Doha, Qatar – It’s the first time that four teams from Asia and Africa have made it to the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup. In-form Morocco are still in the fray. But for many fans from those continents, including the Middle East, there’s another reason to celebrate the ongoing tournament: It’s simply easier and more affordable to attend.
Saudi Arabia and India sit at the top of 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 completion of the tournament’s group stage.
While Saudi Arabia played at the World Cup and pulled off its first big upset, beating Argentina 2-1, India has never come close to qualifying for football’s premier event. Still, visitors from India accounted for 34 percent of the total arrivals during the group stages.
Mohit Kayan, who came to Doha from Mumbai, said the reason is simple: the World Cup is in Qatar, on the Arabian Peninsula, which is part of West Asia. “It’s 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 for a match-day visit via Dubai, where his friends joined him on a shuttle flight. “We arrived on the morning of the game, took a bus to the stadium and will now head back to Dubai after spending a few hours at the fan festival,” he said.
Such ease of travel – getting from Mumbai to Doha takes only as long as flying from the north of India to its 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 exempt from needing a visa to enter Qatar. That, too, has helped, said fans. Jin, a football fan from Malaysia, said not having to worry about a complicated visa process allowed him to convince his friends to join him on his trip. “Visa requirements and flight costs have always held us back from attending the World Cup,” he said.
Indeed, attending the 2026 World Cup – to be held 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 what we have spent on our entire trip to Qatar, so we can’t even think about going there,” he said.
The cheapest flight from Kuala Lumpur to Doha in early December cost $700, compared to $1,900 for a flight to New York City.
For others, like Zahra S from Bahrain, a World Cup in the Middle East has helped them realise a lifelong dream. “I have always been a football fan but never considered attending a World Cup until now,” she said.
Zahra and her cousin Zaynab have been staying at the fan village in Al Khor, 50km (31 miles) from Doha, and said they have not felt uncomfortable or unsafe at their accommodation or inside stadiums. “Now that we have seen how convenient it has been to be a part of the World Cup, we are definitely going to attend another one if it is hosted by a Gulf nation,” she said.
Fans from Morocco, one of the two African countries to qualify for the knock-out stage, have been among the most boisterous group of supporters at the tournament. From gathering at the stadiums in the thousands to marching across fan zones to drumbeats and loud chants, fans of the Atlas Lions have painted the town red with their team’s colours.
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.