Not just cricket: Throngs of Qatar's Indian expats light up Asian cup match

Many of the crowd hailed from Kerala, the southwestern state known as a hotbed of Indian football fandom

By AFP

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Fri 19 Jan 2024, 5:55 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Jan 2024, 10:57 PM

The stands of the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium rocked to the beat of Indian drums as the country's often overlooked football fans lit up the Asian Cup in Qatar.

About 750,000 of the Gulf state's three million people are Indian, according to latest figures.

"It looks like it's not Qatar, it looks like it's India," said Mohd Aatif from Uttar Pradesh state, who has worked in the country for four years and arrived early for India's match against Uzbekistan.

Around him, throngs of spectators draped in the saffron, white and green of the Indian flag took in the thrum of traditional drum troupes. Women danced in scarlet dresses.

Few countries are as closely associated with one sport as India is with cricket and top-class players such as Virat Kohli enjoy idol status in the world's most populous nation.

India's football team, ranked 102nd in the world, do not currently command that sort of cultural cachet, but the Asian Cup has given Qatar's huge Indian community a chance to cheer on their side in person, many for the first time.

"We really didn't expect that so many Indians were here," said Vyshakh Somanna, who arrived to work in Qatar a week earlier.

"And we're really so proud to be here. As Indians we have to cheer for our country," added the 22-year-old, wearing a novelty wig in the colour of the Indian flag and the blue shirt of the football team.

Many of the crowd hailed from Kerala, the southwestern state known as a hotbed of Indian football fandom.

Football is "very popular in India, especially in Kerala", said Adwaitha, who recently arrived from Kerala to join her husband Sreekanth, who has been in Qatar five years.

Sreekanth knows cricket dominates nationally, "but when it comes to Kerala, the people love cricket, they also love football", he said, noting the contribution of Kerala Blasters, who are among the biggest teams in the Indian Super League.

Shabeer Karuthedath, a 43-year-old from Kerala who has been in Qatar 15 years, agreed.

"From childhood, we're playing football. Also cricket, but football in Kerala, more playing football," he said.

Regardless of where the Indian fans come from, they all have one favourite player -- striker Sunil Chhetri, whose 93 international goals put him behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo among active players.

'Great energy'

Just shy of 40,000 people were in the stadium for the match against Uzbekistan on Thursday.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

An overwhelming majority were backing India, their bands providing a drumbeat throughout the game and deafening cheers filling the air every time Chhetri and co. got up the field.

But ultimately the much smaller Uzbek contingent -- equally raucous but completely outnumbered -- left the happier as their team ran out 3-0 winners.

It was India's second loss in two Asian Cup matches, after a 2-0 defeat to Australia, in which Socceroos goalscorer Jackson Irvine noted the "great energy" of the strongly partisan crowd.

Speaking after the loss to Uzbekistan, India coach Igor Stimac said he and his team were "very sad about disappointing" the fans.

"But be supportive to these boys (players) because these boys will bring you lots of happiness this year, I promise you that," said Stimac, known in his native Croatia as "Prince of India".

In their final group match India face a tricky game against Syria, but a win could see them squeeze through to the next round.

"There is one more game, let's stick together," Stimac said.

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