DOHA, Qatar – Midway through the second half of Qatar’s World Cup match against Senegal, the drums stopped when a man in a bucket hat and sunglasses stood up and called for silence.
Moments earlier, a section of the crowd – more than 1,000 people, mostly men, all wearing identical brown T-shirts with the word “Qatar” in English and Arabic – chanted in unison towards four cheerleaders. 🇧🇷 But now the sea of men understood what was expected, and they followed the order and fell into an eerie silence as the noise of the game swirled around them inside Al Thumama Stadium.
Then a sign was made. And the crowd exploded back to life.
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“Play, Brown!” they chanted nonstop in Arabic, a reference to the Qatar national team’s nickname. The men linked arms in long lines and jumped. The ground beneath them shook.
The scene was more reminiscent of soccer stadiums in South America and Europe than Qatar, and the crowd evoked that of the ultras, a highly organized soccer fan culture with roots in Italy that can be found all over the world, including in North Africa and the Middle East.
That was the point. The roar of the crowd filled the stadium, as it had five days earlier, during Qatar’s opener against Ecuador. Their numbers conveyed strength. His relentless energy was infectious. But the body art on many of them gave them away.
The tattoos, which are extremely rare and highly frowned upon in Gulf society, seemed to suggest that the fans weren’t Qatari. So who were they? And where did they come from?
The plan was drawn up in early 2022, when the World Cup was finally approaching. Qatar has come under fire since it won the right to host the World Cup: over a corrupt vote that handed it over, over its treatment of migrant workers, over the small country’s ability to receive and host more 1 million visitors. But deep down there was also another common criticism: that the country had no football culture.
Qatar had never qualified for a World Cup on its merits before. The Qatar Stars League is one of the richest in the region, with state-of-the-art air-conditioned stadiums. But crowds for teams like Al Sadd and Al Rayyan tend to number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Who, the organizers wondered, would fill the stadiums when Qatar played? Who would provide the soundtrack?
The answer was to exploit the region’s already fertile ultras culture and import it.
But that same culture hardly fits the commercialized reality of the Qatar World Cup. The ultras culture code is antagonistic and deeply anti-authoritarian, and in constant conflict with the police and media. In the Middle East and North Africa, ultras have also been politically influential: Egyptian ultras played a key role in the 2011 Arab Spring, which overthrew Hosni Mubarak as president, and their power and popularity in the streets was such that ultras were barred. by one of his successors, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, after he came to power in a coup.
Songs from the stands in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon have also served as a soundtrack to anti-government protests. But inside stadiums, they can fill even the most sterile spaces with passion, color and sound.
Thus, in April, a test event was organized in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Hundreds of Lebanese students and fans of a local club, Nejmeh, were recruited to shoot a proof-of-concept film at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, recreating the atmosphere that an ultras group can provide. The video shows hundreds of fans singing, showing banners and setting off pyrotechnics.
A capo, the term used for the supporter who commands the chants, was brought in from Turkish club Galatasaray’s main group of ultras to provide direction. Galatasaray was also identified on purpose. It has one of the most respected ultra scenes in the world. But the Lebanese said they didn’t need guidance.
“No! We show them!” said a Lebanese ultras fan on Friday. He refused to give his full name, a common practice in the ultras scene, and bristled at the idea that he needed to be taught how to organize a group of radical fans. Turkish ultras said he, “were going to come to Qatar, but they were surprised by us; we’ve been doing this for a long time”.
The video impressed the right people in Doha. Through word of mouth, young Lebanese fans were offered an extraordinary deal: free flights, accommodation, game tickets and food, as well as a small scholarship, to bring a bit of ultras culture to Qatar’s World Cup matches. Fans arrived in mid-October to rehearse their choreographed actions and practice their newly written chants.
And to learn the national anthem of Qatar.
Taking part in the tournament would be an experience beyond the reach of most ordinary fans in the Arab world. Lebanon, for example, is in a deep economic crisis. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment is 30%. Thousands of citizens are fleeing the country. Without Qatar’s help, almost none of the men wearing brown T-shirts would have been able to attend the games in the Gulf.
Going to a World Cup is a dream, said the Lebanese ultras fan. But it wasn’t just Lebanese fans who joined in the effort: the group of around 1,500 fans also included Egyptians, Algerians and some Syrians. Money, said the ultras fan, was not the only motivating factor.
“It is our duty to support an Arab country,” he said. “We share the same language. We share the same culture. We are fingers of the same hand. We want to show the world something special. You will see something special.”
in the stands
At kickoff at Al Thumama Stadium on Friday, Qatar’s 1,500 adopted ultras gathered in their designated section behind one of the goals in identical brown jerseys: Qatar on the front, “All for Al Annabi” on the back. The national anthem played and the ultras sang it as if it were their own. When it was over, the Lebanese capos beat their drums and led the ultras in an Icelandic thunderclap.
“The people of Qatar really don’t support the team like that,” said Abdullah Aziz al-Khalaf, a 27-year-old human resources manager from Qatar, standing in the lobby watching the ultras perform with a mixture of pride and amazement. “Because in Qatar, we don’t go to the game very much.”
Another Qatari, a 16-year-old student and Al Rayyan fan, Ali al-Samikh, approved of the atmosphere. “I like this,” he said. “It’s exciting!”
Would he like to stay there?
“No, I don’t,” he replied, shaking his head with a shy smile.
Qatar World Cup organizers did not respond to questions about the fans, or efforts to identify and bring them to the tournament. A man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Aspire Academy, Qatar’s billion-dollar talent nurturing project, filmed the crowd for 90 minutes.
However, the passion felt real. The disappointment too, as Senegal scored twice. In the stands, every few rows, fan leaders in white T-shirts shouted and urged the faithful to sing louder, mimicking a phenomenon often seen in crowds of ultras in Italy, Germany and Morocco: You sing louder and make more noise when you are losing . The drums beat louder. The chants are back.
The whole crowd, not just those behind the goal, finally came to life when Mohammed Muntari scored Qatar’s first goal in a World Cup match. But not everyone understood the memo: Amidst the pulsating cheers, a bouncer rushed forward in a failed attempt to ask the ultras to take a seat. But the joy was short-lived when Senegal scored the third goal. The game ended, 3-1. A few hours later, Qatar became the first nation to be eliminated from this World Cup.
“I’m unhappy, of course,” said Ahmed, an Egyptian. He joined the group at the game and wore the same signature brown T-shirt, but said he actually lives in Qatar.
“We are a group of Arabs working here to support Qatar,” he said, adding: “If we were working in England, we would also support England.”
The crowd dissolved. The Qatar ultras were only here for the group stage. Most of them will pack their bags and fly home to Lebanon after Qatar’s final game against the Netherlands on Tuesday. But before they go, they will make their noise one more time, with feeling.
“Next game”, said Ahmed, “I am sure we will win”.
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