Our fans could fill two stadiums, said Morocco coach Walid Regragui. “It is an amazing feeling to be playing for the Arabic and African people of the world,” he said, ahead of Tuesday’s tie against Spain. Acknowledging the support Morocco would get in this round-of-16 match, coach Luis Enrique said he hoped “Spain’s fans some 3000 to 4000” would be able to “silence” them.
The comments set the tone for a game in a tournament also called the Arab World Cup, one which had four participants from the region among 32 in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco. One where Morocco are the last team standing but where Saudi Arabia beat Argentina and Tunisia ended their campaign with a win against defending champions France.
For Mahmoud Al Fadli, Regragui’s men are also ambassadors of Arab culture. That is how it has been for all Arab teams through this competition, said the journalist from Jordan who is based in Qatar. “It happened that way in 1986 as well,” he said. That was when Morocco last made the knockout round in a World Cup.
“Do you think everyone backing Morocco tomorrow are Moroccans? That would be like thinking everyone supporting Argentina is an Argentine. Tomorrow, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, those from UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria and Tunisia will support Morocco,” he said.
Many in charge of security at stadiums are from the Arabic-speaking world and it is not uncommon to see them switch from English the moment they realise the person going through the hoops is from the region.
From 2010 when Sepp Blatter opened the envelope that said “Qatar”, this World Cup has been billed as one not for a country but from a region. But in the 12 years between the tiny, thumb-like peninsula being declared successful bidders by the then FIFA president and now, a lot has changed.
Qatar faced a blockade from June 2017 to January 2021 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and UAE severed diplomatic, political and economic ties and cut off sea, air, and land routes. Qatar fans couldn’t travel to UAE for the 2019 Asian Cup which Qatar won beating the hosts in the semi-final and Japan in the final. That was the first match between the countries since the breakdown in relations.
But all that is in the past. “There have been problems,” said Rasha Al Qarni, who heads the volunteers programme at the World Cup. “But that is like a dispute in the family, it has been sorted. We are hosting the World Cup but we have the support of the whole Arab world,” she said on Tuesday.
Last month, former Saudi Arabia star Nawaf Al Temyat, who played three World Cup finals, said: “The World Cup in Qatar will introduce everyone to the Arab world.” He was speaking to the website qatar2022.qa.
For the World Cup, Saudi Arabia issued overland visas for Qatar with whom it shares an 87km border and UAE allowed 48 daily flights from Dubai, up by 42. So thousands of Saudis drove into Qatar via the border at Abu Samra. After Qatar and USA, Saudi Arabia has bought the maximum match tickets, according to FIFA.
The housing cluster at Al Wakra seemed taken over by Saudi Arabians bouncing through it singing how they had conquered the top dogs from “America Latina.” For days after the 2-1 win against Argentina, Saudi Arabian fans were heard chanting “where’s Messi” in different parts of Doha.
When Tunisia began with a surprise 0-0 draw with Denmark, fans in the red shirts of the north African country spilled out of the shisha bars and restaurants at the Souk Waqif, whose eateries and shops have been a meeting point for World Cup tourists. After the hosts were eliminated, a report in local media said, Qataris would support other Arab teams.
The multiple budget airlines flights from Dubai has helped a couple from Bogota to be at games here. “We travel without luggage, take the metro from the airport for games, use the underground to travel back to the airport and fly to Dubai which has been our home for 10 years,” said the man HT met on the metro from Lusail Stadium where Brazil played Cameroon. It was the same for Yousuf Hamid, who said he flew private jets, who was on his way to the airport after watching Belgium-Croatia.
And though Palestinians and Israelis have flown together for the World Cup, a point highlighted by FIFA president Gianni Infantino before the World Cup, the tournament has also been used to highlight the long-standing conflict between the regions. Armbands in support of the Palestine cause and Palestine flags have been seen at a number of group league games.