The 2022 World Cup that’s about to start in Qatar is undoubtedly the costliest. By a mile. While the second costliest one organised by Brazil in 2014 had a price tag of 15 billion dollars, this year’s competition cost an astounding 220 billion.
How much of that money was spent on hiring Malayali ‘fake fans’?
That’s the question we’re left to answer thanks to what happened over the past week. Videos of fans in Qatar celebrating Brazil, Argentina and England went viral and quickly prompted wild accusations.
According to a chunk of the internet, and even some suspicious journalists on the ground, the largely “South Asian” group of frenzied, fake fans in Doha seemed too enthusiastic to be genuine. Why would they be cheering for England, they wanted to know. Besides, it felt like the same people were cropping up in all the videos. So they definitely had to be paid!
World Cup organisers in Qatar firmly rejected this allegation, declaring that the ‘fake fans’ were authentic. The Guardian reported that it spoke to many of the fans, who stated that they were from Kerala, and “displayed a broad knowledge of the England team and the Premier League.”
Some even showed reporters videos of murals and posters from their hometowns back in Kerala. Western media seemed to believe that it was in fact true: there were thousands of Indians in Qatar who absolutely loved football.
Though it should be noted that Washington Post still seemed to imply suspicion, as evidenced in this paragraph of their reporting:
“Many fans who have gathered wearing team colors are originally from India — a cricket-crazed country which never played at a World Cup — and among the large majority of overseas workers in Qatar’s 2.9 million population.
Fans traveling from overseas typically do not arrive at a World Cup until closer to their teams’ first game and the tournament starts on Sunday.”
It was a carefully crafted way to cast doubt. How can people from a country that’s never played football at the biggest stage, be die-hard fans of it?
Perhaps Western media should be forgiven for their incredulity. After all, even as a Malayali, doesn’t it sometimes surprise you just how passionate our comrades are about football? Sure, we’ve seen the flexes, we’ve seen the huge football matches on the local grounds. But in a country of a billion that seems obsessed with cricket, isn’t it a bit magical that love for football has been sustained for so long?
It certainly seemed that way for any Malayali who walked through Lusail Boulevard last Monday, right next to the stadium where the final will be played on December 18. Several Malayali groups organised a massive gathering to show support for the Qatar football team. Messages were disseminated through countless WhatsApp groups, and requests were made for attendees to wear maroon and white to match the country’s jersey colors.
The result was quite impressive. Though it was hard to estimate official numbers, it’s safe to say attendees witnessed an organically organised, passionate celebration by thousands of Malayalis who call Qatar a second home and football an integral part of their lives.
A lot has been written about Qatar’s organising of the World Cup. Though there are legitimate criticisms to be discussed, one particular point seemed to be thoroughly refuted that evening in Lusail Boulevard.
English TV pundits have long bemoaned that Qatar is a country without a footballing culture. Sure, it doesn’t have the robust culture that’s been nurtured over a century in England, but statements like those disregard the passions of countless people from all walks of life. People like “South Asians” who cheer for the English football team though they’re supposed to come from a “cricket-crazed nation”.
If anything, Malayalis proved that love for football can come from anyone, anywhere. No one gets to gatekeep that.