Image source, ARUN CHANDRA BOSE
Image caption, Many fans in Kerala are traveling to Doha for the upcoming World Cup
By Ashraf Padanna
This week, Hashir Ali and 11 of his friends will make a long trip – from Kozhikode city in the southern state of Kerala to Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Mr Ali, 55, a football-crazy civil engineer, and his friends are travelling to Doha for the World Cup, where they will stay for 10 days to watch the matches live.
Mr Ali bought tickets for the matches six months ago through a friend in Doha and has been waiting for the “big moment” ever since.
He is among several fans in India, who are gung-ho about football. Along with Kerala, Kolkata city in the eastern state of West Bengal and Kolhapur district in the western state of Maharashtra also have a large number of football fans.
With the world’s second largest population, many feel India is under-represented in the world’s most popular sport – the national team languishes in 106th spot in Fifa’s rankings.
Though India qualified in 1950, they have never actually made it to the World Cup. They refused to participate, partly because it would have meant their normally barefoot team having to wear football boots.
But every time the World Cup is held, India’s football fans do crazy things to express their love for the sport, and their favourite international team.
They save up for months to travel to watch the games; hold mock-matches sporting their favourite team’s jerseys; predict who will win the championship and take out colourful processions to celebrate their team’s victories.
Image source, Arun chandra bose
Image caption, Fans erected large cut-outs of their favourite footballers in a river in Kerala
Recently, fans erected a 30ft-tall cut-out of Lionel Messi in a river in Kozhikode. Not to be one-upped, fans of Christiano Ronaldo and Neymar soon erected cut-outs of their idols. These outlandish additions to the river invited a lot of media attention, and even Fifa tweeted about them.
For many Keralites, Qatar is also like a second home, as thousands work or have set up businesses in the middle-eastern country. Several of them have worked for firms who have built stadia for the World Cup.
“It’s a dream come true to watch my favourite players in action,” Mr Ali told the BBC as he was packing for his flight.
Along with sundry items needed for the trip, his bags also contains gifts for his favourite footballers – miniature dhows, or sailing boats.
The dhow, also known as uru in Kerala, has its origins in India’s ancient maritime trade. Craftsmen in Beypore – an ancient port town in Kozhikode – have been engaged in dhow-making for generations and their handcrafted luxury dhows are popular among Qatari millionaires.
A thousand handcrafted miniature dhows made by the traditional shipbuilders of Beypore have been shipped to Qatar as merchandise for the World Cup. A life-sized dhow is also set to be on display.
Image source, ARUN CHANDRA BOSE
Image caption, Kerala has a huge number of football fans
Mr Ali is also taking a gift for the organisers – a dhow with flowers of participating countries drawn on its mast.
“We have drawn pictures of all the eight stadiums and flags of the participating countries on a football along with other icons,” Meghna Unnikrishnan, the creator of the artwork, told the BBC.
“It took almost a month for the artisans to build the dhow, carved from teakwood, and I and three other artists finished the drawings in two days,” she adds.
An ardent fan of Lionel Messi, “of course after Diego Maradona”, Mr Ali is going to watch the World Cup matches live for the first time.
“Thank God [the World Cup in being held in] Doha this time and all the eight stadiums are in a 10km (6 miles) radius. Otherwise, I could not even dream of doing so,” he says.
He says he would like to stay back and watch more matches, but “that’s too expensive” for him and it’ll take a “heavy toll” on his work back home.
Last week, Indian fans gathered in large numbers in Doha to cheer the arriving England team by beating drums and blowing horns.
Image source, Hashir Ali / Gudam Art Gallery
Image caption, Hashir Ali and Meghna Unnikrishnan with a miniature dhow they are carrying to Doha
TV networks in Kerala have also captured expatriate fans of teams from other countries, celebrating on the street, wearing the team’s colours and waving their national flag.
“Football is in our blood and we make every match a celebration. There’s no permanent loyalty,” Mr Ali says.
In the neighbouring Malappuram district, the World Cup craze started six months ago, with seven football matches representing prominent local teams.
The players donned jerseys of their favourite countries – France, England, Argentina, Brazil, Holland, Germany and Portugal – in the seven-a-side matches.
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Jerseys on sale in Kolkata city in the state of West Bengal
Abdul Nazar, a footballer from Vengara village in Malappuram is also readying to fly to Doha early next month.
Along with him, around 25 fans from the village are also travelling to Doha to cheer their favourite teams. They’ve arranged for drums to beat and flags to wave whenever their chosen team scores a goal, he says.
“We have fans for all major teams, although Argentina and Brazil are favourites,” Mr Nazar told the BBC.