Of the 1.8 million Qatar World Cup 2022 tickets sold across the first two phases, more than 23,500 were bought by fans in India.
After the first phase of ticketing, India was ranked seventh in ticket sales.
At Russia 2018, almost 18,000 fans from India were in attendance. Across all non-competing countries, India had the third highest number of fans in Russia, behind only the United States and China.
So what drives the fans of a country, whose women’s side is ranked 58th and the men’s team is at 104th and has never played in a World Cup, to the world’s biggest sporting event in such big numbers?
It’s a strange dichotomy best illustrated by the fact that the national men’s team captain Sunil Chhetri had to post a video through the Indian Football Team Twitter handle urging fans to attend the team’s Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata in June this year.
There’s something pitiful about the video, that one of the country’s greatest sportspersons, a man who sits third on the list of active international goal scorers, has to plead to fans to come and watch his team in the flesh.
While the video had the desired effect and led to sellout crowds, it is reflective of the state of Indian football.
In May this year, it was reported that the funding of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had been slashed by 85 percent. Last month, FIFA temporarily banned India over third-party interference.
Poor performance of the men’s team, a lack of structure in the women’s game and inadequate development at the grassroots level were cited as reasons for the budget cut.
160 million football fans in India
In January this year, a YouGov survey conducted on behalf of the Indian Super League club FC Goa showed that there are 160 million football fans in India. The passion for the sport clearly exists, it’s just a matter of where it’s being channelled.
“The problem is how fans are segregated in India, in the sense of what type of identity they possess when it comes to football,” said Debanjan Banerjee, a football culture and behaviour researcher based in Bangalore.
“There’s a reason it is misportrayed to the world that India doesn’t have football fans because the number of fans that support Indian football is very less compared to the ratio that supports European football.”
As one of the core members of the Blue Pilgrims – a supporters’ group that follows the Indian men’s and women’s football teams at every match, Banerjee has a clear understanding of the attitudes and behaviours towards the national teams.
At a time when football has become what Banerjee says is a “global identity for the youth”, he believes India’s lack of success on the international stage has made it difficult for fans to link themselves to the team.
“The reason to support a football club or why people travel for football is to express themselves in a way which they feel is larger than themselves and also connects them to something which is more successful and is positive,” he said.
That leads to the fact that fans tend to borrow identities.
Banerjee spent the 2018 World Cup in the southern Indian state of Kerala, shooting a documentary on the state’s connection to football.
In it, he vividly captured the frenzy the tournament evoked in people and the devout fandom for Brazil and Argentina. The fan groups of these countries operated like political parties: separate “offices” where supporters congregate and watch matches together.
An organising committee is shown erecting cutouts of players along the streets along with large murals up to 50 feet (15 metres) high.
The rivalries run deep and these fan groups constantly try to outshine each other. In one of the documentary scenes, a fight breaks out between the groups in the middle of the night and has to be broken up by the church parish.
Love affair with Argentina, Brazil
Rakesh Pai is one such fanatical Argentina fan from Kerala. Pai, who works at an investment firm in Bangalore, became smitten by the Albiceleste as most were, by Diego Maradona.
His first brush with the World Cup came as a seven year old in 1990, where his lasting memory was Maradona crying in the final.
Pai did not know who he was but his pain resonated with him. A love affair grew out of this heartbreak.
His passion only grew as the years passed and, in 2010, he flew to South Africa with his brother to watch Argentina in the flesh for the first time.
While the tournament ended poorly for Argentina, the experience had Pai hooked. In 2014, Pai went to Brazil with his wife and brother. He and his brother also learned Spanish to mingle with other Argentine fans. These friendships were rekindled at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Qatar 2022 will be Pai’s fourth World Cup and he spoke of receiving numerous calls from friends and acquaintances, asking questions about ticketing and pricing.
He mentioned how some of these people are not even ardent football supporters. Aside from Qatar’s geographical proximity to India, Pai believes the perceived difficulty in obtaining a visa puts people off travelling to other far-flung countries.
