It’s June 2014. As I enter a house where there’s a ‘sick party’ going on, I spot people wearing Argentina jerseys, starting intently at the TV. Then the curtains to the left of the screen part, and out comes the potbellied owner of the house, beer in one hand, packet of chips in the other. I introduce myself – “Adi’s nephew!” – and join at least two dozen other jersey-ed people as they gaze at the screen. Lionel Messi, along with the rest of the Argentinian team, is attempting to win the World Cup against Germany. Unsuccessfully.
The ‘Argentinians’ departed soon after the match concluded, slinking away to their own little corners of Mumbai. The Germany jersey wallahs said ‘we’ had won, turning it into a night of alcohol-fueled revelry.
For the Indian football fan, it doesn’t really matter if there isn’t anything ‘Indian’ about the FIFA World Cup (apart from the odd sponsor whose name and logo will flash on the sidelines). In such a situation, allegiances to other nations’ teams takes on a fervent permanence. You can’t switch sides; it’s an unwritten rule. For the time being at least, the Indian team is a fair way away from qualifying for the senior FIFA World Cup. In fact, its only World Cup appearance was at the Under 17 level in 2017, when India hosted the tournament.
So, the next best thing to avoid month-long football FOMO? Put your metaphorical eggs into the German, French, Spanish, English or Belgian basket. The South American ones are also popular choices, with Kolkata and Kerala known for fanatical support for both teams. Venture to Goa, and you’ll discover the Portuguese still have a strong hold on a big part of the population. Sadly, the Italians aren’t on the market this year, having failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
2018. A World Cup year.
This phenomenon is so prevalent that one of India’s biggest sports broadcasters, SPN Sports (which bought Ten Sports in 2017) has built its entire World Cup campaign around Indians’ fanatical support of other nations’ teams. The campaign, which is called ‘Meri Doosri Country’ (My Second Country or My Other Country) embraces and celebrates this dual nationalism.
In terms of viewership, football is now India’s second most popular sport, predictably cricket remains first. In urban areas, European clubs enjoy massive support, and have spawned an entire culture around football club fandom. But when a World Cup year comes around, even fringe viewers get in on all the fun, catapulting FIFA viewership to greater heights than the English Premier League or La Liga matches. At times, club rivalries are also set aside to support a national team collectively.
Former Indian National Football Team captain and legend, Bhaichung Bhutia, has put his weight behind ‘Meri Doosri Country’ lending it even more cultural legitimacy. At the launch, he optimistically told the media, “While I am confident that we will see our football team in the World Cup one day, meri doosri country will be Argentina this year.
It’s not that India doesn’t try. Every four years, India embarks on a World Cup qualification campaign with varying degrees of success. This year, the national team got past Nepal in an initial two-legged qualification round with an aggregate score of 2-0. However, in the subsequent group stage (consisting of India, Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam), India lost seven matches and won only one, finishing at the bottom of the table with just three points. Iran finished on top, with 23 points. Clearly, there’s a huge gulf of the gulf between India and the best football playing nations in Asia, let alone the world.
So from June 14 to July 15, we’ll all become foreigners. Screaming with joy for every goal ‘our’ team scores. Passionately defending our favourite player from anyone who dares to try and undermine him. The old Messi vs Ronaldo debate will rear its head once again, and we’ll all joke about how the World Cup is incomplete without a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It will all change when India makes its first appearance at a FIFA World Cup. For the time being, let’s enjoy one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world the way only India can.
Suyash Upadhyaya is a 25-year-old sports writer based in New Delhi.