Brazil fans at the 220kV substation in Malappuram have put up a huge hoarding of their team, heralding them as favourites for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Argentina fans at the 220kV substation beg to differ, asking in a hoarding of their own stars: “Who can stop us?”
At Tirur, flags of England, Italy, Portugal and, of course, Brazil and Argentina flutter on ropes strung between buildings like oversized garments on a clothes line. The road from Tirur to Azhimugham, where one bus plies every hour, has banners of different colours every 200m or so.
Fan fare: (clockwise from top) Argentina and Brazil fans flaunt their colours. Shaju Karat; and the town goes into carnival mode, complete with vuvuzelas.
In Ponnani, Argentina supporters put up a poster depicting Brazilian midfielder Kaka with the body of a crow (not so subtle: Kaka is “crow” in Malayalam). Brazil fans hit back with a poster of a decapitated Messi.
George Orwell clearly knew what he was talking about when he said serious sport was “war minus the shooting”.
Every four years, Malappuram—a nondescript, mostly rural district in northern Kerala—goes into carnival mode. Fans take out street rallies. Giant TV screens come up. Team jerseys replace T-shirts. Bakeries create cakes in the image of football players. Malappuram stands up to be counted for its devotion to football.
“This pre-World Cup rally brought Tirur to a standstill,” says Shaju Karat, a Tirur-based freelance photographer, displaying some images. He then shows me photos of a ground packed with 20,000 spectators at a local seven-a-side match. So it isn’t just international teams that locals follow, I say. “Oh no,” he replies, “we love football as a game, the fact that it’s on TV is incidental.”
But why, exactly? Karat thinks a while over a lunch of nei choru (ghee rice) and chicken curry. He laughs good-humouredly at the waiter as an “England fan, they drew with the USA, bah”, and meditates on the greatness of his hero, Messi—“22 years old and worth 60 crores of rupees. Imagine, 60 crores!” (a vast underestimation: Messi is worth around $80 million, Rs360 crore)—before conceding defeat and referring me to Abdul Latheef Naha, district correspondent for The Hindu.
Malappuram, Naha explains, was at the centre of the Gulf boom in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the more obvious fallouts of the remittance economy was the proliferation of colour television sets over this period. “The district watched Maradona’s magic in Mexico 1986 on the first of these TVs. Maradona was larger than life, like a film star—and Malappuram loves its superheroes,” says Naha.
Until a decade ago, fans in this predominantly Communist state rooted only for Brazil and Argentina, symbols of anti-imperialist forces. Every four years, Che Guevara posters were replaced by Maradona’s. But after the English Premier League brought players of every nationality to television screens, almost every football-playing country—including unfancied Nigeria and no-hopers Ivory Coast—finds backers here for the World Cup.
In 2002 and 2006, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane was Malappuram’s favourite poster boy, if only by default. “Many regional newspapers deliberately referred to him as Zainuddin Zidane,” says Naha. “He became a symbol of Muslim pride.”
So there are a couple of political and ideological influences at play here. But why did Malappuram begin playing football, while the rest of India (with a couple of exceptions in Bengal and Goa) focused on cricket? For answers, I turn to Muhammed Ali Moonniyur, a college coach deeply passionate about local football and seven-a-side matches.
Unlike the presidencies, Muniyoor tells me, the first Britishers here were the foot soldiers deployed to tackle the Moplah rebellion in 1921. “They played football, the common man’s game. And the locals—neither rich nor sophisticated themselves—caught on,” he says. “But the World Cup hoopla is just a ploy to win media attention. It doesn’t really translate into support for local players.”
The media, though, is hoping to cash right into the fan base. Around 40km from Malappuram, in Kozhikode, a local daily has put up a giant television screen at Kuttichira. The road is enclosed by flex banners for every team. In front of the screen, more than 500 people—mostly men—watch Ivory Coast play Portugal.
Salomon Kalou is replaced by Didier Drogba. A chorus goes around: “Drogba, Drogba, Drogba”. As forwards needle their way through defences, an intermittent yet steady “ay ay ay ay” goes up. There’s a breakthrough, the ball rushes into the penalty area, and... “Yaaaaaaay!” The ball misses the goalpost, and a collective groan rises, “Oaaahhhhhhhhhhh.”
In the 90th minute, Ivory Coast have control of the ball. The crowd brings out its whistles and steps up its cheers. Three minutes into stoppage time, Ivory Coast have a corner kick. The crowd is willing them on, the chorus rising to a crescendo. Ivory Coast don’t take a kick and walk away with a draw. A hum of disappointment courses through the crowd. Amid match post-mortems, bikes are drawn out and people drift away. Someone unfurls a Brazilian flag, waves it about and runs around in a circle.
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