A football-loving district in Kerala is set to host a football match between Argentina and Brazil ahead of the World Cup 2018 in Russia.
Every word of that is true but it won't be Lionel Messi or Neymar taking the field. Instead, Malappuram district in Kerala will watch Ashique Kuruniyan feature for team Argentina and Zakeer Mundampara take the field for team Brazil. If that sounds wacky, welcome to Kerala, the state of World Cup football zealots. Take a look at the poster ad for the game below, you really don't want to miss FC Pune City winger and the Mumbai City man pictured alongside the South American superstars.
The fever usually picks up a few months before the actual tournament. Even those who don't follow popular football leagues around the world gets possessed by the spirit of the FIFA World Cup.
The interesting aspect of this incredulous fanaticism in the state is the enigmatic fixation of Keralites on the two South American giants - Argentina and Brazil. The attendance figures and crowd support when Brazil U-17s played in Kochi just further explains the fact - there is so much love for these two teams in Kerala.
The rivalry that started with the Maradona vs Pele debate has lasted for a long time and the mantle has been passed over to the next generation. You are more likely to see a poster cheering Argentina that features Messi or one supporting Brazil that features Neymar on the roadside than, say one of Gokulam Kerala or Kerala Blasters when the World Cup approaches.
These posters will be filled with the images of the fans' favourite footballers and will usually have an inspirational message, albeit cringe-worthy, in support for their team. The message in the poster above roughly translates to, "Even if you have thousand (Wayne) Rooneys or ten thousand Kakas, when we have Messi who yields art with his feet, the weapons in your arsenal won't be enough." If that doesn't shut rival fans up, we don't know what will.
The one below, put up by Brazil Fans Kerala, reads, "We (Brazil) prefer to settle scores on the football field rather than play with words. Eleven-time semi-finalists and five-time champions - if winning the World Cup is arrogance, we are arrogant."
These roadside hoardings and posters are also a matter of competition. The supporters groups of a team make sure they get these gigantic boards out in time because they are used to gauge the strength of local fan groups in different parts of the state and you can often see ridiculous spelling errors in those. Rural areas are full of these Argentina and Brazil fan groups and they celebrate every minute of what is also a global footballing phenomenon.
Both villages and cities will have regular screenings during the World Cup matches. These fans will conduct auto-rikshaw and motorbike rallies ahead of their team's game to show their support. And regardless of time zone issues, fans get together in time for kick-off and can be seen enjoying every moment of the game, as if they're actually playing the game.
Germany, England, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands all have their own supporters' groups here, spread throughout Kerala and each of them has their own story to tell. When a state like Kerala shows so much love and support for the team of countries that are situated more than 14000 kilometres away, you know the game is special.