It was 16-year-old Mohamed Suleiman from Bolton who said it best, as he gazed at a vast panorama of England supporters around him in Doha – and saw so many faces looking like his own. “I think English fan culture is changing,” he said. “It’s becoming more diverse. More welcoming. And you can definitely see it in Qatar.”
Mohamed’s father, Abdul, explained that he had always dreamed of taking his son to a World Cup. Now they were here in England shirts for what they both called a trip of a lifetime. “Over the weekend England and Wales fans were fighting in Spain,” added Abdul. “But there are no issues here. Perhaps the lack of alcohol has something to do with it, but it feels safe and welcoming.”
These were not isolated voices. On the metro Tarique Ghaffur, a former assistant commissioner with the Met, stressed how much English fan culture has improved since he was policing the terraces in the 70s. His son, FG, a prominent YouTuber who has worked with Manchester City, made it clear that he had never faced an issue in the game because of the colour of his skin. “Football is a global sport,” he said. “And a fantastic leveller.”
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Of course the majority of England supporters in Qatar still conform to the traditional stereotype. But it is all a far cry from the last time the national team played in an away tournament, at the 2019 Nations League in Portugal. Thousands of fans caused general mayhem in Porto and sang songs about Tommy Robinson, the IRA and German bombers. Two England fans were also arrested after being baton-charged by police after hurling bottles at local supporters and police in a packed fan zone.
So what is going on? Several fans the Guardian spoke to suggested that because Qatar is a Muslim country and it is harder to find alcohol, they felt safer travelling out to support England. They knew they would not be drenched by a beer shower and the risk of antisocial behaviour would be lower.
Several second-generation British Indians and Pakistanis also said they had family in the region, and so felt comfortable coming out. There are also many guest workers, particularly from India, who have adopted England as their favourite national team. And not always for football reasons either. As Nasisasa, from Thailand, put it to the Guardian: “I support England because they are a good team … and their players are handsome.”
Another factor, according to the academic Jamie Cleland, is that many younger white England fans have not travelled to Qatar because it is so expensive – which has broadened the fanbase. “With the World Cup occurring mid-season, close to Christmas, and in a cost of living crisis, it is no surprise to see so many traditional fans stay behind in the UK,” he says.
The second academic Geoff Pearson agrees. “One way to look at a football team’s support is to consider in terms of different subcultures that basically attend matches for different reasons,” he explains. “A lot of the work that I’ve done has been about a subculture of English fans I call the carnivore fan. They essentially travel and their primary focus is around the match, not the match itself.”
Pearson, whose book An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals, is the definitive work on the subject, adds: “Their behaviour is based around transgression, intoxication, chanting and creating atmosphere. And when it comes to the English national team that subculture is predominantly male and predominantly white. Not exclusively male and not exclusively white. But it’s very much laddish behaviour.”
What does that mean? According to Pearson it is “beer in the air, standing on tables, chanting, hanging flags up, that kind of thing. It’s not violence. And it’s not necessarily racist either. But it’s predominantly white, male and laddish.
“However that subculture of England fans hasn’t really travelled to Qatar in sufficient numbers. Whereas normally for tournaments, or big matches particularly in Europe, that subculture will dominate. And of course, that subculture will travel even if they don’t have tickets, because actually attending the matches isn’t primarily why they’re there.”
However Pearson cautions that we may not see such diversity among their fanbase when England travel to Germany for the 2024 European Championships.
“I think the fact that it’s easy to get tickets in Qatar has made a big difference as well in terms of a more diverse fanbase,” he adds. “To a certain extent, it’s a bit of a closed shop for tournaments in Europe, in particular, because demand outstrips supply so greatly. If England qualifies for the Euros in two years’ time it will be very very different indeed.”