In a white dhoti and shirt, a beaming ‘Lionel Messi’ greets you at the entrance of Ninamvallappu, a coastal village on the outskirts of Kozhikode in north Kerala. Then there is a roaring ‘Neymar’ perched on a coconut tree nearby. In the sweltering sun, youngsters in gaudy jerseys are dribbling with colourful balls and a few metres away, K Saleem, a sales representative, is mulling over the prospect of his team winning FIFA laurels to compensate his 2010 loss.
Betting on his favourite team, Brazil, had made him lose his hard-earned motorbike last time. Once the ball starts rolling on June 12, the day the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, he will only answer to the name of either Thiago Saleem or Saleem Neymar, his favourite players — which one it will be, he’s yet to decide. Saleem is no exception in this soccer-crazed city. There are many here who are ready to give you the low-down on how the Brazilian coach Luiz Felope Scolari is training his boys to win the ultimate honour on home ground after 64 years.
The World Cup may be happening continents away, but you could be mistaken into thinking it is being held near Ninamvalappu, Kozhikode. Cheering fan clubs, imposing cutouts, colourful headbands and flags of participating countries are aflutter everywhere. Newspaper vendors say their circulation has gone up. To cash in on the event, electronic giants have announced special schemes for LED/LCD TVs. Curio shops selling World Cup jerseys and bands are set to make a killing. The FIFA theme song by Jennifer Lopez is blaring out though some say Colombian beauty Shakira’s number from the last big event was better.
Hotels and bakeries here are ready with their special dishes. In 2010, ‘Samba juice’ laced with yellow cream and nuts was a big hit in parts of Kozhikode and Malappuram districts. On June 12, hotels have promised big discounts to celebrate the occasion. Hair saloons have put up boards announcing special cuts in imitation of the hairstyle of the most popular players. "Here people breathe soccer," says Mammu Koya, a leading comedian of Malayalam cinema, who belongs to the area. A big fan of ‘Sevens Football,’ he played soccer till the age of 40. (In Sevens Football, a speciality of the Malabar area, only seven players represent each side. Around 50 major Sevens tournaments are organised in Malappuram and Kozhikode districts every summer.) "Every match is like a festival. After the match, debates go on till midnight in make-shift camps," says MK Raghavan MP, who is trying hard to get an international soccer stadium built in his constituency.
In the Muslim-dominated areas, rising soccer fever is a growing concern for clerics. Upset with the thin attendance at Friday prayers, they had issued a fatwa during the last World Cup. "We are not against soccer. But at times, it takes demonic proportions. Many even chuck their work and fail to reach their homes at the peak of the season," a spokesman of the Samsatha Kerala Sunni Students Federation says. Conservatives are worried at the steady growth of fan clubs of European teams in this Muslim pocket. Placards of England and France were destroyed recently. "There will be no big betting. We are keeping a strict vigil on unruly elements during the season," says N K Zubair, the Ninamvalappil Football Fans Association (NFFA) president.
Founded in 1996, NFFA, which is in touch with FIFA, is the engine that steamrolls soccer spirit here. Last time, NFFA was sent a copy of the FIFA’s new rules, brochures and miniatures. These have been displayed at a mini museum. "Due to elections, the buildup has been delayed a bit. This time, we were told two small consignments have been shipped from the FIFA headquarters and we should be getting them soon," Zubair says.
"More than cricketers, people adore soccer stars here. The area has contributed many national and international players like T Abdul Rehman," says senior sports writer Bassi Malaparambil, who has covered seven World Cups so far. He’s set to fly to Brazil for his eighth. Fans believe the game will be in for a big leap in India after the Under 17 2017 FIFA World Cup the country is hosting. But for now, all eyes are on Samba country and it’s viva Brazil everywhere.