In India, Fiercely Loyal Soccer Fans (of Brazil and Argentina)

Like a phoenix, the 30-foot-tall statue of soccer star Lionel Messi is cut from a foam board that rises from a river flowing through the green hills of the southern Indian state of Kerala, a symbol of horns. of the World Cup frenzy without borders.

The man behind the memorial, Nousheer Nellikode, 35, is a huge fan of the Argentina national team captained by Messi. One of his brothers has similarly strong feelings about Brazil, another leading contender for the Cup of Nations. Both teams are currently in the quarterfinals in Qatar.

The family’s divided allegiance reflects bitter divisions across this football-loving Indian enclave known as Malabar, where locals adopted the sport from the British over a century ago. , partly as a way to avenge their colonists on the Phat field.

India, a cricket-crazed nation, has a long history of futile football, having never qualified for a World Cup. Thus, the people of Kerala have found bases abroad because of their intense devotion to the sport, first in Brazil with the rise of Pelé in the 1950s, and later in in Argentina with the arrival of Diego Maradona in the 1980s.

Now, with the biggest football event in full swing, the flags of Argentina and Brazil flutter in the air, strewn over shops and roundabout the narrow streets of coastal towns and villages. Selfie stations set up by Brazilian fans feature photos of Neymar, the team’s top star. Sports shops sell Messi’s blue and white number 10 shirt in all sizes.

Graffiti tributes to both teams adorn the walls of houses leaning against coconut trees. Locals get caught up in lively discussions about matches and bet on their favorite team at roadside teahouses. In a certain village, an enlarged replica of a soccer ball floats on a peaceful lake.

For Nellikode, showing loyalty forced him to keep it a secret for six months, even from his wife, because he thought of the special position that resonated with it.

During World Cups, you can find big star players along the roads and in other places around Kerala. “But by the river next to the football field since childhood? That’s special for this village setting,” Nellikode said.

Nellikode, the president of a football club in the village, and his team managed to raise nearly $250 to pay for Messi’s purchase, arrange the flags and help set up an LCD screen in the local field to showing World Cup matches.

A WhatsApp group dedicated to Argentina fans, with over 100 members, not only helps them stay connected, but also mobilizes them to raise money. Even those who have migrated to the Middle East for work – there is a large Kerala community in the Gulf – have sent money through online transfers.

One morning a few days before the World Cup began, Nellikode snuck out with his team to put Messi in place. He then challenged the Brazilian fans to show his support.

“You, Brazilian fans, don’t you have a backbone?” he told those who had gathered to watch him and his friends build the hole on a small plot of land in the river.

The crowd included his brothers Noufal, Brazil fans, and Naveed, Portugal fans (with some in Kerala too).

There were enough Brazilian fans to sponsor a figurine of their own, a 40-foot-tall statue of Neymar that was placed on the riverbank. But with only two Portuguese fans in the village, Naveed had to make an appeal through the local media.

Within days, Portuguese fans from all over Kerala have deposited nearly $300. “Shortly after that, we tried to make a cut that was higher than Ronaldo’s, almost equal to Messi’s,” said Naveed, referring to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese star.

Kerala is not the only country in the region that loves football. In Bangladesh, the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil fans was also unusual, with fans of each side marching with flags like up to 2,200 feet long.

Before Argentina’s match against Saudi Arabia, the owner of a pizzeria in the capital Dhaka announced that if the Saudis did a miracle, he would give away his pizza. As Saudi Arabia went on to win 2-1 and football fans started flocking to the shop, the owner quickly said the opposite: He meant free pizza for 70 the first, he said.

In Kerala, which is dotted with fields, clubs and academies, football is considered an intangible cultural heritage. During colonial times, Malabar’s main trading center, then known as Calicut and now known as Kozhikode, saw large numbers of European businessmen coming to play the sport with British officers. When they lacked teammates, they brought in the locals.

Locals say the fanfare of this year’s World Cup has reached new heights, with giant screens set up a few miles apart so people can watch matches. In some places, VIPs in the area are given tickets to sit in the front row. State government, riding on a wave of madness, launch football-themed anti-drug campaign.

At times, enthusiasm was boiling. Argentina and Brazil fans entered fists at a Cup-related event. One Muslim group expresses concern about worship of football celebrities. (“It is for entertainment purposes only,” one Muslim leader replied on Facebook.)

But the tournament also brought people together. Seventeen friends, including a driver, an electrician, a welder and a porter, bought a two-room house with open space in a village near Kochi, another coastal district, so that everyone in the area can watch the games together. A television has been installed and the house is decorated with flags of various teams, along with portraits of Messi and Ronaldo.

Much larger gatherings are also taking place. Last week, on the night of the match between Argentina and Poland, thousands of men, women and children, some with their faces painted in blue and white Argentina, gathered in an outdoor stadium. sky in the town of Feroke, where a legislator had arranged for a screening.

When Argentina took a 2-0 lead, some of the Brazilian fans present snuck out. An Argentine fan lit firecrackers to celebrate, and another released blue smoke into the air. The smell of fresh curry leaves wafted through the cool night air.

“We want Argentina and Brazil to face each other. It’s our quintessential competition here,” said Mohammad Shakir, 28, a Brazilian fan. “There is no other pleasure.”

For Rahman Poovanjery, who recently wrote a book on the history of football, which included a section on the sport in rural Kerala and recalls playing with a ball made from scraps of cloth when As a young boy, World Cup fever put him in a difficult position. philosophical mood.

He recently rented a studio and invited a singer to sing a poem he was inspired to write. He calls it “The Brazilian Song.”

“All the slums, roads, alleys and valleys,

Turned into a football field.

These cities and villages have devoted their hearts and minds to football,

The game has the beauty of dancing.

There is truth and beauty in it, people say,

Who has overcome poverty and misery of life through football.

Religion, culture, nationalism,

It’s nothing but a night song about football.”

Saif Hasnat contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.


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