Like a phoenix, the 30-foot-tall foam-board cutout of the soccer star Lionel Messi rises from a river running through lush green hills in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a towering symbol of a World Cup mania that knows no boundaries.
The man behind the tribute, Nousheer Nellikode, 35, is a die-hard fan of Argentina’s national team, which Messi captains. One of his brothers has similarly strong feelings about Brazil, another leading contender to win the Cup. Both teams are now in the quarterfinal round in Qatar.
The family’s divided loyalties mirror a heated split throughout this soccer-loving stretch of India known as Malabar, where local people adopted the sport from the British more than a century ago, in part as a way to take revenge on their colonizers on the consequence-free field of play.
India, an otherwise cricket-mad country, has a long history of soccer futility, having never qualified for the World Cup. So people in Kerala have found outlets abroad for their fierce devotion to the sport, first in Brazil with the rise of Pelé in the 1950s, and then in Argentina with the arrival of Diego Maradona in the 1980s.
Now, with soccer’s biggest event in full swing, flags of Argentina and Brazil flutter in the air, strung across shops and roundabouts on narrow roads in coastal towns and villages. Selfie stations set up by Brazil fans feature cutouts of Neymar, the team’s top star. Sports shops hawk Messi’s blue and white No. 10 jersey, available in all sizes.
Graffiti tributes to both teams adorn walls of homes set against coconut trees. Locals get sucked into fervent discussions about matches and place bets on their favorite team at roadside tea shops. In one village, an enlarged replica of a soccer ball floats on a serene lake.
For Nellikode, his display of allegiance forced him to keep a secret for six months, even from his wife, given the particularly resonant place he had in mind for it.
During World Cups, large cutouts of star players can be found along roads and in other places around Kerala. “But inside the river next to the football field from my childhood? That is special to this village setting,” Nellikode said.
Nellikode, the president of a village soccer club, and his team managed to collect nearly $250 to pay for the Messi cutout, arrange flags and help set up an L.C.D. screen at the local field to show World Cup matches.
A WhatsApp group dedicated to Argentina fans, with more than 100 members, not only helped them stay connected but also mobilized them to collect funds. Even those who had migrated to the Middle East for work — there is a large Kerala diaspora in the Gulf — sent money through online transfers.
One morning a few days before the World Cup began, Nellikode sneaked out with his team to put the Messi cutout in place. He then challenged Brazil fans to match his show of support.
“Do you, the Brazil fans, not have a backbone?” he said to those who had gathered to watch him and his friends erect the cutout on a little spot of land in the river.
The crowd included his brothers Noufal, the Brazil fan, and Naveed, a Portugal fan (there are some of those in Kerala, too).
There were enough Brazil fans to finance a cutout of their own, a 40-foot-tall likeness of Neymar that was placed on the riverbank. But with only two Portugal fans in the village, Naveed had to make an appeal through the local media.
Within days, Portugal fans from across Kerala had sent in nearly $300. “Soon after, we managed to prop up a taller cutout of Ronaldo’s near Messi’s,” Naveed said, referring to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal star.
Kerala is not unique in the region for its love of soccer. In Bangladesh, the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil fans has also taken extraordinary turns, with fans from each side marching with flags as long as 2,200 feet.
Before Argentina’s match against Saudi Arabia, the owner of a pizza shop in the capital, Dhaka, announced that if the Saudis pulled off a miracle upset, he would give his pizza away. When Saudi Arabia went on to win, 2-1, and soccer fans started flocking to the shop, the owner quickly backtracked: He had meant free pizza for the first 70 people, he said.
In Kerala, which is dotted by fields, clubs and academies, soccer is treated as an intangible cultural heritage. During colonial times, the main Malabar commercial hub, then called Calicut and now known as Kozhikode, saw a steady influx of European businessmen who played the sport with British officers. When they fell short of teammates, they brought in locals.
Locals say the World Cup fanfare has reached a new level this year, with huge screens set up every few miles so people can watch the games. In some places, area V.I.P.s get passes for front-row seating. The state government, riding the wave of the frenzy, launched a soccer-themed antidrug campaign.
At times, the fervor has boiled over. Argentina and Brazil fans got into fisticuffs at one Cup-related event. A Muslim group voiced concerns about worship of soccer celebrities. (“It’s only meant for entertainment,” one Muslim leader replied on Facebook.)
But the tournament has also brought people together. Seventeen friends, including a driver, an electrician, a welder and a porter, bought a two-room house with some open space in a village near Kochi, another coastal district, so that people in the area could watch matches together. A television was installed and the house was decorated with flags of various teams, along with portraits of Messi and Ronaldo.
Much larger gatherings are also taking place. Last week, on the night of the match between Argentina and Poland, thousands of men, women and children, some with their faces painted in Argentina’s colors of blue and white, packed an open-air stadium in a town called Feroke, where a legislator had arranged for a screening.
As Argentina took a commanding 2-0 lead, some Brazil fans in attendance slinked out. One Argentina fan set off firecrackers in celebration, and another person dispersed blue smoke into the air. The smell of fresh curry leaves wafted in the cool night air.
“We want Argentina and Brazil to face each other. That’s our quintessential rivalry here,” said Mohammad Shakir, 28, a Brazil fan. “There is no fun otherwise.”
For Rahman Poovanjery, who recently wrote a book about the history of soccer that includes a section on the sport in rural Kerala and who recalls playing with a ball made of leftover pieces of cloth as a young boy, World Cup fever has put him in a philosophical mood.
Recently, he hired a studio and enlisted a vocalist to sing a poem he was inspired to write. He calls it “Brazil’s Song.”
“Every slum, road, bylane and valley,
Is turned into a soccer ground.AdvertisementAdvertisement
These cities and villages have devoted their hearts and minds to soccer,
The game that has the beauty of dance.
There is truth and beauty in it, say the people,
Who overcame poverty and life’s miseries through soccer.
Religion, culture, nationalism,Advertisement
Is nothing but the night song that revolves around soccer.”
Saif Hasnat contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.