“Fans from all over the world gather in Doha”rejoiced Fifa in a tweet*, Sunday November 13, one week before the launch of the World Cup in Qatar. From all over the world, really? In the comments, some Internet users wonder about the identity of some of these supporters. This is the implication of a video posted on TikTok by a French DJ, LB One, and very shared on several platforms. The images of processions in the colors of Brazil, Argentina or even Spain are mounted on a track featuring an extract of Indian music, and his comment is accompanied by the hashtag #bollywood and an emoji showing tickets.
@djlbone Nothing wrong there? #qatar2022 #worldcup #for you #lol #Qatar #fyp #worldcup2022 #bollywood #foryou ♬ Addictive – LB One
The subtext is not very subtle: these supporters would be from India (or neighboring countries) and would have been paid to pose as supporters. Some also want to see it as a sign that fans from qualified countries are shying away from this World Cup, disavowing the much-criticized choice to organize it in Qatar. But if these supporters indeed have links with India, there is no way to determine with certainty whether they marched on their own initiative or that of the organizers. Franceinfo takes stock of this subject, a few days before the start of the 2022 World Cup.
Many of them are from India
On some images, these supporters parade behind the banners of groups with surprisingly uniform names: English Fans Qatar, Brazil Fans Qatar, Argentina Fans Qatar… Groups present on Instagram, which allows us to glean some clues about the identity of these people. And to confirm the authenticity of the images: these pages called for people to gather, Friday, in the same place in Doha, the esplanade of the flags, which we recognize in the background.
The Instagram pages of these groups reveal clear links with India. Brazil Fans Qatar celebrated his 15,000 followers on Monday* mentioning the account of a major federation of supporters in Brazil, but also three pages of Seleçao enthusiasts based in Kerala, a state in southern India, known to be the region where football is most popular there . Recent photos of rallies of yellow jersey supporters in Qatar are credited to users who all identify as being from India.
This does not mean that these supporters are only in Qatar at the invitation of the organizers. While some of the photographers were still posting images of India a few weeks ago, other profiles clearly belong to expatriates, who have been living in the emirate for years. This is also what the observation of the accounts that react to these publications suggests. There are mainly Indian expatriates in Qatar.
These pages have also promoted gatherings of supporters organized several weeks before the start of the competition, a period when the fans who came from abroad for the competition had, logically, not arrived. On October 28, Argentina Fans Qatar organized for its members an amazing “night of the hinchas”* (a term for Argentine supporters) in a hall in Doha. September 21, this group of supporters had presented their jersey*, derived from the one Lionel Messi will wear during the competition but adorned with the association’s logo, in partnership with a radio broadcast in Qatar, Radio Malayalam. A name that is not insignificant since Malayalam is the language spoken in the Indian region of Kerala.
They are not necessarily “false” supporters
That these supporters are largely from India, rather than Qatar or the countries they support, does not make them ‘fake’ supporters. Instagram fan pages for Brazil and Argentina were created in 2021 and this summer, respectively. But the profiles of some of the Internet users who comment on them testify to a taste for football that is not new: they stage themselves with shirts in publications that are sometimes several years old, even before their arrival in Qatar.
A group of supporters of the France team, the French Football Fans Club India*, also present at Friday’s rally in Doha, has been following the performances of Les Bleus (and Les Bleues) since 2019 and has organized several exchanges with a representative of the French Irresistibles, their main group of supporters in France.
This enthusiasm may surprise, seen from France, as the weight of India seems derisory in world football. But there are despite everything, in its immense population (estimated at nearly 1.4 billion inhabitants), football enthusiasts. In July, India was in the world’s top 10 countries where the most tickets had been purchased for this World Cup, according to FIFA*. It has since been surpassed by other nations. Some of these enthusiasts interviewed by the Qatari channel Al Jazeera*, explain this enthusiasm by the relative proximity of the host country, which offers an opportunity to see icons like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the last time, but also the probability of having a relative likely to host them in Qatar.
In 2019, the number of Indians who lived in the tiny emirate was estimated at 700,000, far exceeding 333,000 Qataris, according to the most often cited tally, compiled in 2019 by a local communications firm*. Qatar, for its part, no longer publishes a census of foreigners present on its soil. A factor which can also explain why they are numerous in the groups of supporters based on the spot. This is the point of view defended by the founder of the local Portuguese fan group, Elisabete Reis, herself an expatriate in the country. “You don’t have to be Portuguese to support the Portugal team”she recalls, quoted Monday by the Portuguese media Renascença (link in Portuguese). “We have fans of many nationalities, we should be proud of that. We don’t pay anyone to like Portugal or our team.”
Previous examples of paid fans sow doubt
Some details are still striking. All these groups of supporters probably did not organize a rally on the same day in the same place by chance. And it’s rare that groups of fans are all dressed in the same jerseys. Did they all buy kits of the perfect supporter, like the one that an Indian fan of Argentina opens by filming itself ? Did the organizers work to structure these demonstrations of enthusiasm? Did they go so far as to pay participants? Difficult to decide. A post from an Indian Instagram user, who appears at Argentina Fans Qatar events, reads “paid partnership”. He does not promote any product there, simply his departure for the World Cup to support the Albicelese selection.
Paying certain spectators would not be new, explains to franceinfo Raphaël Le Magoariec, researcher at the University of Tours. “Buying people to set the mood is done. Qatari culture leads to this type of practice”believes this specialist, co-author of The Empire of Qatar: the new master of the game? (ed. Points on the i). He says he observed it in the stands of matches of Al-Duhail, one of the clubs of the local championship, where spectators from Yemen or East Africa explained to him that they had been paid to be present. In 2014, British media, of which the Guardian*, reported similar testimonies on the sidelines of a beach volleyball tournament. That the emirate has recourse to these methods again for the World Cup therefore does not seem impossible. “They want it to be the best World Cup of all time, they will do everything to make it so in their eyes”analyzes Raphaël Le Magoariec.
To this history is added confusion with another accusation weighing on Qatar before this 2022 World Cup: supporters claim to have been approached by the organizers to post positive messages on the progress of the competition, in exchange for invitations all expenses paid . Three French or Belgian fans testified to franceinfo. The organizing committee simply explains that it wanted to create a network of fans to communicate with the public all over the world. This is, however, a campaign aimed at supporters from the countries qualified for the tournament.
Their presence does not say much about the success of this World Cup
The presence of these groups of supporters, encouraged or not by Qatar, does not really predict the crowds in the stadiums when the competition begins. Mid-October, the president of fifa* claimed to have sold 2.9 million tickets, 63% of which outside the host country. Fans who, logically, had not arrived a week before the opening match. “The organizers just want set the mood before people arrive. It’s not going to be that throughout the World Cup”believes Raphaël Le Magoariec.
A specialist in the sports history of the Gulf countries, he does not expect the local public to be invisible during this competition either: “The Qataris know football well. There is a real enthusiasm locally, I’m not too worried about it.” In addition to Indian immigrants, the researcher believes that expatriates from Syria, Egypt or the Maghreb, regions passionate about football, should contribute to the atmosphere. To find out if Qatar needs “false supporters” to fill its stadiums, it will therefore be necessary to wait until they open their doors, from Sunday 20 November.
* All these links refer to content in English