Doha, Qatar – On any given night at the Century Restaurant, an Indian eatery in Doha, customers may find themselves drawn into a discussion about football with a waiter named Abbas Koori.
The buzzing eatery where the 46-year-old Indian waiter works is a place for people on the move. The no-frills establishment serves Keralan cuisine, along with a few Chinese and Middle Eastern dishes. It caters to a diverse group of foreigners in the bustling neighbourhood of Najma, which is filled with furniture, hardware, scrap, and meat businesses.
Koori is a familiar face at the restaurant and is known by regulars to be a football aficionado.
These days, with the World Cup in full swing in Qatar, Koori has more opportunities than usual to discuss his favourite topic.
“I speak to every African and European I meet at the restaurant. I ask them where they come 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 to speak.”
One recent evening, a group of Moroccans came to the restaurant, and while serving them Koori started listing the names of past and present players from their national team. “Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi, Marouane Chamakh, Noussair Mazraoui, Mustapha Hadji … They were delighted when they heard those names and called me akhi [brother],” he recounted.
Other times, the friendly yet straight-faced Koori strikes up a conversation by asking, “Have you watched yesterday’s game?”
In mid-November, some Chelsea fans who were in Qatar for the World Cup asked to take a selfie with Koori after he introduced himself as a Premier League fan.
“No one ignored or avoided me for talking football,” he said.
Memorising players’ names
The moustachioed waiter dons a hairnet and the restaurant’s brown polo shirt with red trim during his 12-hour shift from noon to midnight.
He prefers serving groups as he has more occasions to return to their table and extend the conversation, which he peppers with historical anecdotes, analysis of team formation, occasional updates about players’ fitness and football folklore including rags-to-riches stories. While doing this, he occasionally glances at the cash register to see whether the manager is watching him and if he needs to hurry back to work.
At night after his shift, he watches matches or replays and memorises the names of players. “If I don’t get enough time, I rifle through the highlights on YouTube,” said Koori.
NS Nissar, an Indian sportswriter covering the World Cup 2022 for Madhyamam, a Malayalam language newspaper from the Indian state of Kerala, first encountered Koori just before the World Cup started when he went to the restaurant for tea. He suggested that Koori may know the names of thousands of players from the past three decades.
“I instantly noticed his memory. We all know Claudio Caniggia played for Argentina in the 1990s, but Koori tracked the players’ entire trajectory through clubs. He can recall every player of [all] World Cup teams since the 1990s,” recounted Nissar, who described Koori’s memory as “encyclopaedic”.
“I have seen people knowledgeable about Brazil, Argentina or Italy, but this man knows a lot about Morocco, Cameroon or Senegal,” he said.
Sometimes, Koori will spontaneously mention the nicknames of players who were likened to the Brazilian legend Pele: “Pele of the desert – Saudi Arabia’s Majed Abdullah; White Pele – Zico of Brazil.” At other times he shares trivia like how “Ballon d’Or winner George Weah went on to become Liberia’s president.”
He might tell you how AC Milan, who dominated the Italian league, fell from grace as they focused “too much on defence” or lament that the days of “individuals single-handedly carrying a team to win” have passed.
Koori never leaves a patron who he thinks follows the game, says Jaseem Mohamed, a sales engineer who occasionally drops by the restaurant for a quick bite during the week. “He always hovers around the table, looking to open a chat,” he said. “I encourage it when I have time.”
‘The reason I love football’
Koori was born in 1976 – the youngest of six children – to a gunny bag merchant and a homemaker in Kerala’s Malappuram, a football-mad town in a country where cricket is often the more popular sport.
Koori didn’t play the game much in his childhood, but a 1990 World Cup match that he watched with about 30 others from his village sparked his lifelong love of the sport. Sitting in his neighbour’s courtyard as a 14-year-old in front of a “black and white Keltron brand TV”, he witnessed a historic match where Cameroon defeated Argentina.
“Argentina was a good team, but the powerful Cameroonians tackled every Argentine player, including Diego Maradona, Caniggia, and Jorge Burruchaga,” he explained.
Although Argentina lost that game, Maradona enthralled a teenage Koori. “He was the reason I love football. Maradona’s passing, dribbling, and arrival to the pitch carrying a ball on his head … he had that flare for the dramatic,” he added.
After finishing high school, Koori worked in an auto garage and then in sand mining. Throughout, he read about football in the sports pages of newspapers. Koori, whose first language is Malayalam, taught himself to read English using Sportstar, an English-language Indian sports magazine.
“It was easy because I was familiar with the sports terms or had watched the game,” he said, adding that he doesn’t read about any other subjects in English.
Meanwhile, following 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 ones from Cameroon and Nigeria.
“I love African footballers because of their dexterity,” Koori said, using the Malayalam word meyvazhakkam, which means flexibility, “and their dancing skills on the pitch in celebration.”
After he married, Koori moved to Saudi Arabia in search of better job prospects like thousands of others from his home district who have migrated to Gulf countries for work. He lived there from 2005 to 2008, working in a supermarket and a shawarma outlet in Khamis Mushait, a city some 900km (560 miles) from the capital Riyadh.
Then, after returning home, he worked again in sand mining 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 watching major European leagues have given him the knowledge to analyse the national teams playing in this World Cup.
“Watching Álisson Becker play 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 of Brazil,” he reflected at the start of the tournament.
On Friday, his favourite team Brazil lost to Croatia. He now predicts a final between Argentina and France. “Croatia is not a good team,” he said matter-of-factly.
When the tournament began, Koori was sad to not be able to afford a ticket, which would cost a fifth of his monthly salary. But in late November, a regular customer gave him a ticket to watch Argentina face Poland, fulfilling Koori’s dream of attending a World Cup match. On his way to the game in the metro and in the stadium, he took selfies to record the experience.
He doesn’t know his benefactor’s name or where he works. “I didn’t ask,” said Koori. “I know he’s from Mangalore, in the Karnataka state of India, and he loves me for my football love.”
Koori’s wife and three children, who he misses and can only see once a year, also share his enthusiasm for the sport.
He would like someday to work in a football-related job in a club or association. As for his current job, he likes it “50-50”. But he appreciates that it has allowed him to share his love of the beautiful game with strangers. “I’m sure I motivated people to love football,” he said.