Why is football called a beautiful game? What is the beauty of this beautiful game? What makes the most popular sports on the planet so popular? If these questions are asked anymore, one needs to rewind to the 130 minutes of the final game of the FIFA World Cup 2022 between Argentina and France, frame by frame. Even the best sports writers who have breathed on this beautiful planet will fall short of words for what many have already called the best of the FIFA World Cup finals ever. For those little more than two hours, the entire world was divided into two halves. One half was praying for one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever, football players to have ever walked on the globe, Lionel Messi and his team Argentina. Messi had already announced that this is going to be his last world cup and his fans had only one question. Will the greatest ever fade into the sunset without holding the ultimate trophy in the sports? The other half was banking on the sheer magic of the next in the pantheon of the greats of the game, Kylian Mbappe, to steer his country France to the second consecutive world cup victory.
The two halves were till the last few minutes on the edge of their seats. Most of them have not been to Argentina or France even once in their lives. In all probability, they will neither be able to meet Messi nor Mbappe, in bone or flesh, ever in their lives. But they were shouting, crying, laughing, praying and dancing, doing it all in those 130 minutes. And this is what the good game of football does to most of us. The see-saw battle, the ups and the downs and the heartaches and jubilations continued till the players, and the fans were not emotionally drained and completely exhausted. Eventually, one team had to win and the other loose. And it was at this moment when the scriptwriter of the best possible script interfered for the last time. Lionel Messi got the World Cup which he so desperately wanted. Argentina won their third title in the history of the game. And a fresh generation of football fans was added to the fan base of the great sport. This generation could now proudly say that they witnessed the greatness of Lionel Messi and the emergence of another great Mbappe. And, like this, the romance with the beautiful game continues. The tremors of this mesmerising action was felt in India as well. While most of us in India are aware of the country’s love for football, the world has started noticing and writing about the Indians with the sport and the greats of the game.
The Guardian did a story with the title, ‘Our team will win, how many Indians started supporting Argentina’. The New York Times did an article on this with the title-‘In India, fiercely Loyal Soccer Fans (of Brazil and Argentina). BBC News did a story on this aspect with the title-‘How Football fever is gripping the cricket crazy India’. The title of the Al jazeera story on the subject read:-’Why Indians love World Cup Football even without India in it?’ More than the titles and the case studies in these stories, what needs to be examined is some of the narratives and the spin being given in them. For instance, one spin given for India’s obsession with Argentina and Brazil is the leftist leaning and connection in the states of Kerala and Bengal. If we delve deeper into the country’s sporting ecosystem, nothing can be further from this truth.
In popular perception, India is a cricket-mad country. The country has the best cricket league in the world and is the sport’s economic powerhouse. India made a solid beginning in hockey, but it was followed by a drastic and sudden fall in the curve. Off late, the country is making serious attempts to reclaim some of its past glory. India has a long distance to cover to be a substantive force in multi-sporting events like the Olympics and the Asian Games. Lately, it has started taking decisive baby steps and even aims to host the Olympics in 2036. India has a long history of soccer futility, having never qualified for the FIFA World Cup.
Back in 1950, the country had, what has been described by many, as the golden generation of players. In the 1948 Olympics, India fought hard against France and lost 1-2. In the build-up to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, India was placed in the qualifying groups with the Philippines and Burma. Most Asian countries were poorer back then, and it was expensive for them to travel all the way to South American countries to participate in the FIFA World Cup. India, thus qualified for the World Cup by default. But then, India decided against sending their team to Brazil. What was the reason behind this? All India Football Federation till date don’t have the answer which could convince us. Whereas some said that Indian players wanted to play barefoot, which was not agreeable to the world body, others say that the federation could not afford to send their players to Brazil back then. Whatever was the reason behind this, it was a case of mixed opportunity. From then to now, the country is still waiting for another such opportunity. In fact, it was only from the 1986 World Cup that India started to compete in the world cup qualification rounds. Amidst the backdrop, the invisible Indian fan of popular sports has always been there. What is the history of the origin of the fan base?
