Falcon picks Ecuador as World Cup opening match winner in nod to falconry traditions

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Masnad Ali al-Mohannadi shares a passion with many Qataris and it’s not only the love of the national football team.

It is the love of falcons, birds of prey that many Qataris use for hunting.

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As Qatar prepares for the start of 2022 World Cup this Sunday, the first ever to be held in an Arab country and in the Middle East, it is opening up to a sea of visitors that come with the tournament.

A feature that stands out is training falcons for hunting.

“Go for Qatar, go for Qatar,” al-Mohannadi pleads with his favorite falcon, Neyar, as the hooded predator flaps his wings in an open area in al-Khor, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital Doha.

Al-Mohannadi attached flags of Qatar and Ecuador, the two teams that will kick-off the tournament on Sunday to two drones and flew the machines above.

A treat of pigeon meat was attached to both flags, Neyar would pick one and that would be the winner of the match.

Once unhooded, the bird headed straight for the flag of Qatar hanging off the hovering drone, only to abruptly turn and snatch a piece of meat from a string attached to that of Ecuador.

“This is a falcon. And he chose Ecuador. Inshallah (God willing), Qatar will win and we will support Ecuador as well,” al-Mohannadi said.

The 30-year-old keeps seven falcons and has won national competitions.

The price of a falcon ranges from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, with rare specimens such as white-plumed falcons fetching even higher prices.

In the tiny, wealthy Qatar, the desert birds are among the nation’s most precious residents.

“Our ancestors used to hunt with falcons to get food. And it became a tradition for us,” al-Mohannadi said. “We treat them like a member of our own family.”

Long revered across the Arabian Peninsula for their ferocity and hunting prowess, falcons today serve as status symbols recalling a Bedouin past.

The bond between falconers and their falcons has been an inspiration since the Paleolithic period, when drawings of the creatures first appeared on cave walls.

Al-Mohannadi likened their training to the task of a football manager overseeing the progress of the team.

“A falcon trainer he’s the manager of its team. We have six or seven falcons to train for competitions or for hunting,” al-Mohannadi said.

“So we train these falcons four hours a day; two hours in the morning, early morning and two hours early at night. So, it’s the same from a manager point of view.”

The art of falconry is still passed down from one generation to the next in Qatar and other Gulf countries in the Arabian Gulf.

Carrying on the tradition, al-Mohannadi advised his cousin, Ibraheem al-Mohannadi, 14, how to spot the best falcon in a falcon shop in Souq Waqif, Doha’s historic center.

The teenager said he was looking to buy a bird for his younger brother so they can both share the passion.

And as for football he hoped Qatar would do well, but said his favorite team is Argentina.

“I want my own country to win. And my falcon is (Qatar’s midfield player) Abdulaziz Hatem”, Ibraheem al-Mohannadi said.

“I don’t think that they will win because like they’re such strong countries with us (in the group). So inshallah, Argentina wins, because I love Argentina.”

Qatar plays Ecuador on Sunday in the first game of the tournament that is set to start at 1600 GMT and will be played in the al-Bayt stadium in al-Khor, just a few miles from where the hooded Neyar will await to find out if his choice was the right one.

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