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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > Messi Neymar and Ronaldo Understanding Keralas football fervour

Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo: Understanding Kerala's football fervour

Updated on: 16 July,2023 11:07 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rian Khorana |

mid-day travels across Kerala to get a taste of the state’s football fervour, and finds that the game provides a foundation stone for everything from charity to education to communal harmony

Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo: Understanding Kerala's football fervour

The cutouts of Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo in Kerala caught the attention of FIFA as well as leading footballers, who tweeted about it during the last season

Flags, posters and murals adorned every corner of the state. Cut-outs as high as 35 feet of Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo lined paddy fields. Bus depots were converted into makeshift match screening venues. Public transport vehicles were painted with colours of football teams. When La Albiceleste picked up the trophy, the entire state erupted in celebration.

What you just read could easily be taken for a description of Argentina during the FIFA World Cup 2022. But you’d be mistaken, because this was what Kerala looked like during last year’s tournament.

In November last year, FIFA, through its official account, tweeted a picture of the cutouts of the three players which were erected in Kerala in the run up to the tournament. In response, Chief Minister Pinnari Vijayan tweeted saying, “Kerala and Keralites have always loved football and it is on full display with #Qatar2022 around the corner. Thank you @FIFAcom for acknowledging our unmatched passion for the sport(sic).”

The craze for football has seeped into every aspect of the people’s lives in KeralaThe craze for football has seeped into every aspect of the people’s lives in Kerala

With several leading football stars also posting on social media about the enthusiasm that God’s own country showed for the tournament, this reporter travelled across Kerala to understand the state’s love for football, and how deeply ingrained it is among the people there.

“Every child that is born here learns the language of football. It is the language of love, which manifests in their outlook towards life. Spreading football culture is the best way to bring social change” says Mohamed Tanas , Vice president of Lighting football club in Koduvalli, Kozhikode Tangas, president of Lighting football club in Koduvalli, Kozhikode.

Over a month of touring the state, this reporter quickly understood that it is not just about the game, or the teams for the people of Kerala. While they play local football tournaments with unmatched fervour, the biggest star of any match is a bucket. At most games in any village, a bucket is passed around the stands even as the ball bounces from player to player on the field. The attendees put money in the bucket, which can be as less as R10. At the end of the match, around R10,00 to Rs15,000 is collected, and all of it goes towards charity. The rock on which this system stands is the firm belief among the people that if they ever fall on hard times, all the people around them will rally around to help.

The team spirit that is built from watching and playing football also reflects in the way they come together to support each other in times of crisisThe team spirit that is built from watching and playing football also reflects in the way they come together to support each other in times of crisis

“Just like it impacts the performance of the whole team if one player is injured or dips in form, it affects the whole functioning of society when one person in society is facing problems. Players are so used to living this truth with their teammates on field that it manifests in their attitude towards each other in daily life,” says Hassainar C, a managing committee member of the Wandoor Village football tournaments.

The collections of the bucket make their way to several causes across the state. Like Wandoor Palliative Care, which operates a minivan to take trained volunteers to the homes of the patients for psychological and emotional counselling.

“The body responds better when the mind is healing. Home visits are the backbone of our palliative care, as they remove that intimidating ‘doctor is the boss’ outlook. Wandoor’s football tournaments have donated R12 Lakh for our minivan to make that possible. We like it that fans donate little by little rather than one big individual donation. It signifies that the whole community has active participation, giving rise to the sentiment that we are all in this together,” says Dr Anees Pak, chairman of Wandoor Palliative care.

Srijesh Kappumalav, autorickshaw driver by day and football star at night Srijesh Kappumalav, autorickshaw driver by day and football star at night

Another beneficiary is the VMC Government HSS school, also in Wandoor.

“The football tournament donated R8 lakh to build library, which has become a collaborative space for students to brainstorm and build on ideas about various topics, cocreating towards finding solutions. This helps them to engage in dialogues with opposing viewpoints, build confidence and body language,” says headmistress Nalini VK.

To nobody’s surprise, most students of the school are football fans. When they’re not busy ideating in the library, they are out in the playground, gunning hard for the other team’s goalpost.

The bucket, however, is not the only source of fundraising. The proceeds of tickets and sponsorship money, too, are diverted to charity.

Charity is not the only mission that Kerala’s football community has its sights on. The tournaments are themed around sensitive subjects like sexual abuse, with banners and slogans educating children about consent and good touch versus bad touch. Similarly, there are other tournaments themed around drug addiction and rehabilitation.

Players from the Lightning Football Club told mid-day that they had seen many of their peers successfully stay away from drug abuse because they chose to focus on football instead.

Inter-village tournaments are much awaited and celebrated. Bus loads of fans travel to the host village, and use the opportunity for networking or to further interpersonal relationships.

“The tournaments also provide income opportunities for scores of locals, be it setting up the stands, managing light and sound or selling food and drink,” says Yashik, President of Kerala Sevens Tournament from Malappuram and owner of FIFA Manjeri Football Club.

Villagers also say that when you are passionate about something, the intense conversation around teams, players and goals leaves scant scope for any communal differences.

“After a hard day's work my friends - Jeejoy, Rashid and I - sit and talk about football. We love the same things and that brings us together.” Srijesh Kappumalav, an autorickshaw driver from Koduvalli, Kozhikode. 

Rashid bends his back during the day to lift bricks but bends the ball like Beckham at night. Srijesh moves the steering of his auto rickshaw with his hands to navigate safely through traffic and at night uses the same hands to protect his goal post at night. Loans have to be repaid, bosses have to be pleased and a million other things are in store for tomorrow. But tonight, the game is all that matters.

Hassainar C has a call to action "We saw pioneers and investors like Anand Mahindra tweeting about how the media should cover the way Kerala show support for the FIFA world cup, but imagine if the cultural, economic and social aspects of football shaping society reaches him, it would encourage people like him to invest in grassroots football. Systematically injecting a culture of sports at the administrative and school levels can create a sporting revolution with these benefits."
He also says that many young footballers there have the ability to compete in European leagues but give up on the sport due to lack of incentives, to tackle this he said "Scouting initiatives to connect players from the grassroots directly to clubs abroad will make it more financially viable for them to pursue the sport. Many players from developing countries who make it big return home and invest in developing football in communities which create more players to follow their path and bring pride to the nation. A prime example is a player from Senegal, Sadio Mane who is investing millions of dollars to start football camps, hospitals, schools, sanitation facilities and more in his village."

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