Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi controls a ball during a training camp ahead of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, at the Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on November 14, 2022. The Argentinian forward is hugely popular among Arabs and Asians. Image Credit: AFP

The Qatar World Cup is indeed a cause for celebration in the region. After all, it’s the first in the Middle East and the Arab world. It’s only the second in Asia, so there’s plenty of interest.

Football in the Middle East and Asia may not have the rich traditions of Europe and Latin America, but it’s undoubtedly the most popular sport. It’s played in every country, and local leagues attract hordes of spectators.

Millions of viewers from these nations have tuned into every World Cup, and the players from Brazil, Argentina, England, Spain and Germany are household names. The Bayern Munich fan club in Beirut is reportedly one of the biggest in the world.

Asian stars in Europe

Unfortunately, Asia has been footballing laggards despite the massive interest. Part of that was due to the poor infrastructure and the lack of professional leagues. That has changed in recent years, allowing Japan and South Korea to make huge strides. The result is a new breed of players keen to test their mettle against the best in the world.

News of their sublime skills reached talent scouts in Europe. Soon leagues in England, Germany and Spain made a beeline for Asian players. Japan’s Shingi Kagawa made waves in Borussia Dortmund before Manchester United bought him. Takehiro Tomiyasu, Take Kubo and Maya Yoshida followed him into the European leagues.

One of Asia’s and South Korea’s best Son Heung-min heads the Manchester United challenge in the English Premier League, while Kim Min-Jae, Lee Kang-in, Hwang Hee-chan and Hwang Ui-jo have been permanent fixtures in European clubs. So there’s abundant talent in Asia.

Football paintings
Students work on paintings depicting footballer players Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Pele, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane and Diego Maradona ahead of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, outside an art school in Mumbai, India, on November 18, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

What about the World Cup? Since the tournament’s inception in 1930, the performances of Asian countries have been below par, which’s why the rest of the world looks down upon them. India qualified for the 1950 edition in Brazil, but the football officials are reported to have had little interest in sending a team. That’s not true of Japan, North Korea and South Korea.

South Korea made it to the last four in 2002, when they co-hosted the football fiesta with Japan. North Korea nearly made the semifinals in 1966; they were 3-0 ahead before a four-goal burst by Eusebio helped Portugal win. That is one of the iconic moments in World Cup, and Eusebio went on to win the Golden Boot, although Portugal crashed out in the semis.

Japan will make their seventh World Cup appearance, while Iran qualified for the sixth time. Iran’s Ali Daei, who played for Arminia Bielefeld, Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga, held the international scoring record of 109 goals until Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo eclipsed it.

read more

Gulf countries too have been regulars at the quadrennial football extravaganza, with Saudi Arabia travelling to the World Cup for the sixth time. One of their memorable moments was crafted by Saeed Al Owairan against Belgium in USA 1994. After picking up the ball in his half, the Saudi striker weaved past several rival players before slipping the ball past the goalkeeper. It’s one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. Shades of Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in Mexico 1986.

Besides Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have made World Cup appearances. Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq — all Arab countries — have played World Cups and even staged an upset or two. Algeria’s shock win over Germany in Espana 82 is still fresh in Arab memory.

All this points to the enormous appetite for football in Asia and North Africa. People from these places will fly to Qatar to watch the games. Prominent among them are Asians working in Gulf states, which is why there will be 120 flights daily to Doha from Dubai World Central. Such is the interest in the sport.

Why expats will throng Qatar

The south Indian state of Kerala is home to numerous fan clubs of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, England and Germany. It’s proof of their passion for football. And Kerala expats have been the most visible in Qatar as they paraded in the colours of Argentina, Brazil and England in the fan zone. More from their home state will join them in Doha to lend full-throated support to their favourite teams.

Mohammad Salah may be missing in Qatar since Egypt failed to qualify. That wouldn’t stop Arabs from thronging Doha to back Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and hosts Qatar.

Football is not just about heritage and tradition. It’s an emotion that binds people. That emotion will ebb and flow in the stadiums of Qatar from Sunday (November 20). May the best team win.