It’s 01:05 am IST. Pouring rain. A hundred pair of eyes brave the downpour; they possibly cannot shift gaze at this moment.

Ducking for cover can wait; the giant screen has them hypnotised. An umbrella has come out for the projector – after all, the gadget is producing more magic than David Blaine.

These eyes are following every moment, every action of a Rosario native’s, 14,953 kilometres away from his home. If he were to teleport Edappal in Malappuram district at that instant, they’d surely wake every one up within a 15 km-radius. They will smother him, give him the keys to the town.

The elder ones tell the younger ones – 36 years ago, a stockier fellow wearing the same blue and white had bedazzled them, made them fall in love with this festival of colours and light, that takes place once every four years.

The clock on the screen strikes 34:20.

It is at this point that the little wizard appeared on the right-hand side of the screen, took a touch and drifted inwards.

Short backlift, a sea of yellow in front of him... and Lionel Messi threads the needle to score.

Lionel Messi scores a fine goal against Australia |Reuters

When did it all start?

It is hard to pin-point when Kerala’s love affair with the quadrennial jamboree started. The sport has been popular in the state since ages but the pivotal moment was the introduction of World Cup football on television.

The year? 1986.

It is no surprise that a large chunk of the state’s population is glued to La Albiceleste due to one man’s heroics in Mexico in that edition. Diego Armando Maradona immortalised himself in world football and evidently, in Kerala too.

Siddharthan, who is also at the Argentina-Australia screening, said the colours of Mexico ‘86 were mesmeric. “1982, we followed it through radio and I have very little memory, ‘86 is when all these colours just exploded on to our screens and Diego enthralled us. Cannigia (Claudio) was also there but all I can remember is the God (El Dios) from that World Cup.”

If 1986 was the introduction of Maradona to Kerala, 1990 was his anointment as unrivalled king. Old uns’ in these parts appreciate that while Diego had a team to operate with in 1986, he almost single-handedly carried them to the final and almost, a repeated the feat.

Nainanvalappu, a small locality in the Kozhikode district, has conducted screenings for almost three decades including the Copa America in the 1990s. Brazil, reaching three straight World Cup finals and winning two of those, did a great lot to enhance their popularity in the state.

When Kerala Blasters launched in 2014, they paid ultimate homage to the Selecao by embracing their colours. Today, the Indian Super League team is well on its way to capturing the essence of the madness that follows Argentina and Brazil around.

Unfortunately for Brazil, their soaring popularity could have been unparalleled but for the entrance of one Lionel Andres Messi. Together, Messi and Maradona have ensured that La Albiceleste have had a strong following in the coastal state for the last 36 years.

Modern day diversification

Neymar. Messi. Ronaldo. Mbappe. Virgil. Lewandowski. Modric. Kane.

These are some of the names that crop up on jerseys outside the shops near the EMS Corporation Stadium, Kozhikode. A very well-known venue for football, the stadium boasts nearly every jersey from the 32 participating teams at this World Cup (yes, even Saudi Arabia and Qatar!)

The proprietor at Saraswathi Sports estimates that they must be selling upwards of 200 jerseys every day. The lowest number quoted in any of the 15 shops nearby is about 75. All of it at a nominal rate not exceeding 300 rupees. Yes, they are knock-offs but the quality is good, allowing folks to wear them to screenings.

Speaking of screenings, they were popular in and around the Malappuram area and in the cities in the early 2000s. The 2010s, though, saw an explosion in the number of screenings – wonders of the internet age and affordable data. “These days, every screening is exciting,” says a fellow watcher with a sigh of paradoxical weary.

Giant hoardings which would stan Argentina or Brazil once upon a time now have France, Spain, England, Portugal, or the Netherlands on them. The era of the individual superstar is well and truly here as evidenced by Sudev CM.

“I am a hardcore Messi fan. I follow him wherever he goes. First I was a Barcelona fan, now of PSG and Argentina,” he proudly exclaimed. Ask him what will happen when Messi retires, predictably, he shoots back an annoyed look whilst saying, “There will always be Argentina!”

Cristiano Ronaldo’s rise over the last decade means that Portugal’s popularity has seen them skyrocket to third place. Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland certainly do look like they are going to inspire a generation of France and Norway fans in the not-too-distant future.

World Cup everywhere

It’s not just the screenings, the hoardings or the jerseys though. The ‘Copa du Mundo’ is omnipresent – it’s a part of the social fabric for this month. It is intrinsically connected to livelihoods and the celebrations are a way of giving back – workers from Qatar and Saudi, for example, have sent money back home to erect giant hoardings of their adopted countries’ teams, as a way of showing their gratitude.

Others, use the World Cup to display allegiances or culturally entice loyalists. Speeding buses have flags and pictures of countries and superstars to get passengers. Sweet stalls and barbershops hang giant banners outside to get folks in. You might even get the Ronaldo haircut – quite ingeniously nicknamed the Power Cut – from 2002 if you so wish to.

Results and brackets are of great public service to a casual fan – if there are any left. As a lover of the sport, this culture is all that one can ever wish for. Football has seamlessly integrated with society.

The World Cup group stage results and brackets | Photos by Arka Bhattacharya /

Messi magic keeps everyone happy

When the goal from the magic man goes in, every one is happy. Pandemonium ensues, there are claps, fistbumps and cheers. Some are relieved – Argentina and Messi might live to fight another day.

Well, almost everyone is happy. There is a small group in the corner, seated on a giant rock which is rooting for Australia. On closer enquiry, it turns out they are Brazil fans. Not only do they want their team to progress, they want their fierce rivals in the mud.

They get their moment – the Enzo Fernandez own goal spurs them on, and the tension in the majority is palpable. Not penalties, they pray. Anything but a shoot-out.

The wind blows even harder, knocking down the giant screen, to audible groans of disappointment. After a couple of tries, it is decided that the screen simply cannot withstand the high wind speeds. The game is now directly projected onto the wall behind – barely visible for anyone outside a two- metre radius.

Still, they queue up and pack the area around the wall. When Emiliano Martinez saves from Garang Kuol with the last action on the night, and the Argentina players embrace each other on the pitch, there is elation in Kerala. The keeper has won Argentina the game. Messi’s World Cup sojourn carries on.

Argentina at the Fifa World Cup and Kerala... it’s a love story that endures.

Arka Bhattacharya, a former staffer, is a New-Delhi based writer and grassroots football coach, who also runs his own women’s team – KKM Sangam Vihar FC – based out of the capital.