Not ‘fake fans’: From volunteers to food vendors to fan song lyricist, Indians make their presence felt at Qatar 2022

Ringtones blaring from smartphones is perhaps the most obvious betrayal of your roots. In Doha, even though the world — from Africa to Australia — has descended for a carnival of football in the heart of a desert, the muffled silence in a metro is frequently infringed by Guru Randhawa’s Lagdi Lahore Di, or Kannil Pettole from the popular Malayalam movie Thallumala, or the eponymous title song from Kamal Hasan’s Vikram.

If the ringtones don’t strike you, the faces and familiar accents or dialects definitely will. At the Al Wakra Metro Station, Rohan Kumar, wagging his overlarge glove on his right hand, directs confused passengers to the entry gate. Kumar, from Ranchi, works as an accountant but took a month off so that he could be a volunteer at the World Cup. “It is boring to do the same thing for four-five hours a day, but I like football and I like seeing people from around the world,” he says.

He is one of the several thousands of Indian volunteers, a chunk whom are working in Qatar, juggling with an array of duties.

There are also thousands of volunteers who have traveled from India, eager to join the festival of football because they feel this would be the closest they could ever get to watching a World Cup.

Rohan, waving, the guide at metro. (Express picture)

“I could not get a ticket, so I thing to be a volunteer. I thought I could meet people from all over the world, but most of them here are Indians only. I do not miss home at all,” says Afsal P, from Kozhikode, with a guffaw. The volunteer head of the Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final, is Malappuram man PC Noufal, who has become an overnight celebrity back home.

Some of the fans who traveled from India expressed their irritation at news reports that claimed most Indian fans were “paid fans”.

“That (the publishing of such reports) is because they have no idea how mad people in India are about football,” says Bhaskar from Mangaluru, who managed to get a match ticket after waiting for three hours at the Main Ticket Centre, where tickets for select matches could be brought over the counter.

Fans from India showed up in numbers to greet most of the big teams. The England team was surprised, as was the Argentina team.

“Here, there are more Indian supporters for these teams than fans from their countries,” Bhaskar quips.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, during a press conference on Saturday in Doha, criticized those who painted Indian fans as fake.

“Can someone who looks maybe like an Indian not cheer for England, or for Spain or Germany?” he asked. “You know what this is? This is racism. This is pure racism. And we can stop that,” he said.

Fans and volunteers aside, there is an invisible subcontinental diaspora in the country. The lyricist of the World Cup fan song, Hayya Ma’ana – Let The Game Win, is Prasanth Mathew from Kerala. So is the leading vocalist of the song — Allen George Varghese, a Qatar-based musician and professional audio engineer. The hotels inside the fan accommodation clusters are mostly run by Malayali caterers. There, you could find anything from a Kerala porotta to a Malabar biriyani.

Basheer, the manager of an outlet, says: “Many of the Arabian dishes are popular in Kerala, like shawarma and kuzhimandi (flavored rice with meat). Similarly, porottas and biriyanis are quite popular among Qataris too,” he says.

Leading up to the World Cup, street and mural artists from India and Pakistan painted the walls of Al Mansoura Metro Station with what they call “truck art”, a display of captions (like dekho magar pyaar se, or Horn OK Please, or Goods Carrier), intricate floral patterns, and calligraphy.

Blank out the Manhattan-like skyscrapers, the swanky malls, the Formula One track-like highways and the decorous stadiums, the city would look familiar, like an upscale neighborhood in an Indian metro. It is as if India is making up for its distant dreams of qualifying for a Word Cup. If not an Indian feel, there is an Indian voice and presence at the World Cup. A legion of fans too has descended.

It’s not surprising as there are 7.5 lakh Indians, mostly from Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, in Doha. That is one fourth of Qatar’s entire population.

“You don’t see Qataris on the streets. Most of those in Arab clothing are not locals, they are mostly from Saudi or UAE. So, half of the people you see in the streets are Indians,” Basheer says.

Despite living for 15 years in Qatar, his Arabic is basic, he says. “Where would I speak Arabic? You can get away with Malayalam and Hindi.”

Theaters mostly run movies of popular Indian languages, and music concerts featuring Indian singers are common. At the start of November, Sunidhi Chauhan sang in a concert at the Lusail Stadium. All 80,000 tickets were sold out. The month before, Rahat Fateh Ali had performed. A large share of the seats for the final will also be occupied by Indians, with India figuring seventh in the list of World Cup ticket buyers.

Qatar 2022, which kicks off on Sunday, will be the closest India has ever come to making its presence felt at a World Cup.

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