The Indian waiter with “encyclopaedic” football knowledge | Qatar World Cup 2022

Doha, Qatar – Every night at Century Restaurant, an Indian restaurant in Doha, customers can get caught up in a discussion about soccer with a waiter named Abbas Koori.

The lively eatery where the 46-year-old Indian waiter works is a place for people on the go. The no-frills eatery serves Keralan cuisine as well as some Chinese and Middle Eastern dishes. It caters to a diverse group of expats in the bustling Najma district, which is packed with furniture, hardware, junk and meat shops.

Koori is a familiar face at the restaurant and known to regulars as a football fan.

These days, with the World Cup in Qatar in full swing, Koori has more opportunities than usual to talk about his favorite topic.

“I talk to every African and European I meet in the restaurant. I ask them where they are from,” said Koori, who has met fans from Ghana, England, Nigeria, Morocco and other countries.

“Then I ask about a player in their national team. Most people start talking.”

One recent evening, a group of Moroccans walked into the restaurant and, while Koori was serving them, she began listing the names of past and present players from her national team. “Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi, Marouane Chamakh, Noussair Mazraoui, Mustapha Hadji… They got excited when they heard these names and called me Akhi [brother]’ he said.

Sometimes the friendly but serious Koori will start a conversation by asking, “Did you see yesterday’s game?”

In mid-November, some Chelsea fans who were in Qatar for the World Cup asked for a selfie with Koori after he introduced himself as a Premier League fan.

“Nobody ignored me or avoided me for talking about football,” he said.

Remember player name

The mustachioed waiter wears a hairnet and the restaurant’s brown polo shirt with red trim during his 12-hour shift from noon to midnight.

He prefers to serve groups as he has more opportunity to return to their table and expand the conversation, which he spices up with historical anecdotes, analysis of team building, occasional updates on player fitness and football folklore, including rags to riches stories. From time to time he glances at the cash register to see if the boss is watching him and if he needs to get back to work quickly.

At night after his shift, he watches or replays games and remembers the names of the players. “If I don’t have enough time, I dig through the highlights on YouTube,” Koori said.

NS Nissar, an Indian sportswriter covering the 2022 World Cup for Madhyamam, a Malayalam-language newspaper based in the Indian state of Kerala, first met Koori just before the start of the World Cup when he was going to a restaurant for tea. He suggested that Koori might know the names of thousands of players over the past three decades.

“I immediately noticed his memory. We all know that Claudio Caniggia played for Argentina in the 1990s, but Koori followed the players’ entire careers through the clubs. He can remember every player [all] World Cup teams since the 1990s,” said Nissar, who described Koori’s memory as “encyclopedic.”

“I’ve met people who know about Brazil, Argentina or Italy, but this man knows a lot about Morocco, Cameroon or Senegal,” he said.

Sometimes Koori spontaneously mentions the nicknames of players who have been compared to Brazilian legend Pele: “Pele of the desert – Saudi Arabia’s Majed Abdullah; White Pele – Zico from Brazil.” At other times he recounts trivia such as “Ballon d’Or winner George Weah became President of Liberia”.

He could tell you how AC Milan, who dominated the Italian league, fell out of favor for focusing “too much on defence” or lament the days “of individuals who single-handedly took a team to victory.” wear”, are over.

Koori never leaves a guest he thinks is watching the game, says Jaseem Mohamed, a sales engineer who occasionally pops into the restaurant for a quick bite during the weekday. “He’s always hovering around the table trying to open a chat,” he said. “I encourage it when I have time.”

A photo of two people standing side by side.
Koori poses with a regular customer from Ghana, with whom he discusses football [Firoz Hassan/Al Jazeera]

“The reason why I love football”

Koori was born in 1976, the youngest of six children to a hessian bag merchant and a housewife in Kerala’s Malappuram, a football-loving town in a country where cricket is often the more popular sport.

Koori didn’t play the game much growing up, but watching a 1990 World Cup game with about 30 others from his village sparked his lifelong love of the sport. As a 14-year-old, he sat in his neighbor’s yard in front of a “black and white Keltron brand television” and witnessed a historic game in which Cameroon beat Argentina.

“Argentina were a good team but the strong Cameroonians attacked every Argentine player, including Diego Maradona, Caniggia and Jorge Burruchaga,” he explained.

Although Argentina lost that game, Maradona thrilled a teenager Koori. “He was the reason I love football. Maradona’s passing, dribbling and coming onto the pitch with a ball on his head… he had this flair for the dramatic,” he added.

After graduating from high school, Koori worked in an auto repair shop and then in sand mining. Meanwhile, he read about football on the sports pages of the newspapers. Koori, whose native language is Malayalam, has taught himself to read the English language with Sportstar, an English-language Indian sports magazine.

“It was just because I was familiar with sports terms or seen the game,” he said, adding that he doesn’t read other subjects in English.

Meanwhile, participation in the Premier League made him a Manchester United fan, while he also became an admirer of the Brazilian national team and some African players, especially from Cameroon and Nigeria.

“I love African footballers for their skill,” said Koori, using the Malayalam word meyvazhakkam, which means flexibility, “and for their dancing ability on the pitch to celebrate.”

After his marriage, Koori moved to Saudi Arabia in search of better job prospects, like thousands of others from his home district who have migrated to the Gulf States to work. He lived there from 2005 to 2008, working in a supermarket and a shawarma shop in Khamis Mushait, a town about 900 km (560 miles) from the capital, Riyadh.

After returning home, he worked in sand mining again before coming to Qatar in 2017.

The Qatar World Cup

Koori says the men in his family, including his three brothers, are also football fans. “My mother doesn’t watch. But my wife does,” he said.

Years of observing major European leagues has given him the knowledge to analyze the national teams playing at this World Cup.

“When I see Álisson Becker playing for Liverpool, Ederson for Manchester City, Antony and Casemiro for Manchester United, Richarlison for Tottenham Hotspur, Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus for Arsenal, Neymar Junior and Marquinhos for PSG, Thiago Silva for Chelsea, I know the value Brazil’s,” he mused at the start of the tournament.

On Friday his favorite team Brazil lost to Croatia. He now predicts a final between Argentina and France. “Croatia are not a good team,” he said soberly.

When the tournament started, Koori was sad that he couldn’t afford a ticket that would cost a fifth of his monthly salary. However, at the end of November a regular customer gifted him a ticket to see Argentina against Poland, fulfilling Koori’s dream of attending a World Cup match. On the way to the game in the subway and in the stadium, he took selfies to capture the experience.

He does not know the name of his benefactor or where he works. “I didn’t ask,” Koori said. “I know he is from Mangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka and loves me for my love of football.”

Koori’s wife and three children, whom he misses and only sees once a year, also share his enthusiasm for the sport.

At some point he would like to work in a club or association in a football-related profession. As for his current job, he likes it “50-50”. But he appreciates that it has allowed him to share his love for the beautiful game with strangers. “I’m sure I motivated people to love football,” he said.

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