Basheer particularly wanted his favourite Messi to score that day. If possible, achieve a hat trick, as his arch rival for the title of greatest contemporary football player, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, had done against Spain in another match only the previous day. Sadly, for Basheer, Messi missed a spot kick in the match which ended in a 1-1 draw. Basheer was inconsolable.
With the next World Cup set to be held in the cities of Doha, Lusail, Al Khor, Al Wakrah and Al Rayyan in Qatar across 28 days in November-December this year, Basheer is keen to do much more than pray this time—he intends to be present at some of the matches to watch Messi live, all the more because this may be the 34-year old’s last World Cup. For unlike Russia, which was a universe away for most Keralites, Qatar is familiar territory.
According to the Kerala government’s Non-resident Keralite Affairs (NORKA) department, about 300,000 of Qatar’s 3 million population–or 10%–comprise expatriate Malayalis working there, and their families. The number was even higher, around 450,000, before the covid-19 pandemic led to widespread job losses.
The flight to Doha and back, a short stay in the city, and tickets for two or three matches will together cost Basheer around ₹1–1.25 lakh, but despite his limited means he is determined to be there. “I have been planning this trip for a while. But I am not sure now, as Rukkiya (his wife) and I are expecting another child. God willing, I would still be going,” he said. “I have friends in Doha who will make arrangements for my stay. Many friends from here also intend to go. I would do anything to watch Messi play, at least once in my lifetime.”
Basheer is representative of much of the male population of Kerala, especially the northern districts of Malappuram and Kozhikode. Like him, many have connections in Qatar, and are bent upon making the most of them to manage a trip there this winter. They are also willing to stretch their budgets.
Planned & ready
Vijaya Krishnan, 32, is a last-grade employee with a co-operative bank in Palakkad district. He has been saving up for the event since 2018 and started a recurring deposit. Currently, he has around ₹1.9 lakh in his account and is ready to take another lakh as a minimum interest loan from the employee’s society.
Mohammed Iqbal, who worked for three decades in Saudi Arabia, has already booked tickets for four World Cup matches. “The entire trip will cost me around ₹4 lakh as I am taking my wife with me but it will be money well spent,” said Iqbal, who now runs a sports academy for young footballers and cricketers at Thenhippalam, close to the Calicut University campus.
Malayalam film director and scriptwriter Muhsin Parari, who co-wrote the award-winning malayalam movies Virus and Sudani from Nigeria, is similarly a diehard Messi fan and has booked tickets for the first three of Argentina’s World Cup matches.
“I had hoped to watch Messi in action on earlier occasions, including at the last FIFA World Cup in Russia, but for one reason or another I could not go,” he said. “This time I am hell bent on it. I have planned my calendar, and have been saving up too. My wife once asked if we could spend part of the money from that fund for some other purpose, and I replied that divorce would be a better option for me. Messi is my favourite human being and it is my dream to watch him leave, lifting the World Cup.”
And if Messi has his fans in Kerala, so too has Ronaldo. Portugal had a shaky run up to the World Cup, qualifying only after a decisive game against North Macedonia in end-March, but having made it, is expected by its fans to easily top its group (Group H) where its competitors are Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea, and hopefully keep winning even thereafter. At 37, Ronaldo is even older than Messi. “This is Ronaldo’s last World Cup, his last chance to win the only trophy that has eluded him in his career,” said Kisha Krishnan, a staunch Ronaldo fan, who is a linguist. “Rono always plays his best game when he dons national colours and I hope that will inspire him this time too.”
Many have already booked their flights to Doha, fearing a surge in fares if they wait until later. Travel agencies across the state have been busy; they are also keeping a sharp eye out for deals. “We hope for a heavy turnout from Malappuram and Kozhikode districts and the possibility of chartering a few flights is definitely on the cards,” said Mohammed Yassir, manager, Al Hind Travels, Malappuram.
Deep local roots
India has no stake in the FIFA World Cup, having qualified only once in 1950. Unlike in large parts of the world, football remains a marginal sport in the country, especially when compared to cricket. But in the Malabar region of northern Kerala, and especially in Malappuram, it has always had a strong following, which peaks once every four years when the World Cup is held.
There are a host of local teams in Malappuram, many with the same names as the globally renowned ones, which play well- attended matches almost all through the year. Since flat open space is limited in this hilly region, Malappuram has also devised its own football variation, called ‘sevens’, in which there are seven players in the competing teams instead of 11.
“The World Cup drives Malappuram to a frenzy of fan activity,” writes noted academic Mohammed Shafeeq K in his research paper ‘In Form: Football as the Popular Game of Malappuram.’ “The most visible of these are the many flex hoardings in each village bazaar. The hoardings usually have photos of the team supported or just one or two most prominent stars of the team… Flags of different (participating) countries are hung from ropes strung across roads or atop trees. Most often the flags are hung along with traditional festival signifiers like palm leaves.”
