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FIFA World Cup 2022: When India Cried for Argentina


There is no football team that Indians love more than Argentina, with the exception of Brazil. Their loss against Saudi Arabia hurt many Indian fans. But then some were happy with the result, as the Gulf is home to many Indians.


A cut out photo of Lionel Messi erected by fans in Kerala.
A cut out photo of Lionel Messi erected by fans in Kerala. AP
img
Kushagra Srivastava
UPDATED 23 Nov 2022 11:55 pm

The centerpiece of Qatar's glitzy World Cup stadiums is named the Lusail Iconic Stadium. Saudi Arabia stunned the world with a 2-1 upset over tournament favourites Argentina under its gold dome. The Iconic in the stadium's name, a tacky addition at first, suddenly became appropriate, with Lusail 2022 becoming an immediate part of footballing heritage and Saudi folklore. It will also host the grand curtain-call, the final, three weeks from now. 

Wednesday was a public holiday in Saudi Arabia to celebrate the impossible that had taken place on Tuesday. And it was a day of shock and reflection in Buenos Aires. The script planned for the departure of one of the game's finest ever players on the world's grandest stage had already begun to unravel. 

For Indians, the result of the Argentina-Saudi Arabia game was bittersweet. In a World Cup dogged by controversy, and with the notable absence of large travelling groups that typically follow their national teams, the large immigrant population in the Gulf, mostly from Kerala, has stepped in to fill the gap. They have provided an army of support to their favourite adopted teams, much to the surprise of travelling fans who have been both pleased and honored to experience the love their nations enjoy, thousands of miles across the world, from unexpected countries. 

To those who follow the game more intimately, this was no surprise. From the streets of Kolkata to Kochi, Maradona and Pele have long been the favourite adopted sons of the Indian faithful. Indian football is far behind, so to fill the gap, fans adopted Brazil and Argentina with a degree of intensity and passion that the world has now began to take notice of. 

FIFA, the international body governing football, had shared a photograph of the cutouts of Messi and Co in the Pullavoor river in Kerala and tweeted, “#FIFAWorldCup fever has hit Kerala.”

FIFA’s acknowledgment prompted CM Pinarayi Vijayan to respond with a tweet of his own: “Kerala and Keralites have always loved football and it is on full display with #Qatar2022 around the corner. Thank you @FIFA for acknowledging our unmatched passion for the sport." 

On the other hand, while the Indian faithful wanted to cheer for Argentina, they were also torn due to Asian pride. Saudi Arabia became the first Asian and Arab nation to pull an upset of this magnitude over a tournament favourite. Besides, it has also been home to many of Indian expatriates for years now. Many Indians were therefore conflicted over who to cheer for, but eventually "Saudia" chants rang out all across Asia. A continent was proud, and Indians doubly so, as their newly adopted homes provided the succor they have never had, against teams they have long idolised and rooted for. 

"Part of why we root for Argentina and Brazil is because they seemed a different planet to the rest of us. They've always entertained and impressed us. We never thought we could compete,” an emotional Indian expatriate in Dubai told this reporter on phone. “But yesterday, Saudi Arabia showed the path forward, they showed we can take them on, as equals, and even win. It's historic. Today it was Saudi Arabia, tomorrow it could be us (India), who knows.”

Another Indian fan, Madhav, currently in Doha, had one lament. He pointed out the hypocrisy of Western media breakdown over "fake fans", with videos of fan rallies for different nations, all populated by the enormous South Asian fan base, going viral last week. "I wish India had qualified for this one," he said, pointing out that everywhere he had gone, the Indian presence had been enormous and consistent. "Had we been there, it would've been nothing but a sea of blue. We (India) are not there, but we are still there to cheer for everyone else. And they write us off as not real fans." 

India are not there, and so the attention shifts back to our favourite adopted teams. For Argentina, sober mourning will follow in the days ahead, as they look at the tough task ahead, to ensure Messi's last World Cup doesn't become a meek fade away into oblivion. They have been here before, having lost their opening game to Cameroon in 1990, a tournament in which Diego Maradona later propelled them to the finals. They are hoping that history will repeat itself. But first, they need to re-group and look to their two virtual finals ahead, against Mexico and Poland and then the unforgiving knockouts. 

Argentina will need to shake off their sluggishness, and come back stronger. Thankfully for them, they have no one better prepared for the task than the talismanic captain Leo Messi, who has bounced back from crushing international defeats many a time before to take his team all the way, fall short but then do it again. 

Messi has already promised the faithful he will not leave them stranded. Argentina's good fortune is, there is almost no one better to rely on, when the going gets tough. Their bad fortune is that Messi's supporting cast will have to join in to script the fairytale ending for their great captain's swansong. Messi has too often been the only one, and that has been enough sometimes, but not enough more often. To bounce back, they will need to do so as a collective, which was exactly what the captain underlined. 

World Cups are long, and like in 1990, there is still every chance to re-write the story. And while we wait for the Albiceleste response, we must tip our hats to Saudi Arabia, who turned the group on its head. The magic of the Cup continues.



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