FIFA World Cup Craze heats up in India
Indian fans eagerly await the kick-off Dileep Premachandran
FEVER EVERYWHERE:In football-crazy Kerala it’s a common sight to find fans supporting their favourites.
Domestic football in India may only be a sideshow but the World Cup has gripped the subcontinent. An auto-rickshaw driver in Kerala’s Malappuram district has painted his vehicle in Argentina’s sky-blue-and-white. Over the next month, his fellow Albiceleste fans will be given free rides around town.
Every four years, while the monsoon rain beats down like a scene from â€˜One Hundred Years of Solitude’, this football-crazy part of the world becomes almost an extension of South America. It’s impossible to go more than a mile or two without seeing either an Argentinian or Brazilian flag.
Messi, Tevez, Robinho and Kak are frozen for posterity on hoardings and you can even drink special fruit juices in the colours of your team.
Kerala, like Goa and Bengal, is very much football State. Half a century ago, when Indian footballers such as Peter Thangaraj, Jarnail Singh and Chuni Goswami mixed it with the best in Asia, local tournaments featuring teams such as East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and the Karachi Kickers used to draw mammoth crowds, many of them perched precariously on makeshift bamboo galleries. Even after clueless officialdom allowed the game to wither away, I remember watching East Germany, Denmark and the Soviet Union play in front of crowds of 40,000 at the decrepit Corporation Stadium in Calicut.
By the mid-1980s, when colour television began to creep into India’s interior, the national team was on its way to becoming a sideshow and a joke. Thanks to Pele, Garrincha, Vava and Jairzinho, Brazil already had a sizeable following. But Mexico ’86 changed everything.
It was the first time that many people outside of India’s big cities got to watch the World Cup. The Brazilians of ’82, so magical to watch even with the clumsy Serginho leading the line, were on the wane, but there was still dismay when penalty misses from Zico and Socrates saw them fall short against Michel Platini’s France. For the younger generation, however, there was a new hero, and a new team to support.
The good (the second goal against England, perhaps the greatest ever scored), the bad (the handball that preceded it) and the ugly (the many scything challenges that could have left him crippled) the Diego Maradona show was a full feature in itself. Even in the final, where West Germany’s midfield strove manfully to shut him down, he still found the space and swiftness of touch to release Jorge Burruchaga for the winner.
Just as Michael Jordan made basketball cool across the planet, Maradona opened a generation’s eyes to the beautiful game. When Maradona was thrown out of the 1994 World Cup after failing a drug test, the sense of anger and dejection in parts of India could have matched the mood in Buenos Aires and Rosario. â€œLong live Maradona. Down with FIFA,â€ said scrawled graffiti on the walls of the naval base in Cochin.
With the introduction of cable television in the 1990s, many fans were also introduced to European club football. For a while, there was even coverage from South America. If you were a Boca Juniors fan, as many were by default because of El Diego, it was possible to wake up in the wee hours and watch a Torneos de Verano game against River Plate or Independiente.
After a while though, club football meant the English Premier League, and that’s been reflected in the support come World Cup time. There will be Arsenal fans supporting Spain because of Cesc Fbregas (at least until he does a runner back home to Barcelona), and Chelsea fans throwing their weight behind Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast, even if he doesn’t end up recovering from his broken arm in time.
A few, especially in Malappuram, will stay loyal to France. Zinedine Zidane may not have made much of his religious background, but for a generation of Muslim youth growing up in a post-9/11 world, he was a lodestar. The disappointments of 2002 were quickly forgotten as two colossal performances dumped Spain and Brazil out of the competition four years later. Only Marco Materazzi and a rush of blood to the bald head denied thousands of supporters the perfect ending.
Since then, interest in Indian football has also gone up a notch. Two British coaches, Stephen Constantine and Bob Houghton, have helped the national side take a few steps on the long road back to respectability.
Sunil Chhetri is trying to make it in Major League Soccer with the Kansas City Wizards, and a couple of others might find a berth in Australia’s A League. Houghton’s experience and nous have inspired qualification for the Asian Cup for the first time in a generation, and there’s talk of professionalising the I-League so that it can compete with the best in Asia.
For progress to be made though, those who allowed the game to stagnate, both in administration and coaching, need to go, and there needs to be far more corporate support. The Mumbai-based Mahindra United shut up shop recently, and other teams have spoken of the difficulties involves in just breaking even. A ludicrous transfer system that allows no sort of team-building also needs to be changed, as does the over-reliance on mediocre but physically imposing foreign imports.
For the moment though, all eyes are on South Africa. Sales of television sets are booming, and in the more fashionable areas of the big cities, there will be plenty of Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard shirts on display.
Those who can scarcely afford it have taken bank loans to go and watch at least a few games in the Highveld, while others hope against hope that they can make it to Brazil 2014. â€œEven in the days when I was driving a rickshaw, I’d keep my passport ready,â€ says Auto Chandran, one of Kerala’s most famous fans. â€œI never had enough money to go. Several times, I tried different ways. It didn’t happen. I’d like to scream out loud from the gallery while Brazil and Argentina are playing before I die.â€
Such emotions are par for the course in Bangladesh as well. â€œThe news room and canteen are festooned with Argentinian and Brazilian flags, and the more avid fans have already started sporting their team jerseys to work,â€ wrote Zafar Sohban in a recent column for the Sunday Guardian. â€œThere is no other country where people engage in fisticuffs on behalf of a country that has nothing to do with them.â€
Perhaps that is the ultimate proof that nothing brings people together like the football World Cup. The Olympic Games has more participants and more countries taking part, but in terms of emotional investment and the passion that it arouses, nothing comes close to El Mundial.
For the next month, even for those in Bangladesh and India that can’t even dream of their teams gracing the big stage, the Jabulani will be the centre of the universe. â€” Â© Guardian News and Media 2010