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World Cup 2022: 'Messi belongs to us all'

Mark Meadows in Doha
December 13, 2022

Indian football fans and migrant workers in Qatar have been flocking to World Cup games, especially involving South American teams.

WM Katar 2022 I Mexiko - Argentinien
Many of the Argentina fans in Qatar actually hail from IndiaImage: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

If you thought Indians only loved cricket, you were wrong. One of the big features of the Qatar World Cup has been the large number of Indians in the stands, and their particular affection for Argentina, Lionel Messi and Brazil.

The most obvious reason for this is the huge Indian population living in Qatar as migrant workers. Around 25% of the 2.9 million people residing in Qatar are estimated to be Indian.

But it is not just the workers. Indians are jetting in from their home country to watch the first World Cup held in the Arab world, the nearest the tournament has been to India.

All visiting fans need a Hayya identity card to enter Qatar and stadiums. Two million applications were received, with 56,893 coming from Indian nationals — second only to Saudi Arabia in the overall list.

What is also maybe surprising is that Indian fans — and indeed supporters from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — have predominantly been supporting Argentina and Brazil in Doha.

"In India there is a huge fanbase for football, but we gravitate more to the Latin American nations rather than the European ones," says Shayon Bagchi, a fan who had come all the way from India to watch matches in Qatar. 

"We are all third-world countries, maybe that's the reason. If you come to cities like Kolkata you will see the streets are painted green and yellow for Brazil or white and blue for Argentina."


There is also another specific reason why so many follow Argentina.

"Messi doesn't have a country, he is the god of football," says Indian fan Dinesh Kumar. "God does not need a country. God belongs to all, so Messi belongs to all of us. Messi is the god, he's our inspiration."

Fußball WM Katar | Messi-Fan aus Indien
An Indian fan with a Messi drawing during the World Cup in QatarImage: Ololade Adewuyi/DW

The fans from Argentina in Qatar are happy to have the extra support.

"There are lots of fans wearing Argentina shirts who aren't Argentinian. From Bangladesh, from India and lots of locals. It's incredible, I've never seen this in any part of the world," says Federico Jose Orbuch from Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

"It surprises us, it makes us proud. They talk about Maradona, about Messi, it's incredible. Fans are fans, they aren't fake. It's even more valid because they weren't born in Argentina. They feel the shirt without being born there."

Mishap Ikkappadath is from the Indian sate of Kerala, where football is especially popular. For the last four years he has worked in Qatar in telecoms.

"In Qatar, there is safety and the atmosphere is good. Everything is perfect here for me," he says.

Indian migrant workers are the bedrock of the Qatari economy. But those in construction have paid a heavy price, with British newspaper The Guardian reporting that according to the Indian Embassy in Qatar and the Supreme Council of Health in Qatar over 2,700 Indians have died from various causes since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010.

"We love football countries like Brazil and Argentina," Ikkappadath says. "We love Pele, and the Brazilian Ronaldo and of course Maradona. We watched them all when we were kids so we support them."

India at the World Cup?

But something all the Indian fans have in common in Qatar is the wish to one day see India at a football World Cup.

They are ranked 106th in the world, below the likes of Madagascar and Mauritania, and have never been at the tournament.

However, with the increase to 48 teams for the 2026 edition, when Asia will have eight definite spots instead of four, there is hope.

"It is very important for India to qualify at some point," said female Indian fan Krishna Mistry, who lives in Qatar. "But if not, we still love the game."

Additional reporting by Max Merrill.

Edited by: Matt Ford and Jonathan Harding

Kolkata in the grips of football fever