A LARGE CUT-OUT of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, in a blue shirt and a white mundu, placed prominently by the highway in Pattikkara, Thrissur, Kerala, wishes you Eid Mubarak. There’s a cut-out of Brazil’s Neymar da Silva Santos Junior too. Astride a bike and sporting a mundu, the world’s most expensive football player is framed by a promise to bring home the World Cup: ‘This is the word I have given to the Good Shepherd of Rio de Janerio and to everyone who loves football.’
Brazil and Argentina. Teams that divide Kerala into two factions; teams that Kerala loves more than any other. Evidence of this undying love litters the streets of the state during major international tournaments. Football has never lacked an eager audience in the northern districts, but it is during the World Cup that this passion is on full display. At town squares, players find themselves the objects of a fresh wave of adulation that emplaces them in the green environs of God’s Own Country. One hoarding, put up by Argentina fans in Malappuram, is a lofty encomium to Lionel Messi, the magician who has had a less-than-magical World Cup, his fourth: ‘Napoleon might not have won a single war, but he is the ultimate warrior; Bhagat Singh might not have accomplished a single revolution, but he is the greatest revolutionary; Messi might not have won a World Cup, but he will remain the emperor of football’. Malappuram’s devotion to Messi is no secret: the player himself had shared a video on Facebook of his fans from the district.
Argentina’s dismal show in Russia, especially the defeat at the hands of Croatia in a crucial game, has left fans stricken. Dinu Alex, 27, of Kottayam, was found dead three days after he left home on a suicide mission once Messi and company lost the match to Luka Modric’s Croatia. According to his uncle Abraham Philip, they discovered his mania for Messi only when they read his personal journal. He was last seen wearing a replica of Messi’s No 10 jersey and disappeared in the wee hours of June 22nd after watching the Argentina-Croatia game. ‘Nothing is left in this world for me to see. I am leaving for the depth of death. Nobody is responsible for my death,’ said the note in Malayalam found in his bedroom. Dinu Alex hit global headlines, with some Argentine dailies running the news on their first page, but there seems to be no clear link between the suicide and his fandom. “In the suicide note, nowhere does he mention football. The media has juxtaposed his scribbles from another notebook, where he says, ‘Messi, my life is for you, waiting to see you lift the Cup’, says Dr Veena Mani, a researcher who has authored a doctoral thesis on football in northern Kerala.
What cannot be denied is Kerala’s obsession with Messi. “All is not well with our team. Otherwise Messi would not have missed that spot kick,” laments Mohammed Bashir of Venniyoor. “I could not sleep after the match against Iceland. We are relying too much on Messi, we could not execute a plan B when Messi was marked by multiple defenders. Hope we bounce back in the coming games,” he says, trying to sound optimistic. “I do not want to see Messi bidding adieu to international football with drooped shoulders and wet eyes. As an Argentina fan, I hope his miracles will work against Nigeria,” says Malayalam filmmaker Muhasin Parari.
At town squares, players find themselves the objects of a fresh wave of adulation that emplaces them in the green environs of God’s own country
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There is a war of words afoot between the Argentina and Brazil sides, each caught up in a swell of collective faith. A billboard put up by Albiceleste supporters in Kuttippuram declares perpetual allegiance: ‘Even if Argentina don’t win the World Cup for the next 200 years, we will be with them.’ A repartee of sorts is placed on the other side of the road by Brazil fans, who claim: ‘We are not Maradona, who disgraced football with his hand, or Messi, who forgets his motherland for Barcelona. We are Brazil, kings of football’.
In Kerala, the World Cup is not watched in living rooms. Locals prefer to gather outside and nearly every nook and corner is equipped with a large screen. “When we watch in a group, we feel like we are in the stadium with our team,” says Jamaluddin, 36, a Brazil fan in Payyanakkal, Kozhikode. On June 16th, Jamal and 600 other fans are watching the Egypt-Uruguay match at Deshaprakashini library complex by the Arabian Sea, where a giant screen has been erected. They are packed under a shamiana and the atmosphere is electric even before kick-off. Some fans are armed with vuvuzelas, others with percussion instruments. As the two teams line up for the national anthems, silence falls. When they realise that Egypt’s Mo Salah will not be playing, grown men groan. Then, when the whistle blows and Uruguay gets the match underway, there is chaos under the shamiana. Every tackle and move is cheered and when Uruguay edge Egypt out with a late goal, the house erupts, not unlike the ticket-holders in faraway Ekaterinburg.
