Making Sense of Soccer Fever in India

In Kerala, the Argentina-Brazil rivalry is palpable

Making Sense of Soccer Fever in India
Giant cutouts of players Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, erected by football fans Kerala, India, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

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The 58-year-old Ashraf Bava, a name synonymous with seven-a-side soccer in the south Indian state of Kerala, has chosen sacrilege over devotion in this year’s FIFA World Cup. A lifelong Brazil fan, Bava has the Argentine star Lionel Messi in his prayers and a picky, odd-hour match-viewing schedule. A gnarly bout of cancer had him flirting with death for the past couple of years, but somewhere between his battles to hang in and a clean PET scan, he has shed his worst fears. What remains is an all-consuming love for the sport. 

“It will be unfortunate if this generation’s best player retires without a World Cup,” he says. “As someone whose only life purpose has been football, I want to see it happen.”  

Naturally, the vast majority of his fellow Brazil fans across the state are not as charitable in their hopes.

Kerala — which occupies just over 1% of India’s territory in its southwestern corner — has propelled itself into headlines and social media chatter over the past few weeks as a result of its fan wars. Humongous cutouts of Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil’s Neymar (30, 35 and 50 feet respectively) vying against one another tower over the Pullavoor River in Kozhikode. Argentina and Brazil supporters broke into a brawl at a graveyard, 17 soccer-mad friends chipped in to buy a 2.3 million rupees ($28,000) house just so they could watch the World Cup together, and a mother of five undertook a solo road trip to Qatar to witness Messi in the flesh. For anyone looking in from the outside, all of this can seem inexplicable for a country that has never itself featured in a World Cup.  

Geographically, Qatar is the closest host nation to India in the tournament’s history. A huge number of fans have traveled to Qatar from India, especially Kerala, joining the large number of Indian immigrants already living in the country (again mostly from Kerala). Volunteers, fans and venue caterers include a significant Malayali presence, so much so that fans of major teams were so overwhelmingly outnumbered by Indian supporters on their arrival in Doha that there was initial speculation they were “fake fans” planted by the organizers. 

However, Kerala’s unique obsession with soccer can be traced to the coalescing of communism, Latin American literature, anti-imperialism and the emergence of the sport’s working-class South American heroes.

Soccer was introduced to India by the British. While cricket is firmly established as the country’s most popular sport today, soccer requires no special equipment and can be played on grass or slush, irrespective of the season and conditions. In Kerala, its devotees run Argentina and Brazil fan clubs, 7-year-old kids know all about video assistant referee (VAR) technology and how the teams stack up on any given match day, and local tea vendors on street corners run animated post-match debriefings for their trickle of customers. The epicenter of this universe lies in the district of Malappuram in north Kerala.

In essence, the World Cup rivalry in Kerala is primarily an Argentina-Brazil affair, though Ronaldo also has his flock of supporters who transpose their faith onto his home team Portugal. The spotting of an odd Lewandowski jersey in the melee and the Polish striker’s name rolling off tongues can be attributed to the state’s religious following of international soccer leagues.

Growing up in Kerala in the 1950s, the writer N.S. Madhavan — whose work “Higuita,” named after the former Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita, is among the most anthologized Malayalam short stories — was among those who turned up at stadiums to watch matches back in the day. When they combined the reading with a vividly descriptive radio commentary, fans found enough to fuel their imagination. 

From the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Indian soccer team participated in four Olympics and brought back two Asian Games gold medals, but the closest the country came to playing in the World Cup was in 1950. Ahead of the qualification round, the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma withdrew, offering India a godsend automatic spot from Asia. 

Yet the Indian team never showed up in Brazil. One hackneyed rumor held the team had been kept out of the tournament by FIFA because the players didn’t want to wear shoes, a fable that has often been debunked but still lives on in inane WhatsApp memes. The likely reason for the team’s lost opportunity is believed to be the indifference of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and lack of foresight. Long mismanaged with ample political meddling to boot, AIFF was briefly suspended by FIFA this past August.

The 1950s was also the time Brazil emerged on the scene, with its swaying, quick-flowing brand of soccer. Contrasting with the tactical, organized European style of play, Brazil’s game wasn’t necessarily seen as the most efficient. “Early on, even people in Brazil wanted their team to play like the Europeans,” says Madhavan. “Then Pele arrived and altered the course of football.” 

A former Portuguese colony, Brazil won the 1958 World Cup over Sweden, marking a  watershed moment in a world riven by Cold War divisions. “The anti-colonial ripples that it sent out were felt everywhere. In Kerala too,” Madhavan says. 

Two decades later, Argentina made a marginal dent in the Malayali consciousness with its 1978 World Cup win. That was some eight years before the Argentine legend Diego Maradona captured hearts and minds. His goals against England in a 1986 quarterfinal were seen as a political statement — his country’s revenge for being pulverized in the Falklands War.

Maradona, who rose from a grimy Buenos Aires slum, wore his love for the Argentina-born Marxist revolutionary “Che” Guevara on his heart and found a guardian of sorts in Che’s ally, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Besides the region’s admiration for Maradona’s stellar play, Kerala’s generally left-wing consciousness was another reason for affinity with the star. The same went for West Bengal. These two communist bastions of India found an everyman’s hero in this son of a factory worker. (Kerala remains one of the few places in the world and the only state in India where communism still holds. Its origins were rooted in resistance to the British, anti-feudal agitations and social reform movements.)