From Malabar in Kerala to Goa and Bengal, if decoded the football strip of India, the fan base primarily originated around the teams of the oppressed against the oppressor. The oppressor were the colonial masters whom the local population fancied and then started loving to defeat. In a way, football became the medium for them to vent out their pent-up anger. This fan base would have backed the golden generation of Indian players who were on the take-off stage. Unfortunately, Indian football could not take off after the 1950s, and there was a huge void for this fan base. It was then, this Indian fan base started backing Brazil, their greats and their brand of football. The fact that Brazil started dominating the game defeating India’s erstwhile colonial masters like Great Britain, France and Portugal, further consolidated the emotional bond between the Indian fan base and Brazil team. It all started with their love for Pele, Garrincha, Didi and Vava when Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, which was the first of their five titles.
Back then, Indians had no access to television, and the vivid descriptions of their eye-catching football in newspapers the next day would send the football fans into an imaginary world. It continued for the next two world cups in 1962 and 1970. Novy Kapadia, India’s one of the most prolific football writers and commentators, often talked about how the Indians used to drool about the 1982 Brazil team. Though this team failed to win the trophy, it won their hearts with its brand of attacking football. After this, in the 1986 World Cup, another Latin American country and a fierce rival of Brazil, Argentina, started occupying space in Indian hearts. By 1986, people had television sets even in the country’s far-flung areas. When they saw Maradona’s talent and the magic of his left foot visually and in real-time, half of India’s Brazilian fan base switched their loyalties to the blue and white stripes. After this, the romance of the die-hard Indian football fans with Brazil and Argentina continues till date. It has nothing to do with Communist history, as argued by some. Before India’s emergence as the cricket power in 1983, the majority of the fan base loved the West Indies team, their greats and their brand of attacking and fearless cricket. Was this also because of the Left connection? It was again the case of the oppressed so handsomely defeating those who ruled India once i.e. England. As has happened in the game of cricket, the silent Indian fan base will keep on rooting for Brazil and Argentina till India doesn’t become a force in world football. This silent fan base is waiting for that one opportunity when India participates in the World Cup. After the 1990s, the silent Indian football fan base has further expanded.
Firstly, more than 65 per cent of the Indian population is below 35 years of age. The millennials in the country are increasingly watching and following the English Premier League and other important football leagues of the world. The gap between them and the generation that the colonial masters oppressed has increased. So, we find this newly emerging group amongst the Indian fan base supporting teams like France, Spain, England and their players. Secondly, the Indian diaspora has become a formidable and dominant force in countries like England, France, Germany and Spain, amongst others. Also, Indian students are studying in these countries’ academic and other institutions. They are also increasingly becoming supporters of teams other than Brazil and Argentina. In nutshell, while the core of the Indian fan base still comprises mostly Brazil and Argentina, other fans who support European teams are being added.
Indians’ love for Pele, Maradona and now Messi highlights another major ethos of the greatness of the society and the country. The base of Indian society is the inclusive values of Hindutva. Despite having many gods and deities, followers coexist peacefully. Indian history is replete with the admiration and adaptation of what is best in the world and which mirrors the values of the Hindu Indian Society. In Messi, Indians see a global citizen who is a fierce nationalist
Meanwhile, Indians’ love for Pele, Maradona and now Messi highlights another major ethos of the greatness of the society and the country. The base of Indian society is the inclusive values of Hindutva. Hindu religion worships hundreds of gods and deities over the centuries and so is adaptive and dynamic. Despite having many gods and deities, followers coexist peacefully. Indian history is replete with the admiration and adaptation of what is best in the world and which mirrors the values of the Hindu Indian Society. In Messi, Indians see a global citizen who is a fierce nationalist.
Messi’s ancestors were originally based from Ancona in Italy and they emigrated to Argentina in 1883. Lionel Messi was born in Rosario in Argentina on June 24, 1987. In Spain, since the age of 13 years, Messi has had dual nationality, and he qualified to play for Spain. In 2004, he was asked to play for the Spanish U20 side. However, he turned down the opportunity and turned out a year later, leading Argentina to victory in the FIFA Youth Championship. In one of the famous interviews, Messi says:-‘I would have never played for Spain. I am Argentinian and no one and nothing can change what I feel for the Argentinian colours. Before December 2022, he had all the titles, accolades and money, but he was not satisfied. Messi wanted to win the World Cup for his country. Not surprisingly, the visuals of Messi kissing the world cup trophy, his mother coming, holding him tight and hugging him with tears in their eyes and Messi savouring the moment with his wife and three children has got etched in their memories forever. Meanwhile, the search of the silent Indian fans for their own Messi continues.