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‘Fake fans’ are the future of international football

On the eve of the Qatar World Cup, a video of about 20 men of south Asian origin dressed in England shirts went viral. The group were stumbling through “Three Lions”, the country’s unofficial football anthem, and bouncing up and down brandishing their England flags.

The footage attracted suspicion, with some labelling the group “fake fans”, perhaps hired by the tournament’s organisers to counter fears of a feeble atmosphere. After all, Qatar has sponsored supporters from all over the world to attend the event, as a thank you for their “engagement” in the run-up to the World Cup.

But in Doha, as in much of the world, football fandom is fluid. During this tournament I’ve seen plenty of families with split loyalties, especially among immigrant workers’ communities. Mum might be wearing a Brazil shirt and dad Germany’s black and white, while the kids sport the French navy of Les Bleus. Even some individuals appear divided — I spotted Saudi flags draped round the shoulders of Portugal and Argentina shirts.

To those who see football as a tribal pursuit, this form of fandom could seem an affront. If football is a matter of identity — personal or national — how can someone cheer for Argentina at 1pm, then don the yellow of rivals Brazil hours later?

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But like it or not, this is the modern game. This World Cup has showcased a vision of football where national teams are more like brands that anyone can consume, and where preference can be based on mood or marketing. When Fifa talks about a “World Cup for everyone”, this is what it means in practice.

The collapse of the European Super League, an attempted breakaway project launched last year by 12 top clubs, was a victory for the tribal over the global. Fans broke into stadiums to protest, claiming that greed was ruining their beloved game, helping to precipitate the league’s unravelling.

But the longer-term trends point the other way. Many millions of fans around the world, from Singapore to Cincinnati, have made football into the huge business it is today. This season the English Premier League is set to generate £1.8bn in international broadcast income, surpassing the £1.7bn it gets from its home market. The clubs are owned by Saudi sovereign wealth, American private equity and Emirati royals.

And many fans in Qatar have no choice but to adopt another nation’s team. Bangladesh, India, Uganda, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines — none will play here, so the hundreds of thousands of workers from those countries are branching out. Others might have a team to follow, but with Qatar offering a one-off opportunity to watch multiple matches a day, even loyal fans are promiscuous on their days off.

As in the club game, individual players are the magnet. Young fans in particular know football through fantasy leagues, TikTok and video games, where talk revolves around who has the highest “pace” rating, not the shared triumphs and heartaches of the past.

The Portugal football team has 11.9mn followers on Instagram, while Cristiano Ronaldo — the team’s star player — has 506mn. Ronaldo is the football equivalent of the “Mona Lisa” — people flock from all over the world so they can tell folks back home they saw him in the flesh.

Shanvas, my Keralan Uber driver, put it well. When I asked one afternoon which team he was supporting, he told me he used to support Wayne Rooney. Now he follows Lionel Messi.

The accusation is that “fake fans” ruin the atmosphere. Passion, after all, cannot be counterfeited. But World Cups have always had tourist elements. On the Doha Metro, you can still see Japanese fans dressed as samurai warriors and spot a red Moroccan fez bobbing in a sea of Mexican sombreros.

Here, I ran into four fans decked out in Dutch tangerine, complete with face-painted stripes of the Netherlands flag. They were from Cairo. The Egyptian team had failed to qualify, but with the tournament near by, they decided to fly in for a week. They planned to be back on the Metro the next day, but dressed in the blue and white of Argentina.

A similar scene plays out on the vast fleet of fan buses. That’s where I met Abdullah, an engineer from Riyadh. He was in Doha to follow Saudi Arabia, but that evening was heading off to support Spain against Costa Rica.

Within moments of our meeting, he was asking me for an update on Harry Kane’s ankle. When I told him I was a Crystal Palace supporter, he told me that star player Wilfried Zaha had great talent, but that his “mentality is not good”. Even the clichés have gone global.

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