With just a day left for football’s biggest festival to begin in Russia, football-crazy Kerala is making sure it’s not left behind. Across villages and cities, youth and sports clubs are turning street-corners into venues for grandiose display of their affection for their favourite teams.
Raising giant flex-boards at public places is perhaps the average Malayali’s most popular way of showing his devotion for his team. The veneration is predominantly reserved for the two South American giants Brazil and Argentina, although there are entrenched fan bases for countries like Spain, Portugal, England and Germany too. But in one village in Kerala, located on the border of Palakkad and Malappuram districts, the flex board of one unlikely footballing nation is catching a lot of attention. The country is Saudi Arabia.
The flex-board put up by 29-year-old Muneer Vellengara in Edathanattukara village features a photograph of the Saudi football team with the tagline ‘We will always love the land which gave us food and shelter.’ Muneer insists that the fascination that he, and about 50-odd people in his village, share for the Saudi football team naturally stems from that country’s contributions in shaping their livelihoods.
“Our village has a large number of people working abroad, 80 per cent of whom are employed in Saudi. In fact, we have always said that every symbol of progress you see in our village is a result of the money we have earned in Saudi Arabia. Remittances sent from there is largely responsible for the progress here. So naturally, it is about showing support for the country which gave us our bread and butter,” said Muneer, whose family owns a number of businesses including supermarkets and petrol pumps in Saudi Arabia.
“I will be very happy if they win,” he said over the phone. He says he spent around Rs 1600 for the flex-board from his own pocket, which is a minuscule amount compared to the ones which are put up for Brazil and Argentina. “Those are much bigger and cost thousands of rupees.”
Muneer is currently on leave in Kerala and is excited to watch the World Cup back home with friends.
“Last World Cup, I was in Saudi and we watched it on TV. On finals night, me and my father would shut shop to watch the match at home. That’s how crazy we are about the game. But it’s not as fun to watch there as it is in Kerala,” he admitted.
“Here in our village, we have an arts and sports club which has about 400 members. This time, in anticipation of the World Cup, we have set up a giant flat-screen TV and everyone will watch it together. Nobody likes to watch the matches at home. A majority of our club members are Argentina fans,” he added.
Edathanattukara, says Muneer, is a village where the passion for football begins in children as young as five. “We all grew up with the ball at our feet. People would jokingly say they can’t walk around without kicking a football. Every evening, we would be out in the ground playing the game. In fact, two boys from our village have played in the I-League and in Santhosh Trophy,” he boasted.
If not Saudi, does he have a second team on which he has placed his bets in this World Cup? “Argentina, always. I don’t know how to explain it. From childhood, we grew up hearing tales about the genius of Maradona and now we are seeing the same in Messi.”