“For the foreign rulers, the game of football was a leisure activity but for the people of Malappuram, it was a fight,” says actor Siddique in the Malayalam movie Captain, a biopic of former Kerala football captain, VP Sathyan.
It has now become clichéd to discuss the football fever in places like Kerala every time the World Cup arrives.
But the question that remains unanswered is how a place in a cricket-obsessed country can get fanatical about football, even worshipping foreign players - like Messi or Ronaldo – as if they were their own.
“Just like how the British brought cricket to other states in India, the Portuguese brought football to Kerala,” says Ajmal, a football fan from Kozhikode.
But how exactly did two teams from South America – Argentina and Brazil – endear themselves to the football lovers of this south Indian state?
Safuvan, the president of Manjappada, official fan club of the Kerala Blasters football team and Malappuram resident believes it boils down to the number of superstar players the two countries have produced over the years.
“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when football started to become a popular sport in Kerala, the two players to watch out were Diego Maradona and Pele, both from Argentina and Brazil,” explains Safuvan.
“Even today, there is a huge fan following for players from both these countries especially Lionel Messi and Neymar,” points out Safuvan, also noting that it is more likely that a Messi fan will support Argentina and a Neymar fan is likely to support Brazil.
Cristiano Ronaldo is another favourite, Safuvan observes, with a sizeable number of supporters for Portugal. But when it comes to the World Cup, for the most part, fans in Kerala are generally split between two camps– those supporting Brazil and those rooting for Argentina.
Ajmal compares this ‘division’ among fans to cinema.
“This trend of Argentina-Brazil fan following is just like any other fan culture in the state, be it Mammooty-Mohanlal or Surya-Vijay fan culture,” he says.
Bechu S, a journalist at The New Indian Express believes that Kerala’s communist roots have a lot to do with its love for the sport.
“Argentina is the birth place of revolutionary icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera. Rosario is where both Che and Messi were born. This fact is well-marketed among the Left circles of Kerala. A good chunk of Argentina fans here are not regular football followers, they want the side to win for the love of their hero,” says Bechu.
On the other hand, he points out that Brazil has the reputation of being the most successful side in World Cup. Bechu observes, “The impact that the legendary Ronaldo-Rivaldo-Ronaldinho trio left on the world obviously reflects here as well.”
Moreover, Neymar’s popularity has also influenced Kerala fans to sport the Brazilian jersey, notes Bechu.
“Some of the people in Kerala may not know who the Prime Minister of Pakistan is, but they definitely know who Ronaldinho and Kaka are,” he laughs.
Naveen Ravi Joseph, a sports journalist from Kerala has an interesting take on the reason behind the football craze in the state.
“If you have noticed, the most football crazy area in Kerala is the Malabar region,” Naveen explains, pointing out that this region also sends the most number of people to the Gulf countries.
Naveen says, “Families in this region always had bigger buying potential. During a time when TV sets were a luxury, these families had TVs, mostly imported from the Gulf. So, when most of India watched cricket in groups in public places, Kerala or more specifically, people from Malabar started watching football in their own private space,” says Naveen.
With the FIFA World Cup just a few days away, Kerala is all geared up for this mega event.