Last Sunday, Kerala woke up to fireworks. It is unlikely that there were too many who did not know what they were for; down here, a Copa America final never goes unnoticed, much less a Brazil-Argentina one. But, at least, a few would have been surprised when they found out who they were for.
There is a popular joke that goes around among the state’s football fandom. Every two years in July, fans of the Brazilian and Argentinian football team stock up on fireworks. The latter group always has to wait till Vishu the next year to use them.
But this past Sunday, as cries of ‘Vamos’ reverberated across Maracana, a similar mix of relief, jubilation and vindication was sweeping across Kerala. For the sky-blue and white half of the state, Vishu had come early.
Every four years, as World Cup fever sets in, a bunch of football writers descend down on Kerala to write the same story everybody wrote four years prior. They never get tired of marveling at how one of India’s tiniest states manages to pull out two whole countries from within its midst.
Streets are decked in yellow; boats are painted in sky-blue. Former and current players take to the field in Brazil and Argentina jerseys, with the winner often lifting a replica of the World Cup trophy. One-room houses get divided into two patches of South America with brothers sporting opposing colors. Billboards act like Messi and Neymar were kids from the locality who had made it big. A sudden infusion of unfamiliar names in prayers confuse Gods from all faiths.
Everyone writes about what, a few even ask why, but nobody stops and wonders how. In this age when club football rules and national teams play once in six months, how do you manage to stay in love? For Brazilian fans, the answer is relatively simple. Since the first injection of magic in the 70s, they have had regular booster doses. In the 80s, kids who grew up hearing about Pele from their fathers and uncles saw Socrates and Zico play.
They celebrated being on top of the world in 1994, then again eight years later. They had Romario, Bebeto, the force of nature that was Ronaldo and the barely-believable feet of Ronaldinho. Losing the faith was never an option for them; messiahs were sent at regular junctures to ensure that.
But what of their rivals? Everyone agrees that they first fell in love when they saw Diego Maradona dance past half the English team in 1986. But it has been 35 years since then and all they’ve done is wait in torturous agony for deliverance.
They must have had an inkling that a drought was coming when they watched Maradona sent home in disgrace days before their biggest rivals lifted the 1994 World Cup. Even they must have known how unconvincing it sounded when they scribbled Gabriel Batistuta’s name in school toilets across the 90s, under the more triumphant invocations of Ronaldo and Romario. A young Carlos Tevez might have reminded them of Diego, but sooner or later, they must have realized that he was but an imitation.
Then came the news from Barcelona that a young kid was playing with his feet possessed by the same spirits that had a hold of Diego’s soul. Any doubts that the faithful had was washed away when they saw him inspire Argentina to an Olympic gold in 2008. Lionel Messi was the real deal, the next Messiah. Deliverance was only a matter of time.
Yet, that deliverance never came. Tournament after tournament, they put up billboards and sent off warnings and battle-cries via social media to their Brazilian rivals, only to be humbled into submission a few weeks later. IM Vijayan, perhaps Kerala’s most famous Argentina fan, went to four World Cups hoping to see his team win; but the most satisfaction he ever got was watching Germany hammer Brazil 7-1 in 2014.
Messi was everything that they hoped for, dominating world football and winning trophy after trophy with Barcelona. Yet strangely enough, when he put on an Argentina shirt, he seemed reduced from a god to a mere mortal. What agony it must have been to have arguably the greatest player of all time in their ranks, except seemingly stripped of his superpowers!
All of that ended on Sunday. Angel di Maria might have scored the winner, but it was Messi’s day out, his first major senior international title after having worn Argentina colors for 16 years. The prospect of the greatest of our times bowing out without winning a single international title was looking very real, but all those demons were exorcised at the Maracana.
And for his Malayalee fans, that meant celebrations, made all the more sweet by the fact that they did it against arch-rivals Brazil, on their turf. When the fireworks died down, the bike rallies started going out, dozens of blue and white flags fluttering in the monsoon breeze. Cakes were cut, hurriedly-designed billboards put up. Everyone had the same pictures on their social media — Messi, Maradona and themselves in a sky-blue shirt. This was after all rain at the end of a drought that had lasted a lifetime.
Jose Luis Borges, another Argentine and no less a wizard than Messi or Maradona, once wrote that to fall in love was to create a religion that had a fallible god. Kerala’s Argentina fans will know all too well what he was talking about. But on Sunday though, their god kept his end.
This article was originally published as part of the third edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/