Ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022, Khel Now builds up for the mega tournament with the first of its monthly series of stories.

The Ahmed bin Ali Stadium looks stunning. The red and black colours inside the stadium look majestic, resonating with the occasion. It’s the champions of Asia facing the champions of North America, at the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup.

I remember the details vividly because of two distinct reasons. First, Tigres UANL versus Ulsan Hyundai was my first-ever ‘big’ match in a future World Cup stadium. Second, and the standout, was because I saw in a swarm of Tigres fans, chanting in Mexican – that caught me off guard.

That was, in a way, my first bit of expatriate fan observation. As the tournament followed, I got to meet a sizeable number of Palmeiras fans as well, comprising Brazilian and Portuguese expatriates. I also met the most passionate live fan base of Al Ahli from Egypt. That observation led me to discover, and then repetitively observe Qatar Manjappada – a Doha-based Kerala Blasters fan group that is omnipresent whenever Doha embraces football.

Now, you might ask me what has this got to do with the build-up to the FIFA World Cup 2022? Well, if you’re planning to attend, Qatar Manjappada could be the most eye-grabbing fan group outside stadiums later this year.

How Qatar Manjappada began

“Qatar Manjappada started with just five of us, with a passion for Kerala Blasters and football in general,” says Earnest Francis, an expatriate from Kerala, and one of the drum-bearers for the crew. “Right now, we have over 2,000 active members. Quite good, right?”

Albeit a big number for a group of expatriates primarily in Doha to work, the figure that Francis provides is backed by what Manjappada has managed to achieve in recent times. The group was a part of the historic draw against Qatar in Doha, as it has been for a few years now. No matter what time of the year the Indian National Team comes to play here, Manjappada swarms in with the drums to back the Blue Tigers.

WATCH: The Qatar Manjappada was a big part of the crowd when India faced Bangladesh in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Qatar

The fascinating aspect, however, is not just that. Qatar Manjappada’s presence occurs whenever a major football game occurs in and around the capital. From a group that had to struggle to get the drums inside stadiums, the group in yellow is now invited by the Qatar Football Association (QFA) and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy to add a spark to major occasions. Amir Cup finals, Qatar National Team’s friendlies, the recently concluded FIFA Arab Cup – you name it – Manjappada is invited automatically.

“We were the only crew invited to the inauguration of the countdown clock at [Doha] Corniche. It was a pleasure attending the same ceremony that had the Amir of Qatar and footballing legends from all around the world,” adds Francis.

Will the World Cup in Qatar even have fans?

The existence of Qatar Manjappada, and most importantly its prominence, also helps to understand a major question that everyone might have regarding Qatar. Will the FIFA World Cup 2022 have resident fans? Or an even harsher question that continues to spread is, “Does the natural gas-rich nation have football fans?”

“Yes, there are die-hard football fans here,” he continues. “The local fans also carry equal passion, like us, and love attending matches. They are extremely welcoming. In fact, we’ve become a part of what the world sees as ‘Qatari’ fans. It’s wonderful to see a common passion uniting people, isn’t it?”

The ‘fan’ culture

“Like every country in the world, Qatar has a unique fan culture,” says Matthias Krug, author of Journeys on a Football Carpet, a book documenting Qatar’s footballing history. “The population here is diverse, and there are more expatriates than locals. Hence, that automatically makes the football audience diverse, ranging from Arabs, North Africans, to South Asians.”

Attending any football match is quite a tough job. Add a crew to that, and some passionate engagement throughout the 90 minutes, it becomes even more challenging management-wise. Add to that the airport trips, like the one in 2019, when the Indian team was welcomed like it was somewhere inside India. Well, we’ve not even considered the blood donation and other community events. This population of Doha, able to catch attention during occasions, has plenty of stories to tell.

“We just love attending matches. Not only that of Kerala Blasters but of every team that is on the field to give it all,” Francis quips.

That allows me to pick his point and quiz him from a tricky standpoint. “Let’s assume Mumbai City FC comes to play a match here. As your league rivals, how will the dynamic be? Will Qatar Manjappada still be a supporting stretch?”

His answer, surprisingly, is sudden, and without hesitation. “Of course, we will,” he says. “On top of that, they’re from the country we are from. We just love football, and we can attend any game to satisfy the football lovers in us. Everything will be about football in Doha for the next 11 months. You cannot help but get immersed in it, can you?”

I can’t say I don’t concur with him. Keep checking this space for Part II of this series.

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