Malayalis choose a side in their many sociocultural dualities as adults. Mammooty and Mohanlal in movies. Communists and Congressmen dominate politics. But nothing beats Brazil and Argentina's football wars. There are alternatives to this duality, but none are as popular.
In Kerala, the animosity between the Brazil and Argentina supporters is as intense as that between India and Pakistan during a cricket match. By the World Cup, they’d have graduated from casual admiration to full-fledged obsession with the cultures of countries more than 9,000 miles distant from Kerala. They have more in common than they are comfortable admitting—an obsession with the defeat of the other team, a running through their cherished goals, rehashing dramatic events, and legendary successes.
It's a heated rivalry that's lasted for decades and helped strengthen the bonds between supporters and their favourite teams. It also generates excitement and anticipation in the lead-up to the big day. On game day, fans can feel every possible feeling, from nervousness to elation to wrath to disappointment, moving encounters that are perhaps otherwise a rarity in their normal course of life. It is not just the game—those unparalleled bursts of emotions are the actual payoff.
There are risks, indeed. Although they rarely devolve into violence, the supporters may sometimes see the competition as a threat not just to their team's status in the standings, but to their very identity. Dinu Alex, a 30-year-old Argentine football fan and Lionel Messi superfan, was reportedly found dead in a river after committing suicide over Argentina's disappointing performance in the 2018 World Cup.
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Two countries, one state
Under a bridge, a bay of headload employees was changed into a theatre-like projection to show the World Cup. There were a few chairs, a laptop, two enormous speakers, several pedestal fans, and scores of men, including one Argentina fan who was painted in the country's white and blue stripes.
So when the Latin American football giant succumbed to plucky Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, he claimed he dreaded this moment. The loss itself could be mitigated—after all, they haven't won the cup since 1986—but coming home in front of his booing Malayali-Brazilian foes upset him the most.
No kidding. In a viral voice note, an adult was heard crying after hearing the match result, fearing embarrassment while on his way back home from Kerala’s Kasargod district. Jokes mercilessly mocking Argentina flooded the Malayali Internet soon after the match. The fan's primary identification takes precedence over any others he may have; for example, Congress leader VT Balram, who is a Brazilian supporter, publicly ridiculed two of his own party leaders, MLA Shafi Parambil and spokesperson Rahul Mankoottathil, both Argentina supporters, who travelled all the way to Qatar to see the play. A satirical TV skit depicted a fan who wouldn't leave the house until the World Cup was over, fearing embarrassment, which is a scenario that might easily happen in real life.
As a result of Germany's defeat at the hands of Japan on Wednesday, Brazilian fans are also understandably freaked out. Devoted rationalists and hardcore Brazil fans are found blaming some woo-doo factor in Qatar for the successes of the Asian teams so far. They anticipate a harsh mocking unless they win, especially given the way they mocked Argentina fans on Tuesday. Some have tempered their claims of a decisive victory in the hopes that the fallout, should they be unsuccessful, will be less severe.
It's tough to pinpoint when the Malayali football obsession originated because it grew among the populace before elites noticed.
Most Malayali liberation warriors from the pre-Independence era weren't known as football players. But there are stories of courageous matches between barefoot Malayalis and boot-wearing British officers about the same time, especially in North Kerala, which was under British authority.
Kozhikode and its neighbouring Malappuram, like European-ruled Kolkata and Goa, today has a network of coaches, students, and "sevens" competitions. A 1982 black-and-white photograph by Ali Kovoor depicts a stadium full of ladies watching football, demonstrating its popularity even back then.
The romance for Latin American countries started with Brazil, by all accounts. Pele was celebrated by the newspapers and the radio. Consequently, if you were to ask Subair, a farmer from Vazhakkad in Malappuram who doubles as a TV football critic, why he became an Argentine fan, he would confidently say that it all started in 1986. The era of Diego Maradona and the triumphant Argentine World Cup team.
Love affairs and rivalry with Brazilian equivalents poured through decades, with icons altering. Zinedine Zidane converted some of them to France, turning emphasis to European powers. Today, when club football and Premier League matches have revolutionised the sport, football is more than just a conversation topic; showing support for a club is a public statement of cultural competence across borders.