Giant screens are set up for community viewing of the live telecast of matches, making the World Cup a local festival of sorts. “A power cut during a World Cup match leads to spontaneous demonstrations,” added Shafeeq K in his paper. “If it happens to be a Brazil or Argentina match, Kerala State Electricity Board offices are ransacked.”
Argentina vs Brazil
Indeed, barring individual geniuses like Ronaldo, it is the teams of Argentina and Brazil which command most fan loyalties.
The fan following for these two countries spiked greatly after the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, because television by then had reached large parts of India and the matches were telecast live. “But there were no TV sets in and around Malappuram town,” said Ashraf, the founder of one of the many football teams in the district, called Super Studios. “We would walk 10-12 km to other nearby towns to watch the matches. I still remember them standing on the street, watching it on a black and white TV installed in a shop window. The owner kept the shop open all night to broadcast the matches.”
The 1986 World Cup made Argentina’s Diego Maradona a worldwide phenomenon, including in Malappuram. “Until then, it was Brazil’s team, and particularly its best-known player Pele, who was our icon,” added Ashraf. “Brazil’s football was just magnificent. The players took the ball forward like waves in the sea. Pele was our ultimate, until we saw Maradona in Mexico.”
The Argentina-Brazil rivalry divides northern Kerala to this day, despite the fact that neither country has won the World Cup since 2002, when Brazil did so. “Once the matches start, there will be billboards, posters, streamers, with colours representing the green and yellow flag of Brazil and the white and blue flag of Argentina all over the place,” said football enthusiast Harikrishnan B.
In his paper, Shafeeq K has added: “The Brazil fan hoardings are mostly addressed to Argentina fans and vice versa. Each setback for one team is celebrated by fans of the other.”
Though Argentina’s last win was in 1986–it made the 2014 final, only to lose 1-0 to Germany–the responses of Basheer, Parari and many others suggested it still had a definite edge in Malayali sympathies. Like Ashraf, I. M. Vijayan, Kerala’s superstar footballer and former captain of the Indian football team, too, attributed it to the memory of Maradona. “Nobody could match his charisma, both on and off the field,” he said. He recalled meeting Maradona when the latter visited Kerala for a brand promotion event. “It was the greatest joy of my life, kicking a football along with him as a mock demonstration,” he added.
But there are other reasons too–among them, Kerala’s long Communist history. It has been ruled sporadically by Communist parties ever since 1957 and Communists revere Che Guevara, who hailed from Argentina. “Besides being the birthplace of Che Guevara, Argentina has a wonderful team which plays beautiful football and deserves to win,” said M. M. Mani, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from the Udumbanchola assembly seat and former power minister of the state.
Going strictly by form, however, many in the younger generation believed Brazil was better placed to win. “I expect Brazil to eventually run off with the crown,” said engineering student Amalendu, a regular watcher of professional league football. “Denmark will make a strong impression, given the team’s passion and fabulous form, and the return of its former skipper, Christian Eriksen. Spain’s young and talented squad will also be worth watching. It will be interesting to see how it deals with Germany and Japan, both of which are powerhouses, at the group stage (all three are in Group E). There will be heated contests between Argentina and Mexico, as also between Uruguay and Ghana. Netherlands and South Korea’s games will be entertaining as well.”
Meanwhile, Qatar is preparing to host an estimated 1.2 million visitors–which will add another 40% to its existing population– during the World Cup. The additional infrastructure needed to cope with the influx will be massive, and the country is busy putting it in place. Though the matches will be held in winter, the average temperature will still be around 17-24 degrees C. Qatar has made special cooling arrangements at every venue to ensure it does not get any hotter.
“The government is also trying to get a chunk of the expatriate population which is not interested in football to leave the country for that period,” said P. C. Saifudheen, a Doha-based TV journalist who is from Malappuram. “Many private companies are planning to offer their employees vacations during that time.”
Not surprisingly, the cost of accommodation–hotel or otherwise– during the World Cup has already skyrocketed. “My biggest expense will be the stay,” said an IT sector employee in Kozhikode who did not want to be identified as his company had not yet granted him leave. “I’ve booked a two-bedroom apartment for my wife and myself, which we will share with another family. There are other options too, including staying on docked ships, but they are far too expensive for us.” The two families will split the apartment cost that totals ₹3.20 lakh for four nights.
Many Qatar-based Keralites are also preparing to host visitors from the home country.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people like us,” said Ashraf of Super Studios. He appears desperate to make it but has to wait for his doctor’s advice before he can book tickets—he is a cancer survivor.
“I’m certain the stadium galleries will be full of Malayalis. We will be cheering for Messi, Ronaldo and many others, too. In Qatar, there will be a ‘Malayali wave’, just like the Mexican wave.”