Asian and African fans rejoice with ‘affordable’ World Cup nearby | Messages from Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Doha, Qatar – It is the first time four teams from Asia and Africa have made it to the knockout stages of a FIFA World Cup. In-form Morocco are still in contention. But for many fans from these continents, including the Middle East, there’s another reason to celebrate the ongoing tournament: it’s just easier and more affordable to attend.

Saudi Arabia and India top the list of countries with the most applications for Hayya cards – which fans need to enter Qatar for the World Cup – according to figures released by FIFA after the conclusion of the tournament’s group stage.

While Saudi Arabia played at the World Cup and celebrated their first major upset by beating Argentina 2-1, India has never come close to qualifying for football’s premier event. Nonetheless, visitors from India accounted for 34 per cent of all arrivals during the group stage.

Mohit Kayan, who came to Doha from Mumbai, said the reason is simple: the World Cup is being held in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula, which is part of western Asia. “This is a proud moment for all of us [Asians] that the continent is hosting its second World Cup [after Japan and South Korea in 2002]especially since it is so close to India,” Kayan told Al Jazeera.

Kayan arrived in Doha via Dubai for a matchday visit, where his friends flew to him on a shuttle flight. “We arrived on the morning of the game, took the bus to the stadium and will now be driving back to Dubai after a few hours at Fanfest,” he said.

Such ease of travel – Mumbai to Doha takes as long as a flight from northern India to southern cities – would have been unthinkable for fans like Kayan if the World Cup were being held in Europe or South America.

Hayya Card holders with match tickets are visa-exempt to enter Qatar. That helped, too, fans said. Jin, a football fan from Malaysia, said he didn’t have to worry about a complicated visa process to convince his friends to join him on his trip. “Visa requirements and airfare have always kept us from going to the World Cup,” he said.

Jin (right) with another Malaysian football fan in Doha for the 2022 World Cup [Hafsa Adil/Al Jazeera]

In fact, participation in the 2026 World Cup – hosted jointly by the United States, Canada and Mexico – is already off the table for Jin.

“The next World Cup is in North America and flights alone would cost us more than our entire trip to Qatar so we can’t even think of going there,” he said.

The cheapest flight from Kuala Lumpur to Doha in early December was $700, compared to $1,900 for a flight to New York City.

For others, like Bahrain’s Zahra S., a World Cup in the Middle East has helped fulfill a lifetime dream. “I’ve always been a football fan but never thought of going to a World Cup until now,” she said.

Zahra and her cousin Zaynab stayed at the fan village in Al Khor, 50 km (31 miles) from Doha, and said they never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in their accommodation or in stadiums. “Now that we’ve seen how comfortable it is to be part of the World Cup, we will definitely attend another one if it’s hosted by a golfing nation,” she said.

Fans from Morocco, one of the two African countries that qualified for the knockout stages, were among the tournament’s most boisterous supporters. From thousands of gatherings in stadiums to marching through fan zones to drumbeats and loud chants, Atlas Lions fans have painted the city red with their team’s colors.

Rachid and his friends from Oujda in northeast Morocco have been following the team since their first game of the tournament. “We can be here to support our team without feeling out of place,” Rachid said.

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