Indians are wild for the World Cup, even if their men's team has yet to participate. And they've got no qualms about going all out for other country's team.
NEW DELHI — It's June 2014. I enter a house where there's a "sick party" going on, and spot people wearing Argentina soccer jerseys. They're staring intently at the television. 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 as "Adi's nephew" and join at least two dozen other jersey-wearing revelers gazing at the screen. Lionel Messi, along with the rest of the Argentine team, is attempting to win the World Cup against Germany. Unsuccessfully.
The "Argentines' depart soon after the match concluded, slinking away to their own little corners of Mumbai. For the "Germans," on the other hand — the ones with German soccer jerseys, at any rate — the party is just getting started. They won! Or at least the team they support did.
In reality, there weren't any actual Argentines or Germans around that night. Just Indians. Soccer-crazy Indians who don't care that — apart from the odd sponsor whose name and logo will flash on the sidelines — there isn't anything remotely "Indian" about the FIFA World Cup.
Football is now India's second most popular sport, after cricket of course.
For the time being at least, the Indian team is quite a way off still 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. And yet, Indians still love the event. They also love the teams that do participate, dividing themselves into loyal, die-hard fans of one squad or another. That means picking a team — be it Germany, Brazil or Belgium — and sticking with it to the bitter end, come what may. Switching sides is a no-no; an unspoken rule.
People in Kolkata and Kerala have a fondness for the South American teams. In Goa, the Portuguese are especially popular. Elsewhere people love the Italian team, though for this year's World Cup, in Russia, they'll have to choose another team. Italy failed to qualify.
The adopt-a-team phenomenon is so prevalent that one of India's biggest sports broadcasters, SPN Sports (which bought Ten Sports in 2017), built its entire World Cup campaign around the fanatical support Indians show for the teams of other nations. The campaign, 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, after cricket of course. In urban areas, European clubs enjoy massive support, and have spawned an entire culture around football club fandom. But when the World Cup year comes around, even fringe viewers get in on 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.
Soccer legend Bhaichung Bhutia, a former captain of India's national team, lent the "meri doosri country" trend even more cultural legitimacy but revealing his own "second country" for this year's World Cup. "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," he told reporters.
It's not that India doesn't try. Every four years, the Indian team 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 still between India and the best football playing nations in Asia, let alone the world. No matter. From June 14 to July 15, we'll all become foreigners, screaming with joy for every goal "our" team scores, each of us passionately defending our favorite player from anyone who dares to trip him up. 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.
All of that will change, of course, when India makes its first appearance at a World Cup. But for the time being, let's enjoy the event for what it is — one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world — and in the way only India can.
*The author is a 25-year-old sports writer based in New Delhi.