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On the ball

India may be 133rd in world football rankings — behind Fiji, Faroe Islands, Sudan and Iceland — and fonder of another 11-a-side sport involving a ball. India may be 133rd in world football rankings — behind Fiji, Faroe Islands, Sudan and Iceland — and fonder of another 11-a-side sport involving a ball. But every four years during the World Cup, two places in the country stir up a football frenzy comparable to that in Rio, Rome or Madrid: Kerala and West Bengal.

sports Updated: Jun 12, 2010 23:07 IST

India may be 133rd in world football rankings — behind Fiji, Faroe Islands, Sudan and Iceland — and fonder of another 11-a-side sport involving a ball. But every four years during the World Cup, two places in the country stir up a football frenzy comparable to that in Rio, Rome or Madrid: Kerala and West Bengal.

This World Cup is no different. As the World Cup picks up momentum over the next month, India’s two soccer-crazy spots are raring to cheer their outsourced heroes.

The Footbongs

Inside a shack that is the 108th ward office of the Trinamool Congress, a party worker is watching a Hindi film on TV. He turns around to say that he’ll be watching the Korea-Greece, the Argentina-Nigeria and the England-USA World Cup games here later through the night. A banner proclaiming Mamata Banerjee’s slogan ‘Ma, maati, manush’ (mother, soil, people) is behind him. Does he know the answer to the question that the whole of Kolkata is asking: ‘Is Mamata supporting Brazil or Argentina?’

Right next to the TMC structure is a two-storeyed government building with CPI(M) flags fluttering outside. There’s a midday meal being served to children on the ground floor. But you don’t have to be smart to know what purpose the TV set on the second floor will serve in the evenings.

The wall adjoining the offices of these rival parties has been painted with a picture of Diego Maradona holding the 1986 World Cup trophy alongside a barely recognisable portrait of the Argentine star footballer and this year’s big hope Lionel Messi. Just one word in English — ‘Argintina’ (sic) — marks this territory.

On the other side of the road here at the eastern edge of Kolkata in Tiljola is the Netaji Sporting Club. Laltu Sharma, 23, a scraggly member and an Argentina supporter, points out that behind the wall, the TMC workers are organising a shamiana-ed dinner tonight to celebrate their victory in the recent municipal elections. “They waited till the World Cup started. One of them even coined the slogan, ‘Ma, maati, Maradona!’ The most precious object in the clubhouse this year has to be the Samsung LCD screen TV that has been placed at an altar-like spot. Suman Das, 24, Club Games Secretary, says it has been bought with club funds.

Meanwhile, outside, Romesh, 21, an Argentina supporter, is tying a giant Argentina flag across the building front, dwarfing the smaller Brazilian already fluttering. When asked why he supports Brazil, his answer is straight and fast: “Brazil’s a five-time World Cup champion, that’s why.” On the grassless, small muddy field in front of the club building, a match will be underway in a few minutes. “Brazil versus Argentina,” says Romesh, “and Argentina will win.”

Across the city, inside the Raj-era building of Wellesley House is the office of Leisure Sports Management Pvt Ltd. Since the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Sabyasachi ‘Benu-da’ Dasgupta, Managing Director of the sports travel and management firm, has been facilitating hordes of Bengalis to watch football across the globe. He shows a garland of $ 400 World Cup final tickets. “This time we’ll be sending 85-90 people to South Africa. Sixty per cent of those going are from Kolkata.”

One such lucky World Cupper is 48-year-old businessman Kangsha Koyal. This is his fourth World Cup. He poses wearing a tight Brazil jersey over his shiny black shirt with fellow-football fiend friend, 50-plus Pankaj Ghosh. Ghosh, a football coach with the sports council, is almost in tears as he describes being with Brazilian fans in a Marseille stadium watching a Brazil-Holland match. “I can’t tell you the feeling of being there. I just can’t,” he says days before his fifth Cup trip.

