DOHA, Qatar — Midway through the second half of Qatar’s match against Senegal at the World Cup, the drumming stopped as a man in a bucket hat and sunglasses rose and asked for quiet.
Moments earlier, a section of the crowd — more than a thousand strong, almost all men, all of them in identical maroon T-shirts with the word “Qatar” in English and Arabic — had been chanting in unison at the direction of four fan leaders. But now the sea of men understood what was expected, and they followed the order and fell into a strange silence as the match noise swirled around them inside Al Thumama Stadium.
Then a signal was made. And the crowd exploded back to life.
“Play, the Maroon!” they chanted over and over in Arabic, a reference to the nickname of Qatar’s national team. The men linked arms in long lines and jumped up and down. The floor below them shook.
The scene was more reminiscent of soccer stadiums in South America and Europe than in Qatar, and the cheering section evoked those of the ultras, a highly organized soccer fan culture with roots in Italy that can be found across the globe, including in North Africa and the Middle East.
That was the point. The fans’ noise filled the stadium, as it had five days earlier during Qatar’s opening game against Ecuador. Their numbers conveyed strength. Their relentless energy was infectious. But the body art on many of them gave them away.
The tattoos, which are extremely rare and highly frowned upon in Gulf society, seemed to suggest the fans weren’t Qatari. So who were they? And where did they come from?
The plan was hatched at the start of 2022, as the World Cup was finally coming into view. Qatar had been besieged by criticism ever since it won the rights to host the World Cup: over a corrupted vote that delivered it, over its treatment of migrant workers, over the ability of the tiny country to host and house more than a million visitors. But in the background was also another common criticism: that the country had no soccer culture.
Qatar had never qualified for a World Cup on its merits. The Qatar Stars League is one of the richest in the region, with state-of-the-art air-conditioned stadiums. But the crowds for teams like Al Sadd and Al Rayyan often number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Who, the organizers wondered, would fill the stadiums when Qatar played? Who would provide the soundtrack?
The answer was to tap into the region’s already fertile ultras culture and import it.
But that same culture is an unlikely fit with the commercialized reality of Qatar’s World Cup. The code of ultra culture is antagonistic and deeply anti-authority, and in constant conflict with the police and the news media. In the Middle East and North Africa, ultras have been politically influential, too: Egyptian ultras played a key role in the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled Hosni Mubarak as president, and such was their street power and popularity that ultras were barred by one of his successors, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, after he came to power in a coup.
The songs crafted on the bleachers in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon have been the soundtracks to antigovernment protests, too. But inside stadiums, they can fill even the most sterile spaces with passion, color and sound.
So, in April, a test event was arranged in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Hundreds of Lebanese students and fans of a local club, Nejmeh, were recruited to make a proof-of-concept film at Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium by recreating the atmosphere an ultra group can provide. The video shows hundreds of fans chanting, displaying banners and letting off pyrotechnics.
A capo, the term used for a fan who leads the chants, had been flown in from the main ultra group of the Turkish club Galatasaray to give direction. Galatasaray, too, had been identified on purpose. It has one of the most respected ultra scenes in the world. But the Lebanese said they needed no guidance.
“No! We showed them!” one Lebanese ultra said Friday. He declined to give his full name, a common practice in the ultra scene, and bristled at the idea he had to be taught how to organize a group of hard-core fans. The Turkish ultras, he said, “were going to come to Qatar, but they were surprised by us; we have been doing this for a long time.”
The video impressed the right people in Doha. Through word of mouth, young Lebanese fans were offered an extraordinary deal: free flights, accommodations, match tickets and food, plus a small stipend, to bring some ultra culture to Qatar’s World Cup games. The fans arrived in mid-October to rehearse their choreographed actions and to practice their newly written chants.
And to learn Qatar’s national anthem.
Attending the tournament was to be an experience beyond the reach of 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 percent. Thousands of citizens are fleeing the country. Without Qatar’s help, almost none of the men wearing maroon T-shirts would have been able to afford to attend the matches in the Gulf.
To go to a World Cup is a dream, the Lebanese ultra said. But it wasn’t just Lebanese fans who joined the effort: The group of roughly 1,500 fans also included Egyptians, Algerians and a few Syrians. Money, the ultra said, was not the sole 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 kickoff at Al Thumama Stadium on Friday, Qatar’s 1,500 adopted ultras had assembled in their designated section behind one of the goals in identical maroon T-shirts: Qatar on the front, “All for Al Annabi” on the back. The national anthem played, and the ultras sang it as if it were their own. When it ended, the Lebanese capos beat their drums and led the ultras in an Icelandic thunderclap.
“Qatari people don’t really support the team like this,” said Abdullah Aziz al-Khalaf, a 27-year-old Qatari human resources manager, standing in the concourse watching the ultras perform with a mixture of pride and bemusement. “Because in Qatar, we don’t go to the match too much.”
Another Qatari, a 16-year-old student and Al Rayyan fan, Ali al-Samikh, approved of the atmosphere. “I like it,” he said. “It is exciting!”
Would he like to stand there?
“No, I don’t want to,” he replied, shaking his head with a shy smile.
Qatar’s World Cup organizers did not respond to questions about the supporters, or the efforts to identify them and bring them to the tournament. A man wearing a polo shirt with the logo of Aspire Academy, Qatar’s billion-dollar talent farming project, filmed the crowd for the full 90 minutes.
Yet the passion felt real. The disappointment did, too, as Senegal scored twice. Up the grandstand, every few rows, fan leaders in white T-shirts shouted and urged the faithful to sing harder, mimicking a phenomenon often seen in ultra crowds in Italy, Germany and Morocco: You sing louder and make more noise when you are losing. The drums beat louder. The chants returned.
The whole crowd, not only those behind the goal, finally sprang to life when Mohammed Muntari scored Qatar’s first goal in a World Cup match. But not everyone got the memo: Amid the pulsating celebrations, a security guard rushed to the front in a failed effort to ask the ultras to sit down. But the joy was short-lived when Senegal scored a third goal. The game ended, 3-1. A few hours later, Qatar became 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 he said he actually lives in Qatar.
“We are a group of Arab people working here, to support Qatar,” he said, adding, “If we were working in England, we’d support England, too.”
The crowd melted away. The Qatari ultras were only ever 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, they will bring their noise once more, with feeling.
“The next game,” Ahmed said, “I am sure we will win.”
James Montague is the author of “1312,” an account of ultras culture around the world.
Randa Saidi contributed reporting.