AR-RAYYAN: Supporters of Mexico's Tigres UANL football club, clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, gather to support their team at an event for fans outside Education City Stadium in the Qatari city of Ar-Rayyan yesterday, ahead of their match against Ulsan Hyundai FC the following week. - AFP

DOHA: Despite only having a handful of fans, Mexico's Tigres will be able to count on the support of the diaspora in Qatar as rivalries are set aside for the Club World Cup underdogs. No supporters will be able to travel to the Gulf for the football showcase because of Qatar's ultra-strict coronavirus rules, meaning Tigres will be relying on the Monterrey club's backers already in the country.

"We are forgetting about national teams; we are all here today to celebrate the Tigres and we are very happy," said Enrique Flores, 58, a pilot from Monterrey who joined two dozen Mexican soccer fans at Doha's Education City Stadium for a Tigres fan event yesterday. Around him, noisy compatriots sporting Tigres' signature canary jersey chanted a Mexican anthem, "Canta y no llores" (Sing and don't cry), while some played drums and tambourines and others modelled decorative sombreros.

"In Qatar there are around 600 Mexicans, but each has their own team," said Mexico's ambassador to Qatar Graciela Gomez as the group flicked double "L" with their fingers for "Libres y loqos" (Free and crazy). "What unites us is that we all believe in Mexico, we all love our country and we are showing our solidarity for the success of any Mexican."

Footballing great Bora Milutinovic, one-time coach of the Mexican national side, even put in an appearance, firing up the gathering. "When they told me that the Tigres were coming, I was very happy because I have many memories of Monterrey," he said before adoring fans snapped selfies.

Spectator numbers will be capped at 30 percent of capacity at each of the two 40,000-seat grounds for the tournament, which also features favorites Bayern Munich and Egypt's Al-Ahly. Tigres will kick off the competition at Qatar's newly opened Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Thursday when they take on Ulsan Hyundai. "We all know fans can't travel and, for the Tigres and for the club, it's the first time they've qualified for an international tournament so we are very happy with this turnout," said Gustavo Velasco, 27, a chef.

Virus fears

The Mexican embassy in Doha tweeted: "More and more Mexican residents in #Doha, #Qatar are joining the 'tiger wave' and engaging in various activities to support the @TigresOficial in the Club World Cup". The embassy has paired Tigres fans in Mexico unable to travel with their countrymen in Qatar who will cheer on the 2020 CONCACAF Champions. Social distancing, mask wearing and use of Qatar's contract tracing app and sanitizer will be mandatory, authorities have said.

International fans will be unable to attend because of Qatar's virus mitigation measures, and there will be no public events including fan zones. The tournament will be a crunch test of FIFA virus containment rules. Qatari health authorities say that, based on a recent domestic cup game, attendees have only one-tenth of the risk of contracting COVID-19 compared with the general population. Auckland City pulled out of the tournament, citing New Zealand's strict quarantine and virus prevention measures.

FIFA has said it will work with the Qatari authorities to "implement a comprehensive medical and security protocol providing the safeguards required to protect the health and safety of everyone involved in the competition". Qatar's coronavirus cases are steadily ticking up, with 76.4 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week, up 28 percent on the week before. The official death rate is very low and cases remain fewer than many other countries in the region.

Mexico, with 126 million people, closed all but essential businesses last March because of the pandemic, dealing a devastating blow to its economy. It began to reopen some sectors in July, but reimposed restrictions as COVID-19 cases soared later in the year. Mexico has one of the world's highest death tolls from the pandemic at more than 155,000, along with more than 1.8 million known cases of infection. - AFP