With the victory of Belgium over England, the group stage matches of the World Cup are over. The qualified sixteen teams are preparing for the pre-quarter matches. To be at the endpoint of the Group matches means a lot. It demonstrates a lot of dramatic twists, shifts and uncertainties. It has once again proved the contingency and chance-centeredness of success and failure. Teams from Asia, Latin America, and Europe have qualified for the pre-quarter finals. Sadly for Africa, Senegal, the only probable African team was eliminated from the group stage for receiving more yellow cards than Japan who became the only Asian team to qualify for the pre-quarter on the grounds of FIFA fair-play rules at the expense of the Africans. Many apparently weaker teams have proved their strength in their group stage and some of the well-established teams faced setbacks from the smaller teams. By beating Germany, the defending champions, South Korea had a dignified exit from the group stage. The victory of Mexico over Germany in their first match itself was enough to create artificial earthquakes in Mexico.
Football is a man-made game and it is susceptible to man-made errors and hence the introduction of VAR. Though it can frequently slow down the pace of the game, it can rectify some of the errors being crept into the man-made game. It can assist the referees as a reliable medium to spot fouls. For instance, it can detect the feigned pleas for penalty as in the case of Neymar, the well-known Brazilian striker with the biggest number of fouls committed against him. No matter how great he is as a striker, he is still trolled on social media for his acting skills.
FIFA penalizes all types of political messages in stadiums. The controversial hand signal of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri during their goal celebration was a daring attempt which breaches the political censorship of FIFA. For this ‘unsporting behaviour’, FIFA charged them a warning fine of 10,000 Swiss francs. Though they play for Switzerland, their attempt to make the hand signals which imitates the double-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, after scoring in the 2-1 win over Serbia, is a gesture of solidarity towards their own ethnic Albanian identity whose roots are in Kosovo. The ethic conflict between Serbia and Albania can be marked here. Evidently, Albanians rejoiced the victory of Switzerland over Serbia as if it is their own victory. In a dramatic move, the prime minister of Albania has opened a bank account, named “Don’t Be Afraid of the Eagle”, for offering Albanian people’s “symbolic contribution” to pay the fines levied against the two Switzerland players. Here football and its peculiar fandom assume a political dimension.
Being a mesmerizing game, the popularity of football is unimaginable. Various types of fan groups are being formed all over the word with the advent of FIFA WC. When football creates fandom, fandom creates its own versions of football. In the South Indian state named Kerala, one can trace the most apolitical version of fandom. Here, almost all political considerations and factional differences are shed off in favour of a favourite team. That is the intensity of football. Malayalees have always welcomed World Cup with their fervent sports spirit raised to the brim. Every nook and corner of the streets would be crowded with flex boards of favourite teams and players. With this, fan clubs and fan rivalries are also formed. Big screens are set up in most of the clubs and public places. There would be open challenges, betting, declarations, oppositions and predictions on the basis of the favourite teams and rival teams. In all respects, the Kerala football fandom offers a curious case. Their declared affinity with a favourite team enables them to assert their own political sovereignty over the rival teams. Their football enthusiastic spirit enables them to assert a new hybrid citizenship. This is a time when the most local citizen attains the most global citizenship. This is a time when the sectarian regional, nationalist and caste affiliations and such divisive forces are smashed albeit for a short period.
Although quasi-religious signs such as worship, prayer, fervour, codes of conduct can be attributed to the game, football is indeed a secular game. In front of a temple, church or mosque, one might experience the holiness of existence. In football, there is hardly any scope for the metaphysical depth of such devotional experience, except, of course, the fleeting fervour of fandom. Here, the WC football is always celebrated as a season for a secular festival. Usually, Malappuram, a district of Kerala with most number of football enthusiasts, comes to the limelight with the advent of FIFA WC. This is a region which is often stereotyped for its Muslim communitarian partiality towards issues and events. Quite contrary to such popular expectations, it goes without saying that the Muslim fan groups of Malappuram worship football in the strict secular sense, an idea long cherished by the public/private debates of European Enlightenment. This is a fact well exemplified from the secular reaction against a Facebook post which attaches the communal loyalty of Muslim football fans of Malappuram with the football team of Saudi Arabia. In general, Argentina, Brazil and Germany have got the biggest number of fan followers in Kerala, especially among the ardent football fans of Malappuram. For many nations, playing and watching football is a question of patriotic and nationalistic sentiments. As far as Kerala football enthusiasts are concerned, it is a long lasting passion for football and it is also a thing for fan showmanship. That is the reason why all types indigenous political appropriations of foreign football teams are massively trolled on social media.
