The popularity of cricket in India is attributed to its national team’s 1983 World Cup win in England. That was the time when colour television had just about started entering Indian households. As people crowded around TV sets to watch the final, the heroics of Kapil Dev’s men against the West Indies—the then dominant force in world cricket—gave the country its most recognizable sporting heroes.

This was a sport they could call their own, for they were good at it. Not just good, but the best in the world.

Football, in comparison, has been bereft of such an epochal moment.

Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment in the final of the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield in 1911 came a little too early to register on the nation’s consciousness. Beating the colonial overlords at their own game was seen as a prelude to the country’s ultimate quest for independence.

Shashwat Bansal from Bengaluru is travelling to Russia this month to support Brazil. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Shashwat Bansal from Bengaluru is travelling to Russia this month to support Brazil. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The glory days of Indian football, however fleeting, are now past us. India’s last win in a major tournament came at the 1962 Asian Games, where a 2-1 win over South Korea secured the gold medal. But the lack of national glory in football hasn’t stopped a significant chunk of the population from following the sport with avid interest.

India manages to pull impressive viewership numbers for top European leagues as well as international matches. In the latest figures released by Fifa, India and China ranked among the top 10 countries in ticket sales for the 2018 World Cup (by 3 April, Indians had bought 4,509 tickets).

Yet, the India team has never qualified for the World Cup and China’s only participation came in 2002.

Clearly, then, the World Cup is no longer merely a sporting event to be enjoyed by the host and participating nations. It has evolved into a truly global extravaganza.

Wafir Manakad, 27, is all set to attend his first World Cup. The Dubai-based entrepreneur, who finds the trip affordable, first took a fancy to the game as a 12-year-old.

“I started watching and supporting Manchester United somewhere around 2003, mostly due to the buzz created by David Beckham at the time," Manakad says on email. His love for the Red Devils and their large contingent in the England squad gave him an international team to support, but those ties are no longer binding. “Today, I don’t care much for the England national team."

Minghan Chen, a PhD candidate from China at Carnegie Mellon University, is also attending his first World Cup. Though he grew up idolizing a Brazilian, Kaká, his primary motivation in travelling to Russia is to see his hero, Lionel Messi, possibly lifting the World Cup for Argentina.

“This may be his last chance; even though the chance is very slim, I’d like to dream," Minghan writes on email.

Despite being the catalyst for Barcelona’s most successful era in history, Messi has been unable to inspire his national team to a senior title. Given that Russia is likely to be his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona’s heroics, ticket sales for Argentina’s opener against Iceland went faster than for any match other than the final.

Minghan may not be able to watch his hero in the flesh, since he couldn’t get tickets for Argentina’s matches. “I’m only going to watch a round-of-16 match (group D winner vs group C runners-up). Assuming Argentina get first place in group D, I will be able to follow Messi’s team."

While Manakad and Minghan may have preferred to support their own countries, the absence of these two nations will save them quite a few nerve-racking moments.

The freedom to pick and choose a team to support is summed up well by Minghan: “I would not consider supporting Argentina if Messi were no longer in the team."

Manakad, too, isn’t hostage to the fortunes of any one team. “I would be more inclined to support a team that has a player that I like in general. A classic example would be Portugal, because of (Cristiano) Ronaldo."

Changing loyalties isn’t much of a bother for Manakad either: “In the previous tournaments, (I) would have probably been more inclined towards England, since there was a strong Manchester United presence in the team then."

Minghan and Manakad’s conditional fandom might elicit scorn from Sudhanshu Mukherjee, who will be supporting England, “however painful that is".

Mukherjee, a Mumbai-based marketing professional, is going to Russia with friends. Mukherjee, too, has tickets to just one game and will miss the chance to cheer for England. “I will watch just one game—France vs Denmark," he rues.

The lure of a tournament in a faraway land cannot be limited to the game, especially in Russia, which retains its mystique. “I would love to be around the fan zones as well for the important games, and would probably like to have it overlap with exploring the country," says Manakad, who has tickets for two round-of-16 games and one quarter-final.

Shashwat Bansal from Bengaluru will be travelling to Russia with Manakad. As the former employee of a French sporting goods retailer, he even has a pick-up game lined up against his former colleagues from the Moscow office.

But while this is indicative of the fact that the game’s governing body, Fifa, has a huge, heterogeneous demographic to sell its flagship product to, this has also brought problems in its wake.

The award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the next one to Qatar is considered by many to be in blatant disregard of human rights violations in the two countries.

The Zurich-based not-for-profit is not new to controversy. Stories of corrupt referees and abductions of political opponents are still coming to light from the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, held on the watch of the military junta.

More recently, the lead-up to the 2014 edition in Brazil was dogged by protests from residents of favelas (shanty towns), who felt marginalized by the tournament organizers. With the eyes of the world trained on one country for a month, global sporting events run the risk of turning into displays of vanity by autocratic regimes.

When the venue is Russia—where President Vladimir Putin is in the limelight for the annexation of Crimea, the murder and disappearance of political opponents, the curtailment of human rights, and, more recently, of influencing elections in other countries—it’s bound to lead to greater attention.

Sport has often found a way of weaving itself into the narrative of history. The 1936 Berlin Olympics are remembered as Hitler’s coming out party on the world stage. It took a couple of games of ping pong to thaw decades of political tension between the US and China.

In light of all this, how does a football fan react? Can the beauty of the action on the field mask the sheer offensiveness off it?

Minghan says, “I’m not informed on the ethics and political implications of this event, and, therefore, based on a scientific spirit, I must say I do not have enough knowledge to develop a point of view on this matter.

“I do not think of my actions as a political or ethical one. Even though the consequences of an action are not dictated by the nature of the intentions, I hope the personal importance of this trip in terms of reconnecting with my lifelong friend (for whom this may be the only chance to see his idol Messi) excludes me from those who should take humanitarian issues as a factor in their decision making," he adds.

Bansal believes his participation will not tip the scales one way or the other. “It’s just the way the world works today. If problems could be avoided by people skipping the World Cup, then maybe I would have had a different view. That’s not the case, and, so, I tend not to think about it."

Manakad isn’t indifferent to the issues dogging Russia and Qatar. “I’m acutely aware of the human rights issues that arise from these countries, mainly in labour laws, freedom of speech and a government-controlled media."

But, he adds, “as long as the demand for jobs is far lower than the supply of workforce (which is the case in the Middle East now), the humanitarian issues (specifically the labour laws) would probably take a back seat".

He then proceeds to add a line that would warm the hearts of Fifa executives.

“To be honest, the world cup for me is purely about football and my personal interests."

The sport’s pull is so strong that it does, at least for the 90 minutes of action, overcome everything else. With the host country guaranteed a World Cup spot, India and China will wait for their turn.

Qualifying is oh-so-mainstream.

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