When Maradona died in November 2020, Kerala’s local government declared a two-day period of mourning. The owner of Hotel Blue Nile in Kannur went on to turn room 309, where the star had stayed for two days during his 2012 trip, into something of a museum. Items the Argentine legend had touched, used or left behind — cigar stubs, a bedsheet, a towel, a tea cup, a plate, spoons and a soap dish — were neatly framed and hung on the walls. The room was renamed “The Maradona Suite.” The hotel even arranged for the sculpting of a lifesize statue of him, setting it up on its facade just ahead of this World Cup.

“Kerala’s fandom for Argentina and Brazil has a political component, plenty of love of football and maybe a hint of helplessness too,” says Madhavan. “It’s a projection of a wish.”

In India’s pre-independence era, soccer was a favored pastime of British soldiers stationed in army camps in the Malabar region. Locals watched them play and soon began to fashion balls from materials they could gather. Folklore has it that barefoot natives of Malabar even defeated the British soldiers in a game. Since grounds available to them were few, Indians played in smaller spaces and harvested patches. 

That is how seven-a-side, or “Sevens” soccer in Kerala was conceived. As the name suggests, this scaled-down form of the game is played with seven players on each side rather than 11. The playing area — usually dirt pitches — is smaller, the matches are shorter, refereeing is forgiving, and rough and tumble is intrinsic to the character of the tournaments. Space on the pitch is at a premium, with packed, wooden stands hugging its sides and cheers, rebukes and hollers fusing into a tsunami of noise.

The playing season usually runs from November to May, in the window between retreating monsoons and the arrival of fresh rains. Every year, players from African nations — primarily Nigeria and Ivory Coast — fly to India to play the Sevens. After multiple viewings of them on YouTube, the best players are usually sought out by club managers, who eventually settle for a balance between skill and affordability. Collectively referred to as “Sudani” in colloquial terms, the African stock of players rank high on Sevens managers’ radar. 

“The Nigerians particularly are quite skilful and their finishing is a lot better than our players,” says Bava. “They’re able to convert even half chances into certain goals.”

The beauty of Sevens lies in its sudden shifts in momentum and quick goals. Often, while spectators are up on their feet celebrating a goal, the ball has already traveled across the pitch and landed in the opposite net. When COVID-19 struck, Sevens games were suspended and several African players were stranded in Kerala. In a testament to the locals’ love for all things soccer, money was promptly raised by clubs and enthusiasts to fund the return flights of over 20 African players. This year is the tournament’s first season since the pandemic arrived. 

In Malappuram, if it’s not the World Cup or Sevens, there’s always the Euros and Copa America championships, which are just as popular. Screens are set up outdoors by sports clubs and people stay up to watch the matches together. 

The practice of communal viewing of matches perhaps has its beginnings with the arrival of color TVs in India in the 1980s. At the time, not many households could afford them, so entire neighborhoods would gather in the odd home that owned one. The 1986 Mexico World Cup won by Argentina was the first to be broadcast in its entirety in India in color. 

“I was 9 years old then and remember being amazed by what I saw. Watching Maradona was pure magic,” says Shaukat Upoodan, convenor of the Malappuram Football Lovers Forum. “Out of 40 houses in our neighborhood, there was just one color TV. So that’s where we sort of camped throughout the World Cup. There were no TV replays then so you just had to find a good spot in the crowd and try to watch without blinking too much.” In 2010, when Brazil and Argentina were knocked out of the World Cup on consecutive days, team flags were torched and fans of the rival teams turned up at one another’s houses to jeer or celebrate.

Since 2014, Upoodan’s forum has been hosting a mock Argentina-Brazil final just ahead of every World Cup. It’s the sort of final Kerala fans dream about but has yet to take place. Players, sporting the national colors of both countries, are drawn from the state and university ranks, then divided into two teams of even strength. In this year’s edition, the Brazil side won 4-2, while last time Upoodan erred on the side of caution and the match was declared a draw to avert fan violence.

This year, tempers seem to be running high and nerves are a lot more frayed. Upoodan attributes this to the social media overdrive. Within minutes of the end of matches, Kerala fan groups roll out memes in gloating celebration or taunting barbs. Betting is common in north Kerala, with some even going as far as to offer up their high-end cars and other belongings as wagers. For many others, bets are usually settled over an innocent plate of great food.

Projectors have been set up in courtyards, street corners and sports club premises. While rivalries are on the boil, this generation of Argentina fans has yet to witness its team lift a World Cup. They have only been able to feed off the second-hand joy of the team’s win in ‘86 on YouTube, while worshippers of Brazil had their moment in 2002. Fervor and adoration for Argentina is far more deep-seated in the state, but even the staunchest fans carry a smidgen of skepticism that their greatest dream will come to fruition. 

“Somewhere, possibly all the factors that make Argentina appealing to people from Kerala — the history, politics, its icons — have fused to create an identity now that may or may not actually exist,” says Madhavan. “It perhaps only lives in a Malayali fan’s imagination.”

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