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Why Indians Love World Cup Soccer Even Without India In It

It is a routine that develops every four years. Indian soccer fans are getting louder and rowdier as the World Cup approaches, despite India not being part of the tournament.

During every World Cup, huge billboards of soccer icons like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar, sometimes even festooned with garlands, can be found along highways in soccer-crazy states and regions of the subcontinent like Kerala, West Bengal, Goa and the North East of the country. , where the fans are mostly fiercely loyal to Brazil and Argentina.

Flags of the countries participating in the World Cup, soccer-themed menus in restaurants, and shops selling World Cup memorabilia are also common in these places during soccer’s biggest event.

“We may not have proven our worth in football yet, but if there was a ‘Fanball’ World Cup we would be in the running…” Indian tycoon Anand Mahindra. he said in a tweet after fans in Kerala, dressed in soccer jerseys of their favorite players, celebrated Argentina’s birth in the World Cup final by leading a parade through the streets.

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In other parts of India, such as in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi, cafes and bars have also opened their doors to football fans, with some of them showing matches until late at night.

For Saihlupuii Sailo, a teacher living in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state in north-east India, watching the World Cup was also a family affair.

“Football is a sport that my whole family loves. I grew up watching soccer and the first World Cup I saw was in 1990. I don’t really remember much about the game, but I remember my parents adjusting the TV antenna so we had a better signal,” Sailo, who watched the semifinals with his brother Sailo Vanlalthlana Jr and his nephew Lalchhanhima, told Al Jazeera.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” he said. And a predicament. Her family supported Argentina, while she liked the French side more. But before Sunday’s final between those two teams, she might switch allegiances to her for once. “I want Messi to win, I feel that nobody deserves it more than him.”

While Sailo and his family have watched the matches on television, thousands of Indian fans have traveled to Qatar to watch the World Cup live. According to FIFA, Indian fans made up the second largest number of people who watched the matches in Qatar during the group stage, after Saudi Arabia.

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Among them was Chelston Pinto, a professional soccer player from Bengaluru and co-founder of Rapid Sport Fitness, a gym for elite athletes. He thought that the beauty and simplicity of playing football made it a game that the people of India loved to watch.

“Watching the games in Qatar was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “Every fanbase brings something different to the table, and I think the whole fan environment created in Qatar was a brilliant experience. It’s something I would recommend to all Indian fans.”

A missed opportunity to play in the World Cup

India has recently struggled to get close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. But by 1950, the country had what has since been described as a golden generation of players. At the 1948 London Olympics, India had fought hard against a luxury French team before losing 2-1.

Prior to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, India was placed in a qualifying group with the Philippines and Burma (now Myanmar). But those two teams withdrew from the competition at a time when the tournament was still in its infancy, the Asian countries were comparatively poorer, and the prospect of a cross-world trip to South America was costly. As a result, India qualified for the World Cup by default.

But India also decided not to send a team to Brazil. The country’s football federation has never explained the decision and theories abound: some have said it was because the team wanted to play barefoot, while others claimed the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could not afford to send the players to Brazil at that time. .

Whatever the reason, it was a missed opportunity, one India has never had since. India next participated in the World Cup qualifiers only in 1986.

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The Indian team still has a long way to go to qualify for the World Cup, Pinto said.

“I think we need to start from the bottom up first and hold many more tournaments in India. Professional footballers only play four to six months, which is definitely not enough,” he said. Instead, they need access to world-class training facilities and tough competition for at least 10 months of the year, he said.

The country also needs a soccer calendar from the grassroots, Pinto said, with a focus on training talented young players from the under-12 category. “Those are the players who would take India to the World Cup in the future,” he said.

The AIFF has a new leadership that took over in September. The Indian Super League, India’s top professional football league as of the 2022-23 season, has seen an increasing TV audience and fan support since its launch in 2013. Pinto hopes these changes will pave the way. for India to qualify for the World Cup in the future. .

The fan frenzy continues

Still, even without India’s participation in the World Cup, support for the sport in the country remains high: India is seen as a growing fan market by major European clubs.

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This passion for world soccer first sparked when Brazil’s Pelé and Argentina’s Diego Maradona reigned supreme on the pitch, fans said. “My father has been supporting these countries for many years because of these players who were like the football gods of India back then,” Praman Narain, founder of a travel accommodation startup called Roamhome, told Al Jazeera. based in Mumbai. “>He loved watching them play and I think these individual players could be one of the reasons Indians love to watch the game.”

Today, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and the Argentine Messi receive similar affection. “Maybe in the future, if India qualifies, an Indian player could get that treatment,” Narain said.

Adhip Chopra, a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker working with Indian production company Yash Raj Films, drew parallels between the soccer on display at the World Cup in Qatar, where unsophisticated teams have beaten several top contenders, and the Bollywood scripts that Indians love.

“It sure has been an entertaining World Cup,” Chopra told Al Jazeera. “I would have written games where Japan, Spain and Germany played in the group stage. The excitement of the games had all the melodrama, action and entertainment that Indians enjoy in Bollywood movies.” Japan defeated Germany and Spain, both former champions, in the group stage of the World Cup.

asian connection

For many Indian fans, the rise of Asian teams, such as Japan and South Korea, and African teams, such as Morocco, has also come as a welcome surprise.

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Aiman ​​Fayaz, 20, who is pursuing her degree in English literature and is based in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, has typically been a supporter of Portugal. But Morocco’s performance this year has meant a lot to the Kashmiris, she said.

“They don’t just play for Africa. They are playing for all the Muslim nations, you know,” he said. “They have been supporting Palestine in their slogans of joy and it is incredible to know that teams like Morocco are supporting places that are in conflict. Being a Kashmiri, it really feels good to see this.”

Soccer is popular among Kashmiri girls, she said. “There is a lot of fighting going on in our region, but with the way Morocco played and how they are supporting Palestine, there is hope for us in Kashmir,” she said. “I also hope that if India ever makes it to the World Cup, we will have Kashmiri players in the team.”

Anshuk Megharikh, a Bangalore-based corporate lawyer, said Morocco’s underdog status was also a key reason why the country team was finding support in India. “Everyone loves to see an underdog play well,” he told Al Jazeera. “Most of the people in India, no matter who they say they support, are also neutral fans. So, for a neutral fan like me, to be able to see the incredible matches that Morocco has played is inspiring.”

“That’s the kind of story that comes out once every four years. And that is the story that really dwarfs everything else about this tournament,” she added.

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