The tourist, Hazam Batan, was happy to have captured a bit of history on his phone – an image of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani placing a bisht, a traditional Arab robe worn by men, on the shoulders of Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi.
Batan, a Syrian football fan who works in Saudi Arabia, was among the more than one million tourists who visited the country to watch the Qatar World Cup 2022. A little more than a year later, he’s back to support his home country as it participates in the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
“I have bought tickets for the tournament’s inaugural match between Qatar and Lebanon and Syria’s matches against Uzbekistan and India,” Batan told Al Jazeera.
“Qatar will win,” he went on to predict.
New tournament, new friends
Souq Waqif, which means “standing market”, was founded more than a century ago as a weekend trading hub on the banks of what was the Msheireb Wadi, or river, to facilitate trade between nomadic Bedouin and locals.
It is arguably Qatar’s top tourist site and was a firm favourite with fans travelling to the country for the World Cup. Now with the continental football tournament set to get under way, it is attracting football fans in their droves again.
Three Lebanese men were inside a hardware store on one of the dozens of narrow, winding lanes of the market as they argued over their team’s chances ahead of Friday night’s opening match against the host nation.
Football shirts of participating nations are back dominating shop displays along with must-have Qatari clothes, jewellery and souvenirs.
Rom Godspeed Magda, a Qatari resident from the Philippines, admitted he’s not interested in football but will use the tournament as an opportunity to make new friends from other Asian countries.
In the days leading up to the tournament’s opening weekend, roads have been packed with cars bearing non-Qatari number plates and tourist sites look busier than before.
Despite the growing buzz, Qatar’s residents can’t help but compare the Asian Cup with the World Cup.
“The excitement level is much lower for obvious reasons,” D Ravi Kumar, a local sports journalist, told Al Jazeera.
“One of the reasons is the quality of football on display as most Asian teams are ranked much lower than their South American, European and some African counterparts,” he said.
While the absence of the sport’s biggest stars such as Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Harry Kane has had a significant impact on the number of people travelling to Qatar, there’s no shortage of excitement among local football fans.
This will be Qatar’s third time hosting the tournament after 1988 and 2011. The current edition was awarded to Qatar after China’s withdrawal last year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the East Asian country’s “zero-COVID” policy.
Palestine matches will be ‘crowd pullers’
While Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza has dampened the mood among local fans, the tournament could present an opportunity to display solidarity with Palestinians – much like the World Cup.
And with the Palestinian team participating in the tournament, the passion will go up by a few notches.
“The matches involving Palestine will be the real crowd pullers,” said Qatar-based Egyptian football writer Mohamed El Gharbawy.
“While there may not be a big African presence to support their own teams, I expect North African fans to fill up the aisles to support Palestine,” he said.
Some fans Al Jazeera spoke with said local organisers have “toned down” the festivities around the tournament due to the war but displays of solidarity will stand out.
During their pre-tournament comments, local organisers did not confirm if any special security measures will be in place to curb political protests – of which there were a few during the World Cup.
Expats rally behind home countries
Qatar’s large Arab expat population – from countries such Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Palestine – is expected to turn up in its thousands.
Mohamad Ali from Lebanon does not expect his team to go all the way but will go and watch their matches to show his support.
“The team and the country are going through tough times,” he said.
“With Lebanon’s indirect involvement with the war in Gaza, the team’s preparations and the country’s economy have taken a hit,” Ali explained.
Indian fans who supported several top teams in the World Cup cannot be expected to be so generous this time around as their country has qualified for the Asian Cup for the second time in a row.
Manjappada (the Yellow Army), a Qatar-based Indian football fan group for the South Indian club Kerala Blasters, will back the men in blue all the way.
“The Indian team is not in its best form but will be spurred on by the presence of thousands of Indian fans in the crowd,” Indian fan Nihad Ali said with high hopes.
Asian football powerhouses Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia and Iran are expected to fight it out in the latter stages of the competition.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, will be buoyed by their historic win in Qatar in 2022 over the eventual champions Argentina. They will also enjoy the presence of thousands of green shirts who will undoubtedly cross the land border.
Qatar banks on home advantage
Tournament organisers are expecting high turnout for most of the matches and have announced that tickets for the opening match have sold out.
Organisers have also promised an “exciting and surprising” opening ceremony ahead of the first match. Fans can expect Lusail Stadium to light up with fireworks as the tournament is declared open.
Qatar’s title defence, which begins at Lusail, has been a cause of concern among local fans after their team’s record poor display at the home World Cup.
The team and its new manager are hopeful of turning their fortunes around.
“We are playing the Asian Cup as title holders and in our own home, so we have to perform and show to the fans that we mean business,” Qatar’s captain, Hassan Al Haydos, said in his pre-match press conference on Thursday.
“For us as players, we need the fans more than ever from the first minute to the end of the game. I hope that we can get as many points as possible to get to the next round.”
Going by the increasing presence of fans at tourist spots, the re-emergence of football shirts in the markets and unavailability of tickets to most matches, this could one of the biggest editions of the Asian Cup yet.