Connecting with the colonial past

Welcoming the World Cup... members of a football fans association in Kozhikode in Kerala erect a hoarding ahead of the big-ticket event in Brazil.-

A significant portion of India follows the tournament with a passion that has grown since the World Cup was telecast for the first time on Indian television in 1982. This growth exists independently of India’s performance on the pitch. And so it will continue, writes Priyansh.

The glitter of the FIFA World Cup is such that it spreads its light beyond the 32 participating countries. Arguably, no other event attracts such widespread attention. Even in countries such as India, which cannot realistically expect to be a part of this spectacle in the near future, the tournament garners enough attention to make one think otherwise.

Certainly, this attraction for the World Cup does not escape the market’s attention. Hence, the World Cup years are often seen as a period of boom by advertisers in India. But there’s more to it than ruthless gold-digging. The passion for the sport genuinely thrives in certain areas of the country, and not only in traditional strongholds like West Bengal, Goa and Kerala.

The airing of European football on television has given birth to a previously unseen phenomenon, primarily in urban and semi-urban areas. Hordes of fans, predominantly young, have developed an avid interest in events that occur miles away. Simultaneously, they seem to have little or no time for football in their own country.

It would be easy to accuse them of apathy, but certain issues seem to make a case for this indifference. The disparity in quality and marketing ensures such apathy will continue for a long time to come.

Syed Shaheen, the owner of Moonlight FC — an old Delhi club that has lost much of its former glory — once admitted that the arrival of TV in homes sounded the death-knell of local football. Ironically, now these clubs host screenings of marquee foreign matches to engage the fans.

Indeed, that is one of the more popular ways to nurse the detached attachment of the urban football fan. The allure of watching a match with a group of considerable size seems to work well as a substitute for the experience of visiting the venue. If the modern stadium is a cathedral, the public screening ensures the mass is held without fail — albeit in an unusual way.

Considering the costs of travelling to the World Cup and visiting various venues, it is safe to say very few Indians can afford the pilgrimage. On May 26, The Hindu Business Line estimated that 1,500-2,000 Indians are likely to be present in Brazil, at one time or another, for the tournament.

Yet, a non-visit to a World Cup-hosting country doesn’t render the majority of consumers impervious to the methods of the market. Indeed, every four years, companies seek ingenious ways to draw profits that would not be available usually.

Ganesh Subramanian, the COO of online clothing giant Myntra, recently revealed that World Cup merchandise — and football wear, in general — rarely records disappointing sales. “Today, not many of us would want to be seen wearing an IPL jersey outside the stadium. It’s different when it comes to football. Take Manchester United for instance. You can sell its merchandise all year long.”

Indeed, football jerseys aren’t the only way to boost a company’s sales. Shoes and official match balls regularly attract similar or greater attention.

The premier global sports goods manufacturers, Nike and adidas, have jostled for space in the Indian market. While the latter benefits from its privilege of producing the official match ball, the former provides a wider range of official football jerseys around the tournament.

Beyond the urban areas and the obvious marketing shenanigans, the suburban spaces are infiltrated by the World Cup solely through television. History too, as one would discover with surprise, weighs heavily on one’s interest in the tournament.

The examples of Chandannagar (formerly Chandernagore) and Goa, although oft-mentioned, continue to confound those who study fandom and society. Fans in these areas seem to display and nurture an anomalous liking for their past colonial rulers.

Whenever a major international tournament is organised, Portugal’s aficionados in Goa and French football lovers in Chandannagar mushroom conspicuously. There’s a strange alignment of their passion for the sport with a nostalgia for the colonial past.

Years ago, former Goa Football Association secretary Savio Messias made a case for supporting one’s former colonisers. “Everywhere you go, you can see the Portuguese influence. In our houses, in our lifestyle, in our dancing, in our music, cuisine etc. Why should football be any different?”

Influence, though, doesn’t necessarily translate into avid support for a national football team. Yet, such anomalies persist and there is no reason for one to dispute that they will exist for a long time to come.

Considering the presence of another, greater contradiction, this should not surprise us. After all, a significant portion of India follows the tournament with a passion that has grown since the World Cup was telecast for the first time on Indian television in 1982. This growth exists independently of India’s performance on the pitch. And so it will continue.