The fans screamed for Qatar. Their passion hid a secret.

Fans in Qatar t-shirts during the team’s match against Senegal at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar, November 25, 2022. (Tasneem Alsultan/The New York Times)

DOHA, Qatar — The drumming stopped midway through the second half of Qatar’s game against Senegal at the World Cup when a man in a bucket hat and sunglasses stood up and asked for silence.

Moments earlier, part of the crowd – more than 1,000 people, almost all men, all wearing identical maroon T-shirts with the word “Qatar” in English and Arabic – had chanted in unison towards four fan leaders. But now the sea of ​​men understood what was expected and they obeyed the order, falling into a strange silence as the noise of matches in Al Thumama Stadium swirled around them.

Then a sign was set. And the crowd came alive again.

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“Game, the chestnut!” they chanted over and over again in Arabic, a nod to the nickname of the Qatar national team. The men folded their arms in long lines and jumped up and down. The ground beneath them shook.

The scene was more reminiscent of football stadiums in South America and Europe than Qatar, and the cheering section was reminiscent of that of the Ultras, a highly organized football fan culture with Italian roots that can be found around the world, including in North Africa and the Middle East.

That was the point. The roar of the fans filled the stadium, as it had five days earlier during Qatar’s opening game against Ecuador. Their number conveyed strength. Her unrelenting energy was contagious. But the body art on many of them gave them away.

The tattoos, which are extremely rare and frowned upon in golf society, seemed to indicate the fans weren’t Qatari. So who were they? And where did they come from?

Imported sound

The plan was hatched in early 2022 when the World Cup was finally in sight. Qatar has faced criticism since it won the rights to host the World Cup: over a corrupt vote that yielded one result, over the treatment of migrant workers, over the tiny country’s ability to accommodate more than 1 million visitors and to accommodate. In the background, however, was another frequent point of criticism: the country has no football culture.

Qatar had never qualified for a World Cup on merit. The Qatar Stars League is one of the richest in the region, with state-of-the-art air-conditioned stadiums. But attendances for teams like Al Sadd and Al Rayyan often number in the hundreds rather than thousands. Who, the organizers wondered, would fill the stadiums when Qatar played? Who would provide the soundtrack?

The answer was to tap into and import the region’s already fertile Ultras culture.

But the same culture hardly fits the commercialized reality of the World Cup in Qatar. The code of Ultras culture is antagonistic and deeply anti-authority, and is in constant conflict with the police and the news media. In the Middle East and North Africa, Ultras were also politically influential: Egyptian Ultras played a key role in the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled Hosni Mubarak as President, and their power and popularity on the street was such that Ultras were barred by one of his successors , Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi after he came to power in a coup.

The songs that emerged from the stands in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon were also the soundtracks to anti-government protests. But in stadiums they can fill even the most sterile spaces with passion, color and sound.

In April, a test event was organized in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Hundreds of Lebanese students and fans of a local club, Nejmeh, have been recruited to shoot a proof of concept film at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium by recreating the atmosphere an Ultras group can offer. The video shows hundreds of fans chanting, holding banners and letting off pyrotechnics.

A capo, as a fan is called, who leads the chants, was flown in by Turkish club Galatasaray’s main Ultras group to give instructions. Galatasaray was also deliberately identified. It has one of the most respected ultras scenes in the world. But the Lebanese said they didn’t need guidance.

“No! We showed them!” said a Lebanese ultras fan on Friday. He declined to give his full name, a common practice in the ultras scene, and balked at the idea of ​​being tutored “I had to figure out how to organize a group of hardcore fans. The Turkish ultras, he said, “wanted to come to Qatar, but they were surprised by us; we’ve been doing this for a long time.”

The video made an impression on the right people in Doha. Through word of mouth, young Lebanese fans were made an exceptional offer: free flights, accommodation, tickets and food, and a small stipend to bring some Ultras culture to the World Cup in Qatar. Fans came in mid-October to rehearse her choreographed actions and practice her newly written chants.

And learning Qatar’s national anthem.

Participating in the tournament was to be an experience unattainable for most ordinary fans in the Arab world. Lebanon, for example, is in a deep economic crisis. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment is at 30%. Thousands of citizens are fleeing the country. Without Qatar’s help, almost none of the men in maroon shirts could have afforded to attend the Gulf Games.

Going to a world championship is a dream, said the Lebanese ultras fan. But not only Lebanese fans joined the action: The group of around 1,500 fans also included Egyptians, Algerians and some Syrians. Money, said the Ultras fan, is 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 on the same hand. We want to show the world something special. You will see something special.”

In the stands

By Friday’s kick-off at Al Thumama Stadium, Qatar’s 1,500 adoptive Ultras had gathered in their designated section behind one of the goals wearing identical maroon T-shirts: Qatar on the front, “All for Al Annabi” on the back. The national anthem played and the Ultras sang it like it was their own. As it ended, the Lebanese capos banged their drums and led the Ultras in an Icelandic thunderclap.

“The Qataris don’t really support the team that much,” said Abdullah Aziz al-Khalaf, a 27-year-old human resources manager from Qatar, who stood in the hall watching the Ultras with a mixture of pride and confusion. “Because we don’t go to the game that often in Qatar.”

Another Qatari, a 16-year-old student and Al-Rayyan fan, Ali al-Samikh agreed with the atmosphere. “I like it,” he said. “It is exciting!”

Does he want to stand there?

“No, I don’t want to,” 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 in a polo shirt with the logo of Aspire Academy, Qatar’s multi-billion dollar talent farming project, filmed the crowd for 90 minutes.

But the passion felt real. So was the disappointment as Senegal scored twice. In the stands, every few rows, fan leaders in white T-shirts called out and urged the faithful to sing louder, mimicking a phenomenon often seen with Ultras in Italy, Germany and Morocco: you sing louder and make more noise, when you lose . The drums beat louder. The chants returned.

The whole crowd, not just those behind the goal, finally came alive as Mohammed Muntari scored Qatar’s first goal in a World Cup match. But not everyone got the memo: Amid the throbbing celebrations, a security guard rushed to the front in vain to ask the Ultras to take a seat. But the joy was short-lived as Senegal scored a third goal. The game ended 3:1. A few hours later, Qatar was the first nation to be eliminated from this World Cup.

“I’m unhappy, of course,” said Ahmed, an Egyptian. He had joined the group at the game and wore the same distinctive maroon T-shirt, but said he actually lives in Qatar.

“We are a group of Arab people working here to support Qatar,” he said, adding: “If we worked in England, we would also support England.”

The crowd melted away. The Qatar Ultras have only ever been here for the group stage. Most of them will pack up and fly home to Lebanon after Qatar’s final game against the Netherlands on Tuesday. But before they go, once more they will bring their noise with feeling.

“The next game,” Ahmed said, “I’m sure we’ll win.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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