In Kozhikode, in the southern state of Kerala, fans have celebrated the biggest event in international football for years. Gigantic cutouts of players are on display throughout the city on India’s west coast, along with waving flags and banners. Almost every street has some sort of adornment, as residents express their love for the game.
Argentina and Brazil have always garnered huge support here, coupled with the exploits of legendary names such as Kaka (Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite), Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Diego Maradona.
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.
“Kerala is not the most urbanized state in India. This means that there is a lot of empty space and when crops are not planted, these spaces become imperfect football pitches for children and teenagers. Not being extremely urbanized means people generally have more free time,” Basith said.
Bilal Ahmed, a Kozhikode businessman and football fan, said: “The pitches are used in the morning and evening. Since the region’s economy depends on fishing, people have time to engage in football.
The ease of access and lack of complexity in football create early adopters. “We only need one ball. Cricket needs more time and resources. There is no space or condition to play cricket here because there is too much sand. It makes football very easy to play,” Ahmed said.
Walk on water
Pullavoor, a village on the outskirts of Kozhikode, caused a stir on social media with its soaring cutouts of Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo.
Irshad PK, a member of the Argentina Pullavoor supporters group, said: “We appreciate that and we support Argentina because they play great football. It’s part of our lives.”
Installing the Messi cutout was a tedious task that took several hours, he said.
— rizwan_m.m (@Rlzw4n) October 31, 2022
Neymar’s was placed a few meters in front of Messi’s on the Cherupuzha River.
Closer examination revealed five smaller cutouts floating around the image of the Paris Saint-Germain star, to represent the number of World Cup trophies that Brazil have won.
A perfect response from Brazilian fans Pullavoor, Calicut 😍🙌
Keeping a 40ft Neymar cutout to counter the Messi cutout#BRAZIL #NeymarJr #Messi𓃵 #Argentina #FIFAWorldCupQatar2022 @Fifa World Cup @neymarjr @objective @ESPNFC @RVCJ_FB @theengineerbroo @ pic.twitter.com/9zLjJubGeT
—Aravind Arun (@Aravind92853834) November 3, 2022
Football and the World Cup are also a source of money in Kozhikode, as fans snatch flags and jerseys. TV sales and broadcast subscriptions are also increasing – with a corresponding increase in advertisements during the World Cup.
It’s not just about South America. The flags of Spain, Germany, France and England can also be seen on the streets of seaside areas such as Vellayil and Beypore in Kozhikod. Rival signs and flags make the streets a battleground for fan support.
Basith described football as a unifying cultural force.
“Elsewhere, children are good with video games and cell phones. Here, children are gifted soccer balls.