In one village, dozens of houses have been painted white and blue. In another, vast 10-metre statues of football star Lionel Messi have been erected in rivers and along roadsides. But this is not Argentina proudly supporting their national team ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final, where Argentina will face France, but instead is India’s southernmost state of Kerala.
India, and the south Asia region, is known more for its love of cricket and the countries have never participated in major international football tournaments. But every four years, in corners of India and across Bangladesh, football fever comes alive with the arrival of the World Cup. Without their own national squads to support, fans instead have developed decades-long allegiances to other teams; none more so than an enduring love for Argentina, the team of football icons Messi and Maradona.
MB Rajesh, a Kerala minister, told the Guardian his heart “carries the blue and white stripes”.
“That country and its football team symbolises the irresistible urge of humanity to liberate themselves from oppression,’ said Rajesh. “I relate to their fights with justice and survival.”
The football obsession in Indian states such as Kerala and West Bengal dates hundreds of years, to the times of British colonial rule when it was played among soldiers. Though it has never qualified for a World Cup, India is home to some of the oldest football clubs in the world.
In Kerala, India’s most leftwing state which has been ruled by a socialist government for decades, the widespread love of Argentina’s national team was partly credited to the revolutionary legacy of the Latin American country, which has fierce support in the Indian state.
“Argentina is the land of Messi and Che Guevara. Whether it wins or not in the final, I will continue to be a diehard fan,” said TM Thomas Issac, an economist and member of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Ahead of Sunday’s final, the state has descended into a blue-and-white frenzy, and public screenings, where thousands will attend, are being arranged by fans and local authorities. After a clash erupted between Argentina and Brazil fans during the beginning of the World Cup, police said they had beefed up security for Sunday.
In Mallappuzhassery village, local Argentina fan S Abhijith collected donations so they could buy 3,000 Argentina football shirts to distribute for free ahead of the final, and decorate the area with blue and white streamers. “For us, this is the biggest celebration,” he said. “Our team will definitely win the cup.”
In football-obsessed Pullavoor village in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, competing fans of Portugal, Brazil and Argentina had all installed cutouts of their favourite players in the middle of the local river at the beginning of the tournament. But as the others were knocked out, cutouts of Brazil’s Neymar and Portugal’s Ronaldo were removed; now only Messi remains.
Such was the dedication to the tournament for a group of 17 Argentina-supporting friends in Kerala’s city of Kochi, they spent 2.3m rupees (£22,807) to purchase a house specifically just to watch the World Cup together. Ahead of the final, the house has been decorated with Argentina flags and huge screens will be arranged so everyone can squeeze in.
“Now we can sit together and can see the World Cup together,” PA Shefeer, who is one of the group who bought the house. “All our family members and friends will gather here to watch the final.”
A similar Argentina fever has gripped Kolkata, the capital city of India’s state of West Bengal. The city has had a football club since 1872, the first in the country, and the World Cup is still widely followed. After Argentina qualified for the World Cup, the streets erupted in cheering and celebration. Vendors said they were now running out of Argentina football shirts to sell before the final and tea-sellers were giving out free chai to Argentina supporters.
Pragnan Saha, 17, is a member of Kolkata’s Argentina football fanclub, which was established by his father Uttam Saha in 2002, who is such a huge fan he has travelled to Qatar in the hope of seeing Messi finally lift the World Cup. “For us diehard fans, watching every match of the Argentina national team fills us with great joy and excitement,” said Saha.
Saha said it was because of Messi and Maradona that his family were so dedicated to the Argentina team. When Maradona visited Kolkata in 2008, they built an almost 10-metre statue of the footballer and on Maradona’s 50th birthday in 2010, they made a 1.67-metre (5.5ft) long cake, matching Maradona’s height, and distributed it among the local community.
For the World Cup this year, the Saha family and their Argentina fan club said they had “taken things up a notch” and covered their whole neighbourhood in Argentina flags, colours and huge photos and cutouts of Messi and other members of the team as well as customising their car in blue and white. They have also set up a “fan park” where they and other football devotees have been watching all the matches.
“I am extremely excited about this match as I am sure that Lionel Messi-led Argentina is set to win the World Cup this time and prove to the world once and for all that he is the greatest of all time” said Saha.
Just across the border in Bangladesh, where Argentina has a deep-rooted fan base, their qualification for the final was met with celebration across the country. Fans – many painted in Argentina’s colours – poured on to the streets of Dhaka and other big cities, waving Argentina flags, loudly singing and dancing and hugging each other as they cheered Messi’s name.
The Argentina World Cup fever was so palpable that it even caught the attention of Argentina’s national football team’s official Twitter account, who recently tweeted at Bangladesh fans: “Thank you for supporting our team!! They are crazy like us!”
Tamjidul Hoque, 26, a law student in the Bangladeshi city of Chittagong and a fierce Argentina fan, said that Bangladesh’s long-running love of Argentina dated back to the 1986 World Cup. It was the first World Cup that people in a newly developing Bangladesh could watch on colour televisions, and people were enraptured by the performance of Maradona, who led the triumph over teams such as England to lift the World Cup. “That won people over and Maradona became a massively iconic figure here in the 1980s,” said Hoque.
The World Cup has recently enabled a bond to develop between Bangladesh and Argentina fans. After some in Argentina got wind of their fanbase in Bangladesh, they repaid the support by setting up a Facebook fan group for the Bangladesh national cricket team, which now has hundreds of Argentine members even though cricket is barely followed there.
“It was incredible, it shows how football can unite people even though we are separated by thousands of miles,” said Hoque.
Hoque has been a lifelong fan of Argentina and recalls crying himself to sleep as a child in 2006 when they were knocked out of the World Cup. “It would be my dream to see Messi lift the World Cup at last,” he said.
Shaikh Azizur Rahman contributed reporting