JEDDAH: For the past two decades, Bader Turkistani has criss-crossed the world cheering on the Saudi national football team, rousing crowds in poetic chants that have made him a social media star.
This year’s World Cup in neighboring Qatar, by contrast, looks like a home game: Doha is just a two-hour flight from its base in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.
The proximity has Turkistanis dreaming of a fierce turnout from the football-mad Saudis, the kind of support he believes could help the Green Falcons emerge from the group stage for the first time in nearly three decades.
“The Saudi national team is seen as playing on its home turf, playing among its fans. Having the World Cup in Qatar is like having it in Saudi Arabia,” the 37-year-old engineer told AFP. year.
“A simple border separates us… We will be present in very large numbers and will fill the stadiums with 50,000 to 60,000 supporters.”
On a recent afternoon, wearing a white and green sash over his traditional white thobe, Turkistani previewed some of the chants he hopes will propel the Green Falcons to glory.
“It’s the green of Arabia,” he sang into an electronic megaphone, as a friend pounded an animal skin drum. “Oh Saudi, we came.”
The stands at the Jeddah stadium behind him were empty, but the scene is sure to be completely different once play begins.
“50,000 fans will repeat this chant behind me in Qatar, instead of just 5,000 fans in Russia,” he said.
“That enthusiasm is passed on to the players… We hope that we as fans will bring out the best energy in the players.”
In total, Turkistani estimates he has watched more than 100 international matches played by the Green Falcons over the years, most of them documented in a voluminous photo album which he eagerly shows visitors.
He also heads the supporters’ association of the prestigious Saudi club Al-Ahly based in Jeddah.
Beyond its high cost, the hobby can be tempted in other ways: on the road, the Turkistani struggled with language barriers, freezing cold and unfamiliar foreign food.
“In Qatar, all these things will be very practical for us,” he said.
Saudi authorities are setting up 240 weekly flights linking the kingdom to Qatar, compared to six normally, and facilitating land travel during the tournament, Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb told AFP last month.
At an event last week marking the end of the World Cup trophy in Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim Alkassim, secretary general of the national football association, told AFP that the Saudi participation would be high enough ” to exceed half the capacity of the stadium in each match”.
Once the Saudi fans are on Qatari soil, the Turkistanis will be ready for them, having stocked up on green and white t-shirts, plastic trumpets, drums and balloons to hand out.
Turkistani sees it as an opportunity to showcase the unique elements of Saudi fan culture – especially the songs – which he considers “cultural heritage” and which have earned him nearly 280,000 followers on Twitter.
As for the Green Falcons’ chances, Turkistani is well aware that they will face a tough group fight against Argentina, Mexico and Poland.
But he is confident the team will benefit from what he describes as home advantage, and he expects the other competing Arab countries – Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco – to benefit as well.
“Saudi and Gulf fans will support Arab teams,” he said.
“It makes me think that the Arab teams will surprise everyone and go far in this World Cup.” -AFP