FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Enamoured by Socrates, enticed by Kaka-Neymar, Kerala embraces Brazil as its own
For the past fortnight, the support for Brazil has been ubiquitous, not just in Kochi but also the rest of Kerala. But what explains Kerala's undying obsession for Brazilian football?
Kochi may not have the feel of Rio de Janeiro and the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium is hardly Maracana, but you would forgive the teenaged footballers of Spain, North Korea and Honduras for thinking they were facing the Brazilians in their own backyard during the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
When teams looked up in the stands during their matches against Brazil, they probably noticed the crowd streaked in the canary yellow of the Selecao. When their goal came under siege from the Brazilians, they probably heard the crowd egging the South Americans on with all their might. When they conceded a goal against Brazil... you get the drift.
For the past fortnight, the support for Brazil has been ubiquitous, not just in Kochi but also the rest of Kerala. On 7 October, when Brazil faced Spain in the first match of the day, the attendance at Kochi's Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium was just over 21,000, with some fans coming all the way from Thiruvananthapuram, and Mallapuram district, a four-hour drive away. A few hours later, when Niger took on North Korea at the same stadium, the attendance was barely 2,500. Three days later, when Spain faced Niger in Kochi, the attendance was just about 7,900. But by the time of Brazil’s clash with North Korea later in the day, the crowd had doubled. Many a fan had simply hung outside the stadium during the first match of the day and only made their way inside for Brazil’s match.
Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu even admitted that they had been feeling like the home team in Kochi before adding: “It's really important for us to have the crowd on our side. We want to give back the love that we received from you.”
Kerala’s near religious support for Brazilian teams is hardly a new phenomenon.
Dust the cobwebs off history books and many examples of fanaticism tumble out. The fan in Thrissur district who painted his villa canary yellow during the 2014 World Cup. The fan who tonsured his head after Brazil lost in the 1998 final against France and kept it that way until they won the Copa America title in 1999. The fans who offered pushpanjali at the Guruvayoor Temple for Neymar after he picked up a back injury during the 2014 World Cup.
"A few years ago we even read in the local newspapers about a fan somewhere in Wayanad district who had killed himself when Brazil got eliminated from the World Cup," recollects Sambu Kumar, one of the admins of a Facebook page called 'Brazil FANS Kerala', which came into being in 2012 and currently boasts of over 2.3 lakh followers.
“When Brazil won the 2002 World Cup, some 50 or 60 of us took out a procession for nearly eight kilometres in Chethallur village in Pallakad district. The idea was to celebrate the victory as much as it was a show of strength aimed at those few rival fans who support Argentina in that village,” Sambu adds.
"We originally started off as a fan group in Kerala. During each World Cup, we would rent out venues to hold screenings for fans which would attract hundreds of people, who would turn up wearing yellow jerseys. But with the advent of social media we ventured into this," adds Nazar Pattithadam, another admin of the Brazil FANS Kerala page.
Both Sambu and Nazar currently live in the UAE but ensure that the page is updated every few hours. Even news of the Brazil female national team is updated on the page, such is the need of the page's followers to know everything that goes on in a country over 14,000 km away.
In recent days, the page has been flooded by pictures — not to mention a handful of videos — sent by followers from Kochi’s JNI Stadium, while the Brazil U-17 team has been playing.
But what explains Kerala's undying obsession for Brazilian football?
"It's a bit like blind faith," reasons CV Pappachan, who played for India in the 1980s and 1990s, even captaining the national team for some time. "The state's love for the Brazilian football team began during the 1982 World Cup, when the team had the likes of Zico, Socrates and Falcao playing in their ranks. Back then, leagues like the Premier League and La Liga were never shown on TV. Football was just a once-every-four-years event from World Cup to World Cup. But it gained the stature of a festival in Kerala.
"Of course, the local newspapers too played a role. They wrote extensively about the Brazilian team, which got people to start supporting them. Of course, the fact that Brazil played with a lot of flair and won a lot of trophies back then helped."
Nazar points out that many of the current Brazilian fans are ones who started following the sport during one of the country’s most dominant eras.
“I was 13 back in 1994 when Brazil had won the World Cup. Four years later, they lost in the final to France. However, they clinched the following edition. That phase made us addicted to Brazilian football. Players like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Kaka are like gods for us,” he says.
That explains why when Ronaldinho visited Kerala in February 2016 to inaugurate the Sait Nagjee Cup, the admins of the Brazil FANS Kerala Facebook page took out a three-day roadshow across Pallakad, Mallapuram and Calicut districts.
However, the current Brazilian team is not the all-conquering giant it was at the time of Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Yet, the support for the team in Kerala seems to be as unflinching as it always was.
Just like with everything else in Kerala, there's a parallel to be drawn with Malayalam movies, popularly known as Mollywood.
"People in Kerala go to watch Malayalam movies because of stars like Mohanlal or Mammootty. It doesn't matter to these fans whether the movie has got bad reviews, has a poor script, or has terrible production values. Mohanlal or Mammootty fans won't care about their last movie being a flop either. All they care about is their favourite star is in the movie. That's enough to draw them to the theatre.
“Similarly, people still love Brazil, and just its name is enough to draw people to the stadium. They associate the U-17 Brazil team with the team of old — the one they first fell in love with. They don't care about the current ground reality about Brazil being thrashed 7-1 by Germany in a World Cup in their own home. Even the fact that the biggest name in the current U-17 Brazilian team, Vinicius Junior, is not here doesn't matter to these fans," reasons Pappachan.
Pappachan points out that for many people supporting Brazil is a tradition that has been passed down generations. "Many of the current Brazil supporters are fans of Neymar. The fathers probably started the craze in the house by falling in love with players like Zico or Socrates. Of course, in 1986, Maradona awoke us to Argentina. But the craze for Brazil endures."
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