“Visa has never been a problem at any of these World Cups. There are some communication issues due to which I faced problems in South Africa and in Brazil, but it was never a problem to get a visa,” he said. “But, we [Pai and his brother] didn’t know that at the time. Only when we got the visa, we realised ‘Oh, the process is so simple’.”
The comfort factor of the Middle East can’t be overlooked.
Making up about a quarter of the population, there are more than 750,000 Indians in Qatar.
The chances of knowing a friend or relative who lives in Qatar are high and aside from providing an accommodation option, they can help secure match tickets. Pai sourced tickets all the way to the semi-finals through a friend who lives in Qatar.
There is a separate category just for Qatar residents with tickets starting at 40 riyals ($11 or 876 Indian rupees) and they are allowed to have non-residents as guests.
The close proximity of the stadiums is also a benefit for travelling fans. But this is one of the reasons why longtime football fan and co-founder of the fabled Bengaluru FC supporters group West Block Blues, Rakesh Haridas is not too keen on attending the 2022 World Cup.
“Qatar 2022 doesn’t excite me. You go to a World Cup to experience the country as such. if you look at Russia, one match was in Sochi, one in Moscow … that’s the whole setup of the World Cup and something we know of,” he said.
However, Haridas understands that it is the players, not places, pulling fans to Qatar.
“That sunset era of some of the biggest stars of football is a big addition. One, these are people who you grew up watching in the last 12 to 15 years. And, it’s much easier to watch Messi play in Qatar than in Paris,” he said.
The bucket list-esque nature of this World Cup is what makes it such an attractive proposition for corporates.
‘Pinnacle of luxury’ packages
Raj Khandwala, CEO of Mumbai-based sports management and travel company Cutting Edge, spoke of the monotony that has crept into traditional corporate social events like sightseeing and clubbing.
“Now, they [corporates] want to create experiences for their clients, customers or staff. So, they want to show them an F1 race or a Wimbledon game or a football World Cup. Something which is an experience for them,” said Khandwala.
Cutting Edge is the joint-exclusive sales agent of match hospitality in India for this year’s World Cup and Khandwala estimated that the hospitality ticket sales in India could end up at anywhere between $20-$25m.
Corporates account for nearly 75 percent of Cutting Edge’s sales for the World Cup. The packages range from the “pinnacle of luxury” to the “true fan experience” as per their brochure. The packages include private dining experiences, six-course meals with live chef counters, champagne selections, extended service, prime match views and preferential parking, among other things.
The cheapest match ticket offered by Cutting Edge is $950 and the cost for the hotel stay is between $500 to $800 for a two-night package. The company has currently done the ticketing for more than 4,000 Indian fans and Khandwala expects that number to rise to 5,500 by the time the tournament commences.
Sports tourism has evolved into a lucrative market with a lot of new entrants in recent years.
Prominent Indian fantasy company Dream11 launched DreamSetGo in 2019, a company that aims to combine sports and premium travel.
Bharat Army, the famed Indian cricket supporters group that follows the team in large numbers across the globe, launched its own sports tourism arm called Bharat Army Travel & Tours in 2015.
Travel companies like Thomas Cook and Cox & Kings, too, have redoubled their efforts in this space.
“It’s growing. The landscape is nuts. People are going to go for sports, everyone wants to do sports, everyone wants to experience things and sports tourism will be the biggest thing coming to India,” said Khandwala.
The numbers match his enthusiasm. A study conducted by Thrillophilia showed that adventure and experiential tourism is expected to grow at a compared annual growth rate of 17.4 percent from 2017 to 2023.
There is also a mindset shift driving this growth. Millennials, who prioritise experiences and are willing to spend money on them, are the largest demographic group in the country. A study by Deloitte in 2019 showed that the ambition of 57 percent of millennials and an equal number of Gen Z in the country was to travel and see the world.
As before, India may not be at the World Cup but Indians will be making their presence felt in the stands once again.