DOHA, Qatar, Feb 4 – Despite playing Qatar’s Duhail a stone’s throw from their own ground, Egyptian giants Al-Ahly clearly felt they had the home advantage at the first day of the Club World Cup.
Doha is home to tens of thousands of Egyptian expats, working in every corner of the Qatari economy, and turned out in numbers to support the visitors despite strict virus controls.
The earlier fixture between Mexico’s Tigres and South Korea’s Ulsan, which Tigres won 2-1, played out in front of a mostly empty stadium as fans from overseas are banned from travelling.
Neither country has a significant diaspora in Doha, with Mexican expats estimating that just three of their number cheer for Tigres.
The African champions by contrast have a bedrock of support among the estimated 300,000 Egyptians in the Gulf gas emirate, easily eclipsing Duhail’s home support to watch their side triumph 0-1.
They became the first African side since 2013 to win their opening Club World Cup match meaning the Cairo Red Devils face a semi-final on Monday against tournament favourites and former title-holders Bayern Munich.
Doha’s Education City was disproportionately speckled with Ahly’s home strip, a signature red jersey emblazoned with an eagle.
Their vocal but masked support brandished Egyptian flags and Ahly scarves as they were spurred on by drummers dotted among them.
“Travel restrictions affect the fortunes of other teams because their fans are absent… Al-Ahly has a large fan base inside and outside Egypt,” said red-shirted accountant Naji Odeh, 31, during the match at Doha’s 40,000-capacity Education City stadium.
As many as 300,000 Egyptians call Qatar home, according to official statistics. Qataris number just 333,000.
Thursday’s fixture was easily the liveliest game in Doha since Qatar imposed stringent coronavirus measures on all public football matches.
The Egyptian diaspora in Qatar has faced challenges in recent years after Cairo, along with a Saudi-led coalition, broke off relations with Doha complicating travel, remittances and consular matters.
– ‘Greater opportunities’ –
The spat was sparked by allegations Qatar was too close to Iran and radical Islamist groups which Doha denied.
It was put to bed last month at a summit in Saudi Arabia where Qatar was brought back into the regional fold.
“The first effect of coronavirus is to limit the attendance to only 30 percent — this is felt especially by Al-Ahly, the most popular among the participating teams,” said Hossam Abu al-Ela, head of the Al-Ahly Fans Association in Qatar.
Ela has led efforts to turn out a formidable fan base, ensuring they were equipped with up to date regalia for the clash.
“Social distancing measures will affect the fans’ interaction with the tournament in general,” he added.
Qatar is in the grip of a Covid-19 resurgence.
New cases in Qatar averaged 95 per 100,000 people in the past week, up almost 30 percent on the previous week as hospitalisations jumped 85 percent in the past month compared to the 30 days before.
As of Thursday, 249 people had died from the virus while the overall case load has topped 152,000 in a country with a population of under three million.
The tournament is being staged under strict virus containment rules. All fans are required to test negative or prove antibodies, players and staff are confined to bio-bubbles and stadiums are at just 30 percent capacity.
On the eve of the tournament authorities announced new nationwide measures including reducing capacity at cafes and restaurants not yet assessed by health officials to 15 percent, and limiting gatherings in the home to five.
Mohamed El Shenawy, Ahly goalkeeper and captain, said “it makes me really happy to see the fans of Ahly” ahead of his team’s first match of the campaign.
“When we reached Doha we saw all the fans. Everyone loves having the fans at the stadium,” he said.
Ahly, like all Egyptian top-flight sides, have been playing without fans because of Egypt’s strict virus containment effort.
European champions Bayern Munich are the overwhelming favourites as they head to Qatar for the delayed tournament which concludes on February 11.
“Football without fans is meaningless, and the absence of the other teams’ fans due to Corona means greater opportunities for Al-Ahly,” Ahmed Hassanein, a 31-year-old accountant, told AFP.