Both have somehow managed to save up the Rs 3 lakh for Leisure Sports Management’s “full experience” — travel costs, stay, breakfast, watching games in stadia. “I’ll just have a heavy breakfast every day,” says Koyal while Ghosh says he’ll eat cashew nuts and biscuits during his stay. So don’t these two Bengali Brazil fanatics get asked why they spend so much money to watch foreign teams? “We are there to have India present in World Cups,” says Ghosh. Who needs players when we have football-crazy Bengali World Cup fans?

Kicks from Kozhikode

Beach boys of Ninan Valappu in northern Kozhikode gambol in the monsoon-drenched tiny playground as small-time carpenter Fazal NV mulls over the prospects of ‘his’ team going back with FIFA laurels. Betting on Brazil made him lose his hard-earned Pulsar last time. He hopes to recover his loss this time. Fazal loves to answer to his new name — Fazal Ronaldo. He plans to tonsure his head, like his god — Cristiano Ronaldo.

At a glance, you could be mistaken in thinking that the World Cup is really being held in Ninan Valappu, not in far off South Africa. Cheering fan clubs, towering cutouts, colourful headbands and flags of 32 countries aflutter — it’s a month-long festival here. From wayside tea stalls to fish markets, lively soccer debates are on about the attacking game of Lionel Messi, the dribbling prowess of Wayne Rooni and the shooting power of Didier Drogba.

When a group of fans vowed to do a Maradona (he promised recently he would run naked in Barcelona if his team makes it) in neighbouring Tirur (Malappuram district), Nainan Valappu was quick to act. “No processions at nights and no ugly betting,” the Nainan Valappu Football Fans Association (NFFA) president, N.V. Subair, says.

Founded in 1996, NFFA is in constant touch with FIFA. They are sent a copy of the new rules, brochures and miniatures. This little town even has a mini FIFA museum. “This time, FIFA sent us a gold key chain carrying its logo. We have displayed all our curios here,” says Subair.

Since last month, shops selling flags, shirts, headbands and souvenirs are doing brisk business in Ninan Valappu. Hair salons who are doing haircuts mimicking the soccer greats are doing roaring business. Leave alone jerseys, some frenzied fans even carry their logos in their inner wears.

In the land of ‘Sevens Football,’ soccer is a unifying force. In Sevens Football, a specialty of the Malabar area, only seven players represent each side. Around 50 major Sevens tournaments are organised in Malappuram and Kozhikode districts every summer. Makeshift galleries and goalposts spring up on harvested rice fields. “Football is a passion here. Even a small boy has views on the prospects of each team,” former India striker I M Vijayan, who regularly plays Sevens Football, explains. Vijayan was a soda seller in football galleries as a boy. He is planning to fly to South Africa to witness the final.

As the soccer fever grips Ninan Valappu, the clerics are a worried lot. Upset with the thin attendance in Friday prayers, they had issued a fatwa during the last World Cup. This time, too, many religious outfits held a series of study classes to check the menace but have failed. “We are not against soccer. But at times, it takes demonic proportions. It should be contained,” Salahuddin Faizi, spokesman of the Samsatha Kerala Sunni Students Federation, says.

What really worries conservatives is that fan clubs of European teams are growing steadily in this Muslim pocket. Placards of England and France were destroyed recently. These shrill voices have failed to douse the soccer fire. “Nobody can beat our spirit,” says Rafique N.M, owner of a fancy store, dismissing fundamentalists’ threat. In neighbouring Puthanathani, the latest fad are juices. “The Big Samba juice (Brazil), mango and butter shake is added to give a yellowish look. Ice cream, banana shake and a pinch of edible colour make up the light blue Argentina drink,” explains P P Khalid, owner of the Nice Coffeede shop.

“Nowhere else in the country will you see such fervour and spirit,” says E Ahmed, Minister of State for Railways, who represents Malappuram in the Lok Sabha. It certainly looks that way.

First Published: Jun 12, 2010 23:03 IST