Thousands of migrant workers wearing the colours of Argentina, Brazil and England staged a World Cup rally in Doha on Friday, less than 10 days from the start of the tournament.
Fans of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Harry Kane converged on the Doha seafront for a march that would normally not have been allowed, according to an AFP journalist.
The fans came mainly from Kerala state, a football bastion in India that also accounts for a huge chunk of the Indian migrant community in Qatar of about 750,000 people. Qatar has a total population of about 2.8 million.
The hordes turned up for the event that was organised on social media and marched behind drummers to the World Cup countdown clock overlooking the Gulf.
“Police were told in advance and this is our day,” said one organiser who requested anonymity.
Asia’s World Cup
Demonstrations and rallies are rare in Qatar and are normally confronted by tight security, but police on Friday watched the fans from a discreet distance.
“The foreign workers in Qatar love football and they have bought a lot of tickets,” added the organiser.
“This is the first World Cup in an Arab nation but in many ways, this is also going to be the first World Cup in South Asia.”
The fans donned the blue-and-white strip of Argentina and Brazil’s yellow jersey, bearing the names of Messi and Neymar, but also Indian names.
They marched past the royal palace in Doha, where it is normally illegal to take a picture of the building.
Qatar has been at the centre of intense scrutiny over its treatment of foreign workers. Most of those who took part in the football rally would not give their full names because they did not want employers to find out.
“This is a day of joy for us,” said one man who gave his name as Rajesh. “There will be no politics, we are going to sing and chant about football – especially Lionel Messi.”
“This is our freedom of expression,” said another man in a Messi shirt, who gave his name as Aju.
“Of course some of us have tough jobs, we hear the stories, but the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Qatar residents have been the top buyers of tickets for the tournament, with some low-priced US$10 (S$13.70) tickets having been reserved for migrant workers. India has also been a key market for ticket sales.
The rally was held the day after the United States became the first team to arrive in Qatar for the event that starts Nov 20.
“Seeing players touch down in Doha, the coaches announcing their squads, and the players reacting with such natural and unbridled emotions… has excited the football world,” said Fifa president Gianni Infantino.