India has never qualified for World Cup football. If at all India qualifies for WC, it is even doubtful whether the existing fan groups would side with India. On the one hand, football fandom provides a new found freedom and political sovereignty to do several enthusiastic acts in public. On the other hand, it brings along with it immense disillusionment and loneliness which urges the fan to stay away from civil society. Sometimes, the despair given by the failure of a favourite team can be so devastating. A Malayali fan has reportedly committed suicide in Kottayam as soon as he found that Argentina lost its game against Croatia by three goals. His suicide note laments the fact that Argentina’s case is hopeless. That particular failure has been a big blow for Argentina fans in general all over the world. Fortunately, Argentina qualified for the pre-quarter by beating Nigeria in the last match of the Group Stage. With the team formation of 4-4-2, Argentina could play well as a team against a strong team like Nigeria. Earlier formations were faulty enough to produce a weak defence for Argentina. Those hassled team combinations would often end up in missed passes, failed chances and encounters and misunderstandings. It is a big come back for Argentina. What makes Argentina vulnerable is pressure. The team cannot perform well when the team is under psychological pressure. Quite surprisingly, the team did rise above such pressures during the last hours of elimination phase.
Arguably, Argentina has got the biggest fan followers in Kerala. Most of its streets are decorated with the flags and flex boards of Argentina. The name Argentina turns into an hypnotic emotion. It is that intensity of the game which enables them to conduct road shows for Argentina, even on midnight. The old Latin American football style is generally perceived as a poetic and romantic game. Argentina has to bear the pressure of poetry and romantic beauty despite the fact that it plays a highly unromantic game. With the increasing amount of big investments in European premier leagues and professionalization of club football, the native and regional flavours of Latin American and African football are irretrievably lost. The dancing moves, rhythmic dribbling, short passes and moves, best represented by the generation of Maradona and Pele are only a recurring nostalgia in the game. This good old nostalgia is still projected on the thoroughly globalized football team of contemporary Argentina.
The idea of total football and position football are also weakly experimented in this WC. Germany and Spain can be cited as examples. Many teams have also played a highly defensive game in the group matches. A team should be skilled enough to attack and disorganize the defence. Breaking the wall of defence is an art as well as a tactic. The ball can move via dribbling, passing, shooting, heading. A player must be able to figure out the timing, pace and mathematics of any of these movements to supply the ball to his teammates. Only a suitable chemistry of team combination can break through the defence and try to score the winning goals. Germany was defeated by the counter attacking strategies of Mexico. In a similar vein, South Korea too defeated Germany. The all-out attack strategy of Germany has proved to be a risky venture as it can concede goals for the opposing teams in their advantageous moments of counter attack. Germany had 74% of ball possession against South Korea. Still, mere possession alone cannot bring success. Likewise, mere positional and numerical superiority alone cannot bring success. The idea of total football with series of precise and predictable runs and passes can prove to be futile and boring beyond a point. Therein lies the value and genius of a charismatic individual player such as Ronaldo, Lukaku, Neymar, Mo Salah and so on. That is the reason why most of the Kerala fans believe in ‘Messi magic’. That is the reason why individual merit is stressed more than that of Argentina as a team. Messi can skilfully dribble the ball to manipulate the opponent. He can also assist and support his teammates to score goals by overcoming the pressure tactics of the opponent. That is the reason why the typical Malayali Argentina fans await a Messianic moment in the revolutionary soil of Russia.
(Sudeesh K. holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from EFLU, Hyderabad. He can be reached at email@example.com)