Argentina or Brazil? Football fans in India hedge their bets

India may be cricket-crazy, but in the southern state of Kerala football is followed with religious fervor.

Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar cutouts
Large cut-outs of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Lionel Messi in Pullavoor, southern India [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera]

Kozhikode, India – The World Cup has come to a football-crazy southern Indian city, where Lionel Messi, Neymar and other star players are, quite literally, larger than life.

In Kozhikode, in the southern state of Kerala, fans have celebrated international football’s greatest event for years. Gigantic cut-outs of players are on display across the city on India’s western coast, along with fluttering flags and banners. Almost every street has some kind of adornment, as residents express their love for the game.

Argentina and Brazil have always garnered huge support here, associated as the teams are with the exploits of legendary names such as Kaka (Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite), Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Diego Maradona.

A giant Lionel Messi cutout in Vellayil, Kozhikode [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera)

Brazil versus Argentina

Muhammad Basith, aged 28, a businessman and a Brazil fan since the late 1990s believes the support for Brazil has increased since 1998 but the fervour for Argentina is more deep-rooted.

He fondly remembers when he began watching football in 1998, his father bringing home a small colour TV  just before Mario Zagallo’s side reached the final of the World Cup that year.

“Brazil’s performances in that tournament began my story of supporting them. I remember that the TV that my father bought had a switch shaped like a football. That TV is still preserved at my home somewhere as a memory,” Basith told Al Jazeera.

The flags of Argentina and Brazil fly high in the city. Even in the neighbouring district of Malappuram,  former and current football greats feature prominently on billboards. Maradona is often depicted as a guiding god-like figure overseeing manager Lionel Scaloni’s team.

“A lot of younger fans support Brazil because Argentina have not won the World Cup since 1986. But the support for Argentina is much deeper,” Basith said.

“People do like to portray stars as larger-than-life characters in Kerala and that also applies to film stars. But footballers connect with them on a different level, especially those from Brazil and Argentina.”

Love for street football

The seven-a-side football culture has grown in Kerala and there are pitches across Kozhikode, where the wet weather and muddy terrain create perfect conditions for play.

It is no wonder that street footballers who became masters of the game have a special place in the hearts of fans here.

India celebrates World Cup
A roundabout on the outskirts of Kozhikod has been adorned with the colours of Argentina and Brazil [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera]

“Kerala is not the most urbanised state in India. This means that there is a lot of empty space and when the crops aren’t planted, those spaces become imperfect football pitches for kids and teenagers. Not being extremely urbanised means that people generally have more free time on their hands,” Basith said.

Maradona, Lionel Messi, Brazilian Ronaldo and Neymar started playing on the streets where they grew up, and fans in Kerala feel that down-to-earth connection.

Bilal Ahmed, a businessman in Kozhikode and a football fan, said: “The pitches are used in the morning and in the evening. Since the economy in the area is reliant on fishing, people have time to commit to football.”

Football’s ease of access and lack of complexity creates early adopters. “We only need a ball. Cricket needs more time and resources. There is no space or condition to play cricket here, as there is too much sand. That makes football very easy to play,” Ahmed said.

Walking on water

Pullavoor, a village on the outskirts of Kozhikode, created a stir on social media with its soaring cut-outs of Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo.

Irshad PK, a member of the Argentina Pullavoor fans group, said: “We enjoy it and we support Argentina because they play great football. It is part of our lives.”

India celebrates World Cup
A large hoarding for Argentina’s national team has Maradona almost looking over the Selecao [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera]

Installing the Messi cut-out was a tedious task that took several hours, he said.

The one of Neymar was placed a few metres ahead of Messi’s on the Cherupuzha River.

A closer look revealed five smaller cut-outs floating around the image of the Paris Saint-Germain star, to represent the number of World Cup trophies that Brazil have won.

Football and the World Cup are also a source of cash in Kozhikode, as fans snap up flags and jerseys. Television sales and broadcast subscriptions also go up – with a corresponding increase in advertisements during the World Cup.

It is not just about South America. The flags of Spain, Germany, France and England can also be seen on the streets of beachfront areas such as Vellayil and Beypore at the Kozhikod. Rival hoardings and flags make the streets a battleground for fan support.

Basith described football as a uniting cultural force.

“In other places, children are gifted video games and mobile phones. Here, kids are gifted footballs.”

Source: Al Jazeera