The English footballers were greeted by the strange but joyous sight of hundreds of Indian expats serenading them with “It’s going home” as they arrived at their hotel in Qatar on Tuesday night.
When the England manager pulled up to the five-star Souq Al Wakra hotel just south of Doha, fans beat drums, blew trumpets and even pushed through a police barrier for a better view. There were loud applause for the captain, Harry Kane, and an even bigger one for Gareth Southgate, especially when the manager turned to say hello.
There were also familiar chants of “England! England!” as well as the rather unusual “Southgate is our super coach! Sterling is our super star! Pickford is our super goalkeeper.”
It was another sign that this World Cup, the first in the Middle East and the first to be held in winter, will be very different from the 21 tournaments that preceded it.
There have been suggestions on social media that the Qataris are paying a few locals to add a dash of spice, but the half dozen fans The Guardian spoke to promised they were the real deal. They insisted they made their own jerseys, bought their own game tickets and supported England who grew up watching the likes of David Beckham.
They were also happy to discuss the latest developments in the Premier League, and were clearly not happy that a Scandinavian newspaper at the weekend had questioned their authenticity.
Sajidh, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer who did not want to give his full name, described suggestions that he and the others were receiving cash to cheer as “fake news.” He said: “None of us are being paid. We are die-hard England fans.
“My favorite player was Beckham but now it’s [Bukayo] saka. If someone offered to pay us to support England, we’d turn them down. We are true followers. Many of us grew up watching Beckham and Michael Owen. Our love is for this team.”
Another fan, Niyas, from Kerala, estimated there were 700,000 fans in his region and showed The Guardian a 25m cardboard cutout of Kane and a mural of the England team in his home state. He also showed a WhatsApp follower group with almost 1,000 members.
“We made these England tops ourselves,” he said. “Nobody gave them to us. Argentina is the most supported team among the Indians in Qatar, followed by Brazil. But then it’s England.
When the England team touched down, Kane insisted they were all fit and ready for the opener against Iran on Monday. “It’s going to be massive,” he said.
“I remember when we were in Russia in our little bubble. We watched all the videos from home going crazy – it makes a huge difference, it motivates us to succeed.
“We want the fans to be proud and happy. Of course there will be some in the stadiums, we always have great support, but most will be at home and we just want them to be proud.”