permission”.
Most of the fan gatherings, attributed to the reports about paid fans, are not organised by the government. Groups on Facebook and WhatsApp have been very active since only days are left for the kickoff.
31-year-old Saidalavy says that media which portrays Indian fans as “paid actors” miss the ground reality.
“Expats have well-organised football tournaments in Qatar. People are crazy about the game in our part of the world. Maybe they [Europeans] don’t know about it”.
Saidalavy attended a fan event called by Keralites urging them to display support for Qatar at Lusail Boulevard, one of the latest tourist attractions built for the World Cup.
“It’s true that Indians dominate these gatherings and only they are pushing for such events. It’s because of the demography of the Indian Community. South Asian have been living in Qatar for decades and they have strong roots here unlike Europeans.”
Saidalavy, a fan of Argentina, was joined by thousands of fans wearing Maroon.
Safeerurahman, an Indian Community Fan leader for FIFA World Cup, has been organising football tournaments in Doha for the last 15 years.
About 20,000 people attended the final of the 2022 Kerala Interdistrict football tournament, he claimed.
“Hundreds of national players fly to Doha each season for these tournaments. Many of these are months-long leagues. Qatar Football Association supports us and we use FIFA-accredited referees for the tournament,” Rahman told Maktoob.
“Hundreds of tournaments by Indian expats take place every year in Qatar. Even the Indian embassy organises such tournaments. There are teams that train and play regularly.”
Rahman says fan groups for European and South American teams have been organising programs since the last World Cup.
Participants in the parade say, unlike political demonstrations, celebrations during sports and cultural events are common in the country. Thousands of migrant workers are volunteers and organisers of the biggest sporting event on Earth. The natives are a minority as migrants make up to 80 percent of the country’s population.
This year, FIFA released a documentary called Maitanam, meaning “playground” showcasing the people’s passion for the sport in Kerala.
“This is the closest we can be to experiencing the World Cup. Western people needs to know that we are also crazy about football. Maybe more than them,” Saidalavy added.