Argentine-born Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against Levante in La Liga last year. Photo: Irina RH / Spain DPPI / AFP

In the tiny town of Nawabganj in West Bengal, an eastern coastal state of India, one can find, amid the monotonous crammed series of similarly old, age-worn, dilapidated buildings, a bright azure-white-striped structure that from a distance seems to be a piece of bright sky amid the tightly spaced lackluster dwellings. Upon closer inspection, one would realize that the entire three-story house is painted with the Argentine flag.

The house is owned by Shib Shankar Patra, a humble tea-seller who soaked his residence in the colors of a nation 16,000 kilometers away, when he was told his US$900 savings wouldn’t suffice to afford a trip to Russia to spectate the FIFA 2018 World Cup and watch his hero Lionel Messi play for his country. Two giant Argentine national flags wave flanking his tea stall, which itself is popular all over the area as the “Argentina tea-stall.”

Patra is not an isolated peculiarity. The entirety of West Bengal state teems with tens of thousands of soccer fans clad in Argentine colors; Brazil follows a distant second. You don’t need to visit Kolkata to validate this fact, its virtue can be attested by Google Search statistics.

An analysis of search statistics for the query keyword “Argentina” for India yields a sharp spike in 2018 around the time of the World Cup. Sure enough, an overwhelming majority of the queries are from the states of the Northeast, West Bengal, and the South Indian state of Kerala, the exact regions known for their distinct cultural identity and assertion, free thinking, inclination toward socialism, and aversion to mainstream Hindi heartland appropriation.

Be it its exceptional affinity for soccer, its retention of trams, its political leanings, its unique marital customs, its hand-drawn rickshaws, or its choice of color for police uniforms, Bengal has frequently been an outlier in terms of its cultural choices. The maverick state, although historically seen as an integral and inalienable part of the mainland, has quite a few peculiarities that seem to set it apart.

One of these is its distinct, obsessive support for the soccer team of Argentina, a nation with which India never had significant cultural contact.

The Bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate polymath who composed, among others, what were adopted as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, was involved in a platonic, intellectual, spiritual, and overall complicated relationship with the eminent Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo.

Any kind of friendship or relationship between opposite genders out of wedlock was strongly disapproved of, let alone a transnational one, at a time when marriage outside one’s caste was a taboo, almost always met with ostracization. But West Bengal, being the consistent leading edge of Indian intellectualism, liberalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism had its imagination captured by this romance-across-two-oceans.

The creative hotbed of India was inspired by this form of transcendental bonding, feeling, and solidarity that showed that empathy and a sense of belongingness and togetherness can connect the unlikeliest of places.

West Bengal is known as much for its ideological and spiritual allegiance as it is for spearheading the Indian national freedom movement and regional patriotic sentiment. Its people are known to have a very strong sense of distinct cultural identity, yet are always the pioneers with international adoption, foreign exposure, and cross-cultural interactions.

In fact, both Bengal’s intellectual and practical spearheading of social reform in India as well as its sparking of the Indian freedom struggle were inspired by the ideas and ideals of the French Revolution. It is one of the reasons people from Bengal, which was ruled by a Communist government for 34 years, root for the socialist-leaning Argentina over the generally corporate-leaning giant Brazil.

The same goes for Kerala, ruled by perhaps the world’s most successful Marxist government, a welfare state that is exemplary in its health care and education sectors, and ensuring communal harmony, social justice, and equality.

Both states strive to emerge from the overbearing shadow of the Hindi mainland, which also finds expression in their extraordinary love for soccer in a singularly cricket-obsessed nation, a proclamation of their freedom and distinctive identity. Argentina is loosely seen as the David vis-a-vis Brazil’s Goliath. 

Colonial history

It all began with the 1986 soccer World Cup when Argentina overcame all odds to beat England, a nation that reminds Bengal of its brutal 200-year old colonial history. Bengal was the earliest and the worst-hit of Indian regions by the atrocities of British colonial rule. A number of intellectual and politically aware Bengalis found solidarity with Argentina, which had engaged in a military struggle with Britain over its overseas territory of the Falklands, four years earlier.

Britain’s insolent retention of the islands was seen as a continuation of its historic imperialist tendencies. Thus Bengal rejoiced as Maradona sealed the Argentine victory in the Finals with his Hand of God, and most middle-aged Bengalis owe their Argentine fanhood to that very moment, a sign of rebellion and a proclamation of freedom. It was, to them, a symbol of resistance and overthrow of arbitrary authority – a defiant uprising of the commons.

The humble southern nation had beaten the colonial power at a game of its own creation. The 1986 World Cup was aired live on Indian national television. The elite beheld it on the newly introduced color TV sets, imprinting the vibrant jerseys on their minds.

Many of them, including Patra, admit that they see Messi as an extension of Maradona and hence root for Argentina, passing on this fandom to the next generation, notably by mass distribution of jerseys. Patra “blesses” the life-size Messi posters he has in his room with anointments from the neighborhood temple before important matches.

Maradona’s 2017 visit to Kolkata was long-awaited and much-celebrated. It is not uncommon to see schoolchildren in small suburbs of Kolkata saving their pocket money to celebrate the birthdays of Messi and Maradona. Anticipation leads to jubilation and veritably empty streets, victories prompt cheer and celebration with firecrackers and sweets, and losses cause mourning.

The obsession, however, at times, goes to extremes, as in the case of a most unfortunate incident of suicide by a devout fan after Argentina’s loss to France in the 2018 World Cup.

For Kerala, soccer is like cricket, a colonial introduction that stuck. Soccer was brought in by the Portuguese, the first European explorers, traders, and colonists to arrive in India. But it is also a symbolic thing in the politically aware state.

Soccer for Kerala is an expression of esthetics, freedom, solidarity, and camaraderie, being united in passion amid the diversity of allegiances and support. But support for Argentina is clearly set apart.

The 2019 Malayali film Argentina Fans Kaattoorkadavu told a story centered on the soccer fandoms in an eponymous village in Kerala, with its sports narrative deeply interwoven with ideological conflicts. It’s a rather well-known fact in Malayali soccer fan circles that Che Guevara and Lionel Messi share the same birthplace – Rosario, Argentina.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.