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'Messi, Ronaldo and a global celebration' - Why 'smitten' Indians are rushing for tickets to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?

8:21 PM GMT+8 31/01/2022
Significado del logo del Mundial Qatar 2022
Qatar 2022 has seen a huge demand for tickets from India...

Is football a popular sport in India? Yes.

That is an answer that might come across as surprising amid the craze that cricket enjoys in the country. But the fact is that football has a wider acceptance than what is generally thought. 

Which is why it should not come as a surprise that India cropped up in the list of top 10 countries from where the most demand for the 2022 World Cup tickets came from. FIFA, football’s global governing body, revealed that India fans contributed heavily to the 2.7 million tickets that were requested within a week of the applications being opened for the World Cup to be held in Qatar later this year. 

The most demand, understandably, came from the host nation who were followed by Argentina, England, Mexico, USA, Spain, Germany, UAE, India and Brazil.

If one takes a closer look at this list of 10, all of them bar India, UAE and Qatar are traditional footballing nations with a chequered history in World Cups. The fact that Qatar are the hosts makes India and UAE stick out like sore thumbs in this list. 

At least UAE are close neighbours of Qatar. India, meanwhile, has virtually no history when it comes to World Cups. There’s also the fact that quite a few Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) live and work in UAE and Qatar, also contributing to the ticket applications from those countries. 

Interesting right? But what is it that makes Indian fans want to go to football World Cups this badly? To understand that, one must grasp how the world’s most popular game has managed to capture the attention of sports lovers in India. 

Indian football? Not so much. Global football? Yes.

If the country’s cricket madness is built on the national team’s success, it is a different story when it comes to football aficionados in India. 

The national football team, the Blue Tigers, have not had top level success for a long time and are not remotely close to even qualifying for a World Cup on merit. And Indian domestic football, which runs for only a few months in a year, remains isolated to several pockets in the country. 

But football, being such a global sport, has worldwide acceptance. And it is the same in India. Especially Latin American and European football. The top leagues in Europe such as the Premier League, La Liga, Champions League and the likes are keenly followed in India. And tournaments like the World Cup, Copa America and the Euros are highly anticipated.

It is extremely common to see neighbourhoods and villages covered with flags and cutouts of football heavyweights like Brazil, Argentina, France, England, Germany and more during such tournaments.

To put it simply, the global competitions with its global stars have fuelled the love for football in India. It’s not India that attracts Indian fans to football World Cups but the aforementioned footballing heavyweights and stars who play for them.

“The World Cup is such a huge tournament. Watching it live is a dream come true for me. I had wanted to go to Russia four years back (for the 2018 World Cup) but a medical emergency meant I could not go. I could not miss the chance this time around,” says Neeraj Nandakumar, a software professional based out of Bengaluru. Neeraj is one among the countless Indian fans who have applied for tickets to Qatar. 

And Varun Ramesh, who hails from Wayanad in Kerala and had travelled to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, terms it the greatest celebration in the world. 

“The World Cup is the greatest sporting tournament and probably the greatest celebration in the world. I had unforgettable memories in Russia, watching the World Cup matches live. I had decided back then that I would never miss a World Cup in my life,” said Varun, who has also applied for tickets to Qatar 2022.

Why has India’s lack of success not curbed Indians’ passion for the World Cup?

Being a global sport, the World Cup has been telecast live in India since 1986. And back then, Diego Maradona’s heroics for Argentina captivated Indian football fans. 

Saleel Abdul Salam, an NRI based in UAE, is one among those who fell in love with football after watching Maradona’s 1986 campaign. Saleel, who has been to Russia 2018, has booked tickets to Qatar 2022 in the hope that his favourite team, Argentina, wins the World Cup one more time. 

It’s been the case with quite a few others. For some, it is Brazil’s Ronaldo in 1998 and 2002. For many others, the hero who kindled their love affair with football was Gabriel Batistuta in 1998. For countless others, it was Zinedine Zidane in 1998 and 2006. 

India’s lack of success has not stopped them from enjoying the global game of football and idolising its stars. At times, the idolising has also led to tensions.

“I started watching football because of my grandfather who was a big follower. My first hero was Gabriel Batistuta and that is how I became an Argentina fan. We used to fight with Brazil fans in my neighbourhood. We used to wait so eagerly for World Cups. It’s part of our lives and that is why we love football,” certifies Varun.

“The earliest and most vivid recollection of watching a World Cup in its entirety was the 2002 edition in South Korea and Japan. The highlights were Ronaldo beating Oliver Kahn in the final, Ronaldinho's free kick against England and Beckham's hairstyle. India not playing the World Cup has not dimmed my excitement for the same. Of course, it would be great if India did manage to play,” said Romit Ghosh from Bengaluru, one among the Qatar 2022 ticket applicants from India.

How Messi and Ronaldo have fuelled the demand for 2022 Qatar World Cup tickets in India?

Global stars of the game have always had a hold over Indian fans. Be it Pele, Diego Maradona, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and now Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Messi and Ronaldo, widely considered two of the greatest footballers to have played the game, are expected to feature in their final World Cup in 2022. Messi, 34, has already qualified for the tournament in Qatar with Argentina. Ronaldo, 36, still needs to go through the play-offs to feature at the 2022 World Cup with Portugal. 

Indian fans, who adore them, do not want to miss the chance to witness the two greats play a World Cup for the last time. 

“I’m an Argentina fan and hence, a chance to watch Messi in what could be his final World Cup is something I do not want to miss,” adds Neeraj. 

Thomas Thomson, an IT professional from Hyderabad who is an ardent Cristiano Ronaldo fan, has also applied for tickets in the hope that Portugal makes it to the World Cup.

“I badly want to see Portugal qualify for the World Cup. I applied for tickets in the hope that they do and I can see Ronaldo play in the World Cup one last time,” he stated. 

What Qatar offers to Indian fans who want to experience the World Cup?

Make no mistake, travelling to a foreign country to watch the World Cup is not a cheap affair. And in many cases, fans from India are put off by the costs involved in procuring match tickets, flight tickets and accommodation. 

However, Qatar is seen by many as an affordable destination to enjoy the World Cup. The Middle-East nation is well connected to India through a variety of flight operators. 

And the fact that there is a sizeable Indian diaspora in Qatar further makes this year’s World Cup an attractive option for Indian football fans. Interestingly, a majority of that diaspora is made up of Keralites who are known to be mad about football.  

Varun, who has travelled to Russia in 2018, feels Qatar 2022 will be a much more accessible and affordable World Cup. 

“I think going to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup will be much easier for us Keralites, and Indians in general. It would be cheaper in terms of the flight costs, accommodation and food given that there are many Indians living there. I expect travelling to Qatar 2022 will be much cheaper than going to Russia for the 2018 World Cup,” said Varun. 

Not to mention the fact that fans will be able to enjoy some of the most advanced features at the Qatar 2022 stadiums like the Advanced Cooling Tech and more.

“I hope to enjoy the matches in the great stadiums in Qatar. I hope they surprise the world by proving that a winter World Cup is quite possible and hopefully, I can watch Argentina do well,” said Romit. 

It’s quite strange, isn’t it. The football World Cup is a tournament that has captivated Indian sports lovers despite the country being nowhere near the mainstream. But then football tends to have that effect world over. 

Played and followed in almost all the countries of the world, the football World Cup is a truly global celebration. And Indian fans are leaving no stone unturned to make sure they get a taste of the action too. Qatar 2022 might just be the perfect opportunity for fans from India to know how big a party the World Cup is.