Kozhikode, India – The World Cup has come to a football-crazy South Indian city, where Lionel MessiNeymar and other star players are, quite literally, larger than life.

In Kozhikode, in the southern state of Kerala, fans have been celebrating the biggest event in international football for years. Giant cutouts of players can be seen all over the city on India’s west coast, along with waving flags and banners. Almost every street has some kind of decoration, with which residents express their love for the game.

Argentina and Brazil have always received huge support here as the teams are linked to the exploits of legendary names such as Kaka (Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite), Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Diego Maradona.

Messi
A giant cutout of Lionel Messi in Vellayil, Kozhikode [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera)

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.

India celebrates World Cup
A roundabout on the outskirts of Kozhikod has been adorned with the colours of Argentina and Brazil [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera]

“Kerala is not the most urbanized state in India. This means that there is a lot of empty space and when the crops are not planted, those spaces become imperfect football fields for children and teenagers. Because they are not extremely urbanized, people generally have more free time,” Basith said.

MaradonaLionel MessiBrazilian Ronaldo and Neymar started playing on the streets where they grew up, and fans in Kerala feel that down-to-earth bond.

Bilal Ahmed, a businessman in Kozhikode and a football fan, said, “The fields are used in the morning and evening. Since the economy in the area depends on fishing, people have time to dedicate themselves to football.”

Soccer’s ease of access and lack of complexity makes for early adopters. “We just need a ball. Cricket needs more time and resources. There is no space or condition to play cricket here because there is too much sand. That makes football very easy to play,” said Ahmed.

Walking on water

Pullavoor, a village on the outskirts of Kozhikode, caused quite a stir on social media with its towering cutouts of Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo.

Irshad PK, a member of Argentina’s Pullavoor fans group, said: “We enjoy it and we support Argentina because they play great football. It is part of our life.”

India celebrates World Cup
A large billboard for the Argentina national team almost makes Maradona look out over the Seleção [Kaustubh Pandey/ Al Jazeera]

Installing the Messi cutout was a tedious job that took several hours, he said.

Neymar’s was a few meters ahead of Messi’s on the Cherupuzha River.

A closer look revealed five smaller cutouts floating around the image of the Paris Saint-Germain star, to represent the number of World Cup trophies Brazil has won.

Football and the World Cup are also a source of money in Kozhikode as fans take flags and jerseys. Television sales and subscriptions to broadcasts are also rising – with a corresponding increase in advertising 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 beach areas such as Vellayil and Beypore on the Kozhikod. Rival billboards and flags make the streets a battleground for fan support.

Basith described football as a unifying cultural force.

“In other places, kids are gifted with video games and cell phones. Here, children are gifted footballs.”





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