Also read: FIFA World Cup 2022: How Indian football is taking baby steps towards global goals
Not just a game
Football has inspired Kerala, as much as its followers have embraced its history and heritage. Malappuram, the sporting capital, places a high value on knowing football. Everyone gets together to play the game, regardless of boundaries that separate them, frequently on muddy pitches to fields with holes and for the winning prize of an al-faham or shawarma. It even attracts a lot of talent today, notably from Africa, who participate in renowned local matches.
It's created a new generation of literati, too. NS Madhavan wrote 'Higuita' in 1990, where the protagonist Father Geevarghese is modelled on the Columbian goalkeeper René Higuita, which remains one of the most anthologised Malayalam short stories. Other stories, books, and films followed, including the 2018-hit ‘Sudani From Nigeria'.
The territorial aspect of the game and the communist resistance movements that arose both may have contributed to the adoration of Latin American countries by Kerala. Who else besides Lionel Messi was raised in the Argentine city of Rosario? Most Malayalis who keep up with the football news know: Che Guevara, the communist idol who dominates the hearts and T-shirts.
There's no denying that it gives the Left in Kerala a lens through which to communicate, opening up conversations about topics like poverty, bigotry, and fascism with people who might not otherwise be interested in reading about them. After all, football is "the most important of least important things," as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp memorably put it. However, it is also undeniable that the sport's expansion was aided by that ultimate capitalist innovation—television. Many people in Kerala saw their first World Cup game on television in 1986, and it was during this tournament that many people fell under Maradona's spell.
Stretching passions to the tilt
The effects of fanaticism and rivalry are not always obvious. I once followed a Da Vinci Code-style mystery that had nothing to do with football: Why are Kerala's government boards blue and white? The IAS official who built it had said it was initially developed for Kochi city and later spread across the state. The symbolism of white and blue was supposed to show land melting into the sea, Kochi's layout, he said. But after some digging, it was clear that Maradona had converted him to Argentina. It could be argued he acted like a true fan—sneakily painting the streets with his favourite team’s colours. Later, he whitened and blued the Kochi Metro too. A new water metro which he initially oversaw will also use the same colour code.
The World Cup is when fanaticism reaches its pinnacle. Posters, banners, and life-size cutouts of players whom most people in Kerala would never see in their lifetime, would adorn every nook and corner of the state. When a Messi cutout measuring 30 feet in length was spotted in Kozhikode's Pullavoor river, it gained national attention, inspiring other groups to create their own. It can get a little out of hand occasionally. Last week, Argentinian and Brazilian fans and police officers clashed at a demonstration.
In Malappuram, 17 best friends spent Rs 28 lakh on buying a house for screening the World Cup. Country emblems and flags have been spray-painted on many a home. Two women took a car trip to the host nation, Qatar. The financing gap between the big World Cup spending and the poor money received for football training back home was not lost on some trainers.
It has also become a platform for everyone to plug their own interests. The government is using the World Cup frenzy to raise awareness of the state's war on drugs. Companies have changed their thumbnail images for social media to reflect images of the World Cup. Lit fests are celebrating football with seminars on the game. True to the times, some are using it to create a deluge of fabricated stories. Since the World Cup is being held in a Muslim country, Qatar, some are spreading rumours on social media that Malayalis are more enthusiastic than ever about the tournament. Whereas in fact, due to generations of diaspora, this World Cup will really be one of the most accessible for Malayalis. There were others who regarded Ecuador players drawing a cross after the opening-round victory over Qatar as a warning to the Islamic nation. It has made Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan remark on a Facebook post: “It’s not a good idea to shine your toxic beams on a game as special as football.”
It's a win-win situation for businesses too. Mohanlal celebrated the World Cup with a video release, also promoting his upcoming directorial debut. Local businesses, including electronics retailers, have welcomed the World Cup with banners featuring native football icons like IM Vijayan and promoting the latest models of their best-selling televisions. In a match in Kochi with Congress leaders, the opposition leader donned jersey number 10.
Even if you're not a fan, you can't help but notice the skyrocketing interest. In a video of a photographer urging a model to wave an Argentinean flag, he was heard saying: "Aren’t we going to lift the cup?” “Yes,” says the girl. A doubtful photographer asks her again: “So who’ll be the winner?” When he hears her say, "Neymar will win," he gives up.