Loyal football fans in India (from Brazil and Argentina)

Rising like a phoenix from a river flowing through lush green hills in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the 30-foot-tall foam figure of soccer star Lionel Messi is a towering symbol of a World Cup mania that knows no bounds.

The man behind the tribute, Nousheer Nellikode, 35, is a die-hard supporter of the Argentina national team, of which Messi is captain. One of his brothers has similarly strong feelings for Brazil, another leading contender for the Cup. Both teams are now in the quarterfinals in Qatar.

The family’s divided allegiance reflects a heated division in this football-loving part of India known as Malabar, where locals took over the sport from the British more than a century ago, in part to exact revenge on their colonists by playing the field.

India, an otherwise cricket-mad country, has a long history of futility in football, having never qualified for the World Cup. Thus, the people of Kerala have found outlets abroad for their passionate devotion to the sport, first in Brazil with the rise of Pelé in the 1950s and then in Argentina with the arrival of Diego Maradona in the 1980s.

Now that football’s biggest event is in full swing, flags of Argentina and Brazil flutter in the air, lined up above shops and roundabouts on narrow streets in coastal towns and villages. Selfie stations set up by Brazil fans feature snippets of Neymar, the team’s star. Sport shops offer Messi’s blue and white No.10 shirt, which is available in all sizes.

Graffiti tributes to both teams adorn the walls of the houses in front of coconut trees. Locals get involved in heated discussions about games and place bets on their favorite teams at roadside tea shops. In a village, an enlarged replica of a soccer ball floats on a calm lake.

For Nellikode, his declaration of loyalty compelled him to keep a secret for six months, even from his wife, given the particularly resonant place he had in mind for it.

During the World Cup, large cut outs of star players can be found along the streets and other places in Kerala. “But in the river next to the soccer field from my childhood? That’s what’s so special about this village environment,” said Nellikode.

Nellikode, the president of a village soccer club, and his team managed to raise nearly $250 to pay for the Messi cutout, arrange flags and help set up an LCD screen on the local pitch at the World Cup -Games are shown.

A WhatsApp group dedicated to Argentine fans, with more than 100 members, not only helped them stay connected, but also mobilized them to raise funds. Even those who had migrated to work in the Middle East – there is a large Kerala diaspora in the Gulf – sent money via online transfers.

A few days before the start of the World Cup, Nellikode sneaked out with his team one morning to put on the Messi neckline. He then urged Brazilian fans to join his support.

“Don’t you Brazil fans have a backbone?” he said to those who had gathered to watch as he and his friends set up the cutout on a small piece of land in the river.

Also in the audience were his brothers Noufal, the Brazil fan, and Naveed, a Portugal fan (there are quite a few in Kerala too).

There were enough Brazil fans to fund their own clipping, a 40ft effigy of Neymar placed on the riverbank. But with only two Portugal fans in the village, Naveed had to appeal via local media.

Within days, Portugal fans from across Kerala had sent in nearly $300. “Soon after that we managed to put a larger section of Ronaldo next to Messi,” said Naveed, referring to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese star.

Kerala is not unique in the region for its love of football. In Bangladesh, the rivalry between Argentine and Brazilian fans has also taken extraordinary turns, with fans from both sides marching with flags 2,200 feet long.

Ahead of Argentina’s game against Saudi Arabia, the owner of a pizza shop in the capital, Dhaka, announced that if the Saudis had a miracle, he would be giving away his pizza. When Saudi Arabia won 2-1 and football fans poured into the store, the owner quickly backtracked: he meant free pizza for the first 70 people, he said.

In Kerala, dotted with fields, clubs and academies, football is treated as an intangible cultural heritage. During the colonial era, Malabar’s main trading center, then called Calicut and now known as Kozhikode, saw a steady influx of European businessmen playing the sport with British officers. When they ran out of teammates, they brought in locals.

Locals say the World Cup fanfare has reached a new level this year, with huge screens being set up every few miles for people to watch the matches. In some places, VIPs in the area get passes for front-row seats. The state government riding the wave of frenzy launched an anti-drug campaign on football.

Sometimes passion boils over. Fans from Argentina and Brazil got on Punching at a cup-related event. A The Muslim group raised concerns about the service of soccer stars. (“It’s just for entertainment,” replied a Muslim leader on Facebook.)

But the tournament also brought people together. Seventeen friends, including a driver, an electrician, a welder and a porter, bought a two-bedroom house with some open space in a village near Kochi, another coastal district, so that people in the area could watch games together. A TV was installed and the house was decorated with flags of different teams and portraits of Messi and Ronaldo.

Larger gatherings also take place. Last week, on the night of the game between Argentina and Poland, thousands of men, women and children, some with faces painted in Argentina’s colors of blue and white, filled an open-air stadium in a town called Feroke, where a lawmaker had sat arranged a performance.

When Argentina took a comfortable 2-0 lead, some Brazilian fans who were in attendance snuck out. An Argentine fan set off firecrackers in celebration, and another person released blue smoke into the air. The scent of fresh curry leaves wafted in the cool night air.

“We want Argentina and Brazil to meet. That’s our fundamental rivalry here,” said Mohammad Shakir, 28, a Brazil fan. “Otherwise it’s no fun.”

Rahman Poovanjery, who recently wrote a book on the history of football which includes a section on the sport in rural Kerala and who remembers playing with a ball made from scraps of fabric as a young boy, has him hooked on World Cup fever packed philosophical mood.

He recently rented a studio and hired a singer to sing a poem he was inspired to write. He calls it “Brazil’s Song”.

“Every slum, every street, every side street and every valley,

Will be turned into a soccer field.

These towns and villages have dedicated their hearts and minds to football,

The game that has the beauty of dance.

Therein lies truth and beauty, say the people,

Who has overcome poverty and lack of life through football.

religion, culture, nationalism,

Is nothing but the night song about football.”

Saif Hasnat provided coverage from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/08/sports/world-cup/india-brazil-argentina-fans.html Loyal football fans in India (from Brazil and Argentina)


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