If you are in Kerala during the World Cup you might feel like you are part of a festival, especially if you are a football fan. You’ll start seeing auto and car rallies put up by fans associations, you’ll even notice libraries and drama associations setting up fan screenings. Certain parts of Kerala, especially rural areas, might even have roads painted with flags of different countries. People start wearing jerseys when on an outing and voicing their opinion in every single debate about football they come across on the streets. But I can guarantee that most of these discussions would be on how far Argentina or Brazil will go in the tournament.
There are 3.7 crore people in Kerala, but amongst the ones who watch football, it is likely they are almost equally split between Brazil and Argentina. Why? We can only speculate. From Maradona vs Pele to Juan Riquelme vs Ronaldinho and now, to Messi vs Neymar, the rivalry has always been formidable and, in Kerala, it has always been celebrated.
I have been lucky enough to be in Kerala to watch a World Cup. It was an unforgettable experience. The fans are passionate, extremely so. They stand by their team regardless of its performance. Even if there is an extreme time difference, people still show up in large numbers at odd times in the night. I come from a part of Kerala which is obsessed with the beautiful game. Puthenthope, a village north of Trivandrum city, has football in its blood. My father’s friends and relatives have names that resemble the ones of legendary players. The Portuguese connection, due to the Latin catholic majority in the village, helps seal the Brazilian supremacy in Puthenthope. Argentina, though, is not too far behind.
In the Malabar region (North Kerala), football training camps have letters from Pele showcased in their offices. The region even produced a large crowd when Maradona came down to inaugurate jewellery showrooms and many national-level players come from here. As always, Malabar has been in celebration overdrive through the last month. Fan associations competed with each other in a “Brazil vs Argentina” match in Malappuram district — two ISL players were roped in for each fan-side.
Mangad Ratnakaran, a long-time football enthusiast and author, spoke about how, when he was in class 5, the state textbooks had a chapter on Pele and his life story. Building a passion for football, and Brazil, starts early and is a government-sanctioned endeavour. Later, after Brazil won the 1970 World Cup, and Giants of Brazil — the film documenting the triumph — became popular across Kerala, it cemented Brazil’s place in the hearts of football lovers.
Then came the 1986 World Cup and with it, colour television. And Maradona. He dazzled them with incredible skill and even the renowned “goal of the century”. Argentina lifted the cup. And was closing in on Brazil in the battle for the hearts and minds of Kerala.
The appreciation for Latin American greats stems, perhaps, from the flair and teamwork that infuses their game. We Malayalees like flair. This, along with a historic passing down of a love for the game through the generations, has kept the fans loyal through the tough times that “their” teams have faced recently. According to Ratnakaran, Brazil might edge out Argentina when it comes to the number of fans. But not by much.
Brazil and Argentina might not be the runaway favourites for the 2018 World Cup. At least not like they used to be. But the fans in Kerala are still eager to watch them. Watching Messi run magically down the flanks, or for Neymar to finally prove why he is the next big thing is what everyone is waiting for. But for the ultimate contest, Brazil vs Argentina, Kerala will have to wait till at least the semi-finals. Whatever happens in Russia, fans in Kerala will not switch loyalties, not for a few World Cups to come. But for their sake, let’s hope one of their favourites goes all the way. Preferably Brazil.