India isn’t playing in the FIFA world cup going on in Qatar. Yet, Indian fans in the host nation are just hard to ignore.
That’s not surprising. Nearly 750,000 Indians (pdf) live in Qatar whose population is around 3 million. Then there are the visitors.
For instance, Naaji Noushi, a 33-year-old homemaker and a mother of five from the small town of Mahe in southern India, has travelled 2,973 kilometres by road since Oct. 15 to attend the world cup.
Other Indians like her are splurging, too, but on flight tickets. The demand for private jets from India to Qatar is at an all-time high. This is besides the thousands spending on match tickets out of their relatively meagre earnings.
What’s with India’s love for football?
India, which in 2023 will become the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.4 billion people, has the numbers on its side to boast a standalone fan base.
Yet, overall, the country isn’t football-crazy. It holds the 106th rank among FIFA’s 200 teams. India’s staple has always been cricket.
Some pockets of the country, however, have traditionally been all about the Beautiful Game. These include West Bengal in the east and Goa on the west coast.
And then there is Kerala.
Outside of their home countries, Brazil, Argentina, and Portugal may have some of their most dedicated fan following in this southern Indian coastal state.
From team-specific food counters at weddings to gigantic cutouts of players put up in the countryside, to even minor violence—it all happens in Kerala in the name of star teams.
The Qatar world cup is all the more special.
With India nowhere close to hosting such an event in at least a couple of decades, it is the closest and easiest chance for many from Kerala to experience the adrenaline rush. Because for many of them, Qatar is a second home.
Of Kerala’s 35 million people, 300,000 are in Qatar. Thousands of them have been part of World Cup-related projects, too, including building stadiums.
Nishad Azeem is a second-generation Indian expat in the Gulf nation. His firm Coastal Qatar has installed 350,000 seats across six such facilities, provided secondary steel for some, and built 2,000 toilet cubicles and changing rooms for players, Mint reported.
The Indian presence, therefore, is being felt heavily felt elsewhere, too, from music to food to other areas of entertainment, according to Mint. One of them has even helped open up around 60 food stalls at a stadium.
The controversy around Indian fans
The overwhelming presence of Indians in Qatar has also spelt trouble for the world cup organizers. “Paid Indian fans” were allegedly organizing rallies in Doha ahead of the event to drum up support for the host nation.
Nasser Al Khate, CEO of the 2022 World Cup, dismissed the claims.
“They are mostly from the Indian community (in Qatar) and those from the south of India especially. I know that in Kerala, football is the number one sport. Everyone thinks that cricket is the number one sport but football actually is the number one sport there,” he said.