“Although we get big crowds on all match days, it gets crazy when Brazil or Argentina play,” says MP Ismail, one of the organisers of the Deshaprakashini screening. “Roadblocks are common on crucial match days. Otherwise, it would be really hard to manage the crowd. Of course, the entire village supports us in organising screenings.” In a state that is divided along party lines, the World Cup is that rare occasion where political differences are set aside. Ismail works for the CPM, while his fellow organisers are from the IUML. There is no entry fee for the screenings, but organisers sell Rs 20 lottery coupons on the sidelines to meet expenses. Typically, 40 per cent of the total collection is given away as prizes. There are hundreds of such screenings, big and small, across the state.
Most villages in the state are united in their love for the game, divided only by loyalties and the colour of their jerseys
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Malappuram’s love affair with football dates back to 1897—the year the British formed a paramilitary force called the Malappuram Special Police (MSP), whose primary recreation was football. Although the natives weren’t allowed to play initially, they would show up in droves to watch British policemen play. After the Malabar Riots of 1921, the MSP’s British commandant used football to win back the faith of local Muslims, allowing them to participate in matches, and Malappuram’s ‘football mohabbat’ began. Many former national-level footballers are part of the MSP today. U Sharafali, who played as defender for India, is commandant, while KT Chacko, who won two Federation Cups in the 1990s, serves as assistant commandant.
World Cup season is expected to boost Kerala’s economy. Sales of sports goods, printed hoardings and other materials, projectors and TV sets could hit Rs 750 crore by the time the tournament is over. But the poor showing of big teams in the initial stages of the tournament is a cause for worry. If Brazil or Argentina do not make it to the later rounds, the fandom market, especially the sales of sports jerseys, is likely to be hit.
Most villages in the state are united in their love for the game, divided only by loyalties and the colour of their jerseys. Every replica jersey, flag and cap on display in Kerala likely comes from Kickoff, a wholesale shop in Kottakkal run by Thoppil Shahjahan. A former journalist, Shahjahan had not planned on turning his personal love for football into a business, but a chance visit to the textile town of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu sealed his fate. He decided to give up his full-time job at Malayala Manorama and got into the football garment business. He timed it just right, ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Today, just two World Cups into the game, he enjoys a near monopoly in north Kerala. Not long ago, Malabar got its replica jerseys and flags from Tirupur, the textile district of Tamil Nadu, and paid a lot more for them. The new local manufacturing units have brought down the cost considerably. A jersey and a pair of shorts together retail for just Rs 400.
Shahjahan’s warehouse is now self-sufficient—he owns printing machines and his staff of 32 do all the designing, stitching and embroidering inhouse. Shahjahan says his customers know as much about the game as fans in the West and they often come with very specific requests. Amal Kumar, an audio engineer from Panamangalam, wants Argentina’s away jersey, the one Messi and his teammates wore for their opening game against Iceland on June 16th. Shahjahan, of course, has it in stock.
Other requests have proved harder to accommodate, but Shahjanan does not like to turn a fan away empty-handed. Shafeek, 27, and Shabeer, 28, are brothers from Kottakkal who got married on the same day, June 26th. Shafeek wanted an Argentina jersey; Shabeer, a Brazil one. And they wanted the jerseys to pass for traditional wear, for they intended to don their respective team colours as wedding attire. The weddings were slotted for the day, so that they wouldn’t have to miss the four matches scheduled for late evening—including Argentina versus Nigeria at night.
During World Cup season, football becomes a part of everyday prayers. Open met an Argentina fan from Chemmad who travelled to the Mamburam Dargah, a Sufi shrine in Malappuram, to pray for his hero, Messi. “I went to pray for Messi’s success and Argentina’s,” he said, speaking to us outside the shrine. “Hopefully now, he will finally win the World Cup. That’s what all of us really want to see.”
Sony-ESPN is airing the matches with commentary in Indian languages including Malayalam this time, with Shaiju Damodaran at the helm. His commentary for the Spain-Portugal match where Christiano Ronaldo scored a hattrick went viral on social media. Laced with dialogues from the Pa Ranjith’s Rajinikanth starrer Kabali, it has won the hearts of many non-Malayalee fans too. ‘Naa vanthittennu sollu; thirumbi vanthittennu sollu (Tell them I’m back; tell them I’ve returned)’, went the commentary when Ronaldo scored Portugal’s 88th minute equaliser against Spain.
No cultural caricature of Kerala is complete without its politicians. During the World Cup, even they come out cheering for their favourite teams. CPM’s MM Mani, Kerala’s incumbent minister of electricity, posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing an Argentina jersey, with the caption: ‘My heartthrob, forever’. The post went viral in Kerala. Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also posted a picture on Facebook—of him playing the game with his grandson. Sports Minister AC Moideen, keeping the diplomacy of his chair, appreciated all 32 teams in the fray, but didn’t hesitate to extend his wholehearted solidarity to Germany, his favourite.
The lines are clearly drawn, but all the irreconcilable parts of Kerala’s football fever fit together to form one round ball of joy and kinship.