Why Indians love Football World Cup, even without India in it

In a country that has never competed in a Football World Cup, the passion for the sport comes alive during the event. It’s a routine that repeats itself every four years. As the FIFA World Cup approaches, Indian football fans are getting louder and noisier even though India is not participating in the tournament.

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During each Football World Cup, huge posters of football icons such as Argentine Lionel Messi and Brazilian Neymar, sometimes even adorned with garlands, can be seen lining the roads in football-obsessed states and regions of the subcontinent such as Kerala, West Bengal, Goa and in the northeast of the country. , where fans are for the most part fiercely loyal to Brazil and Argentina. Flags of countries participating in the World Cup, football-themed menus in eateries and shops selling souvenirs from the FIFA World Cup are also distributed in these places during the biggest football event.

“We may not have shown our merit in football yet, but if there was a world fanball championship, we would be in it, Indian business mogul Anand Mahindra said on Twitter after fans in Kerala dressed in the football jerseys of their favorite players celebrated the birth of Argentina in the Football World Cup final, leading the parade through the streets.”

Elsewhere in India, such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi, cafes and bars have also opened their doors to football fans, with some showing matches even at night. For Saihlupui Sailo, a teacher from Aizaul, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, watching the Football World Cup was also a family affair.

Football is a sport that my whole family loves. I grew up watching football and the first Football World Cup I watched was in 1990. I don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember my parents tuning the TV antenna so we get the best signal, Sailo watching the semi-finals with her brother Sailo Wanlaltlana Jr. and her nephew Lalchhanhima.

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“It brings back a lot of memories, she said. And a predicament. Her family supported Argentina, but she liked the French side more. But before Sunday’s final between the two teams, she could switch places for once. I want Messi to win, I feel like no one deserves it more than him.”

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

Among them was Chelston Pinto, a professional soccer player from Bangalore 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 people in India love to watch.

“Watching the games in Qatar was definitely an unforgettable experience of a lifetime, he said. Each fan base brings something different and I think the whole fan environment created in Qatar has been a brilliant experience. This is what I would recommend to every Indian fan.”

A missed chance to play at the World Cup

Recently, India has struggled to even get close to qualifying for the Football World Cup. But back in 1950, the country had what has since been called the golden generation of players. At the 1948 London Olympics, India fought hard against the beloved French team but lost 2-1.

Before the 1950 Football World Cup in Brazil, India was placed in a qualifying group along with the Philippines and Burma. But both of these other sides withdrew from the competition at a time when the tournament was still in its infancy, Asian countries were comparatively poorer, and the prospect of a trip around the world to South America was expensive. As a result, India qualified for the FIFA World Cup by default.

But India also refused to send a team to Brazil. The country’s football federation has never explained this decision and there are many theories: some say it’s because the team wanted to play barefoot, while others have argued that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could not afford to send players to Brazil in that time.

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Whatever the reason, it was a missed opportunity that India has not had since. The next time India participated in the Football World Cup qualifiers was only in 1986. According to Pinto, the Indian team still has a long way to go to qualify for the World Cup.

“I think we need to start with the grassroots first and have a lot more tournaments in India. According to him, professional football players play only four to six months, which is clearly not enough. Instead, they need access to top-notch training facilities and tough competition for at least 10 months of the year, he said.”

The country also needs a grassroots football calendar, with a focus on producing talented young players from the under-12 age group, Pinto said. According to him, these are the players who will lead India to the Football World Cup in the future. For more know about Argentina Vs France Tickets.

AIFF has new management who took office in September. The Indian Super League, the top professional football league in India since the 2022-23 season, has been gaining more viewership and fan support since its launch in 2013. Pinto hopes these changes will pave the way for India to qualify for the Football World Cup in the future.

Fan frenzy continues

However, even without India’s participation in the FIFA World Cup, support for the sport in the country remains high, with leading European clubs seeing India as a growing fan market.

According to fans, this passion for global football first flared up when Brazil’s Pelé and Argentine’s Diego Maradona reigned supreme. My father has been supporting these countries for many years because of these players who were like Indian football gods at the time, Mumbai-based Praman Narain, founder of a housing startup called Roamhome, told Al Jazeera. He enjoyed watching them play and I think these individual players may be one of the reasons Indians love to watch the game.

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Today, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and the Argentine Messi receive the same love. Perhaps in the future, if India qualifies, the Indian player will receive such treatment, Narain said. Adhip Chopra, a Mumbai-based freelance filmmaker working with Indian production company Yash Raj Films, drew parallels between the football showcased at the Qatar World Cup, where lowly teams upset several top rivals, and the Bollywood scripts that Indians love.

“Of course it was an interesting Football World Cup, Chopra told Al Jazeera. I would script games where Japan, Spain and Germany would play in the group stages. The thrill of the games contained all the melodrama, action and entertainment that Indians enjoy in Bollywood films. Japan defeated former champions Germany and Spain in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup.”

Asian connection

For many Indian fans, the arrival of Asian teams such as Japan and South Korea and African teams such as Morocco was also a pleasant surprise. Ayman Fayaz, 20, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in English literature and lives in Srinagar in Indian Kashmir, usually supports Portugal. But Morocco’s performance this year means a lot to Kashmiris, she said.

“They don’t just play for Africa. You know, they play for every Muslim nation, she said. They supported Palestine with their salutatory slogans, and it’s nice to know that teams like Morocco are supporting countries in conflict. As a Kashmiri, I’m really pleased to see that.”

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

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Anshuk Megarih, a corporate lawyer based in Bangalore, said that Morocco’s underdog status was also a key reason why the country’s team found support in India. Everyone likes it when an underdog plays well, he told Al Jazeera.

Most people in India, no matter who they support, are also neutral fans. So for a neutral fan like me, being able to see the amazing games that Morocco has played is inspiring. Stories like this happen every four years. And this story really overshadows everything else in this tournament, he added.

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