Of the 1.8 million Qatar 2022 World Cup tickets sold in the first two phases, more than 23,500 were purchased by fans in India.
After the first ticketing phase, India ranked seventh in ticket sales.
At Russia 2018, nearly 18,000 Indian fans attended. Among all non-competing countries, India had the third highest number of fans in Russia, behind the United States and China.
So what drives the fans of a country, whose women’s team is ranked 58th and the men’s team is 104th and has never played in a World Cup, to attend the biggest sporting event in the world? world in such large numbers?
It’s a strange dichotomy best illustrated by the fact that men’s national team captain Sunil Chhetri had to post a video via the Indian football team’s Twitter account urging fans to attend the FIFA Cup qualifiers. Team Asia in Kolkata in June this year.
There’s something pitiful about the video, that one of the country’s greatest sportsmen, a man who sits third on the list of active international goalscorers, has to beg fans to come see his team in the flesh.
While the video had the desired effect and led to sold-out crowds, it reflects the state of Indian football.
In May this year, it was reported that funding for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had been cut by 85%. Last month, FIFA temporarily banned India for third-party interference.
Poor performance by the men’s team, a lack of structure in women’s football and inadequate development at 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 Indian Super League club FC Goa showed that there were 160 million football fans in India. The passion for the sport clearly exists, it’s just a matter of where it is channeled.
“The problem is how fans are separated in India, in the sense of what kind of football identity they have,” said Bangalore-based football culture and behavior researcher Debanjan Banerjee.
“There is a reason why the world is being twisted that India has no football fans because the number of fans who support Indian football is very less than the ratio who support European football.”
As one of the leading members of the Blue Pilgrims – a group of supporters who follow Indian men’s and women’s soccer teams every game, Banerjee has a clear understanding of attitudes and behaviors towards national teams.
At a time when football has become what Banerjee says is a “global youth identity”, he believes India’s lack of success on the international stage has made it difficult for fans to bond with the team. .
“The reason to support a football club or the reason people travel for football is to express themselves in a way that they feel is bigger than themselves and that also connects them to something that has more success and that’s positive,” he said.
This leads to the fact that fans tend to impersonate.
Banerjee spent the 2018 World Cup in the southern Indian state of Kerala and filmed a documentary on the connection between the state and football.
In it, he vividly captured the frenzy the tournament evoked in the people and devout fandom of Brazil and Argentina. Fan groups in these countries operated like political parties: separate “offices” where fans congregate and watch matches together.
An organizing committee is shown erecting cutouts of players along the streets as well as large murals up to 50 feet (15 meters) high.
The rivalries run deep and these groups of fans are constantly trying to outdo each other. In one of the scenes in the documentary, 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 of those Argentinian fanatics from Kerala. Pai, who works at an investment firm in Bangalore, fell in love with the Albiceleste, as most were, with Diego Maradona.
His first contact with the World Cup came at the age of seven in 1990, where his lasting memory was Maradona crying in the final.
Pai didn’t know who he was but his pain echoed inside him. A love story was born from this grief.
His passion only grew over the years and in 2010 he flew to South Africa with his brother to see Argentina in the flesh for the first time.
While the tournament ended badly for Argentina, the experience hooked Pai. In 2014, Pai went to Brazil with his wife and brother. He and his brother also learned Spanish to mingle with other Argentinian fans. These friendships were rekindled during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Qatar 2022 will be Pai’s fourth World Cup and he spoke of getting many calls from friends and acquaintances asking about ticketing and prices.
He mentioned that some of these people are not even ardent football fans. Besides Qatar’s geographical proximity to India, Pai believes the perceived difficulty in obtaining a visa deters people from traveling to other distant countries.
“The visa has never been an issue at any of these World Cups. There are communication issues that I had problems with in South Africa and Brazil, but it was never a problem. problem getting a visa,” he said. “Anyway [Pai and his brother] didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until we got the visa that we realized ‘Oh, the process is so easy’.”
The comfort factor of the Middle East cannot be overlooked.
Representing 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 apart from providing an accommodation option, they can help get match tickets. Pai secured tickets to the semi-finals through a friend who lives in Qatar.
There is a separate category reserved for residents of Qatar with tickets starting at 40 riyals ($11 or 876 Indian rupees) and they are allowed to have non-residents as guests.
The proximity of the stadiums is also an advantage for traveling supporters. But that’s one of the reasons why Rakesh Haridas, a lifelong football fan and co-founder of the legendary Bengaluru FC West Block Blues supporters group, isn’t 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 game was in Sochi, one in Moscow… that’s the whole setup of the World Cup and something we know,” he said.
However, Haridas understands that it is the players, not the venues, that attract fans to Qatar.
“This sunset era of some of football’s biggest stars is a big addition. Firstly, these are people you’ve grown up watching over the last 12 to 15 years. And it’s a lot easier to see Messi playing in Qatar than in Paris,” he said.
The bucket list nature of this World Cup is what makes it such an attractive proposition for business.
“The ultimate in luxury” packages
Raj Khandwala, CEO of Mumbai-based sports and travel management company, Cutting Edge, spoke about the monotony that has crept into traditional corporate social events like sightseeing tours and clubs.
“Now they [corporates] want to create experiences for their customers, clients or staff. So they want to show them an F1 race or a Wimbledon match or a FIFA World Cup. Something that is an experience for them,” Khandwala said.
Cutting Edge is the co-exclusive sales agent for match hospitality in India for this year’s World Cup and Khandwala estimated that hospitality ticket sales in India could be between 20 and 25 million. dollars.
Businesses account for almost 75% of Cutting Edge’s World Cup sales. The packages range from “the pinnacle of luxury” to the “true fan experience” according to their brochure. Packages include private dining experiences, six-course meals with live chef counters, champagne selections, extended service, prime match views, and preferential parking, among others.
The cheapest match ticket offered by Cutting Edge is $950 and the cost of hotel stay is between $500 and $800 for a two night package. The company is currently handling the ticketing of over 4,000 Indian fans and Khandwala expects that number to rise to 5,500 when the tournament begins.
Sports tourism has become a lucrative market with many new entrants in recent years.
Prominent Indian fantasy company Dream11 launched DreamSetGo in 2019, a venture that aims to combine sports and high-end travel.
Bharat Army, the famous Indian group of cricket supporters that follows the team in large numbers around the world, launched its own sports tourism branch called Bharat Army Travel & Tours in 2015.
Travel companies like Thomas Cook and Cox & Kings have also stepped up their efforts in this space.
“It’s growing. The landscape is crazy. People are going to do sports, everyone wants to do sports, everyone wants to have experiences and sports tourism will be the biggest thing to come to India,” Khandwala said.
The numbers match his enthusiasm. A study by Thrillophilia showed that adventure and experiential tourism is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.4% from 2017 to 2023.
There is also a shift in mindset driving this growth. Millennials, who prioritize experiences and are willing to spend money on them, are the country’s largest demographic. A Deloitte study in 2019 showed that the ambition of 57% 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 the Indians will once again make their presence felt in the stands.