As someone who prefers to not watch sporting events, except on the rarest of occasions, arriving in Kozhikode on the day of the World Cup final was a bit of a shock.
The world had seen videos of cutouts of players and banners of teams, and even that video of imbeciles in Brazilian jerseys exchanging blows with those in Argentinian ones.
However, nothing could prepare a visitor for the sheer enthusiasm that was visible just about everywhere in Kozhikode and its periphery.
The atmosphere, the excitement and the tension could only be compared with what Mumbai went through on that humid April day in 2011 when India won the Cricket World Cup.
The Messi fans outnumbered the French supporters in these (and I suspect all) parts of Kerala. Erstwhile Brazil fans jumped on to the Argentina bandwagon to support a South American team.
What made all this such a special spectacle was that football tournament that despite a couple of random fan fights, there was an overwhelming carnival feel.
In this part of Malabar, the tournament was a welcome distraction from a challenging period that began with a pandemic and is continuing over the conflict in Ukraine.
Few occasions united people as much as these matches, played in a country that has been a ‘karmabhoomi’ for Keralites for a very long time.
No narrow nationalism
As Indians, we often hear talk about the world being one big family, but this is rarely reflected when it comes to sporting events involving India.
Nationalistic passions reach a fever pitch so much that few would ever dare cheer against India in a sporting contest even if it was against a minnow or underdog.
The genuine love shown for Messi, the Argentinians and Brazilians invokes this concept of a global family.
Separated by two oceans, Kerala and South America are worlds apart in every sense of the term, but football (and good literature) has managed to bring these places closer.
The sheer love shown for South American football teams has not gone unnoticed in that part of the world and can even be seen as a great example of people to people diplomacy.
Walking in Kozhikode, Elathur and Kappad with a visibly foreign friend, we were greeted with warm smiles everywhere.
Those not knowing of my Malayalam skills even spoke to each other in the language and wondered whether my friend was Argentinian. Any ordinary Brazilian or Argentinian would be treated like a celebrity in different parts of Kerala.
It’s hard to predict the euphoria in Kerala if Messi were to come here. The enthusiasm would even trump that of Yuri Gagarin’s much touted visit to India.
Days after the World Cup final, Malabar is still smiling. In small lanes and main roads, the cutouts and banners remain, despite calls from the authorities to take them down.
Young people clad in Argentina jerseys walk around with flags in the evening – they are still celebrating.
The best way for the world to become one big family is for people to genuinely shed their tribal instincts and move past narrow nationalism.
This football craze in Kerala is a great way to bring the people of the state closer to countries from the far corners of the earth. The sheer joy of the Argentinian people resonates in Kerala, and with it evaporates barriers of race, caste and religion.
As 2022, a long year, draws to a close, the world senses a great unease.
Rising costs, geopolitical uncertainties, unemployment and redundancies in many professions… Kerala, which largely depends on job markets elsewhere, faces a challenging 2023.
Maybe, the success of the Argentines on the football pitch could inspire a new generation of Malayalis to not just become better footballers, but to learn Spanish and the tango, to explore a new world that comprises places like Patagonia.
What could be better than genuine cooperation between the people of the Global South? For them to understand each other not through a Western prism, but through direct interactions.
Congratulations, Argentina. Kerala shares every single bit of your joy! Here’s to a happier 2023 for all of us.