'Always in our hearts': The obsession with Argentina’s football team in India and Bangladesh
"Soy Argentino! Es un sentimiento, no puedo parar!" sang millions of Argentina fans in a burst of euphoria. I am Argentinian! they chanted, it’s a feeling I cannot stop!
Buenos Aires erupted in unbridled emotion, as massive crowds packed the city streets singing, dancing and weeping with joy that Argentina’s 36-year wait to return to the summit of world football had finally ended following their victory in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Similar scenes in faraway India and Bangladesh though took many by surprise. Tens of thousands of screaming fans celebrated Argentina’s victory in cities like Malappuram and Dhaka, amid massive cut-outs of Argentina captain Lionel Messi specially prepared for the World Cup.
To many, these wild celebrations in a region so far removed from both South America and the football world were downright surreal.
Argentina madness in Bangladesh, one month of craziness, and finally glory. ⭐️⭐️⭐️— Ahmed 🇧🇩🇦🇷⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@nahiyansays) December 20, 2022
This tribute video made by Sakib UL Alam. What an amazing edit! pic.twitter.com/9G5FWFTsAm
Known for being almost entirely obsessed with cricket, neither India, Bangladesh, Pakistan nor any of their South Asian neighbours have ever made it to the football World Cup.
But every four years, football fever grips the region and supporters cheer on their chosen countries as fervently as if they were their own. ‘Meri Doosri Country’, or ‘my second country’ as a heart-warming advertising campaign put it in 2018. Few are as passionate as those that follow Argentina – the home of icons Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi who have captured the imagination of millions in the region.
"I was born in 1992, I’m almost 30 years old right now; I’m supporting Argentina since 2002," said Nizar Ahmed Ansary, who hails from the village of Pattambi in football-mad Kerala, southern India.
"I don’t know how much a 10-year-old boy can tell at that age," he said, "but I still remember an article from a Malayalam newspaper that said ‘Maradona is equal to six players in a field’. That he dribbled the ball past six players! That’s the first article I saw about football, that’s the first thing I remember.
From that moment, I’ve been supporting Argentina."
Ansary, an associate producer at Indian sports channel Sports18, is one of the admins of Argentina Fans Kerala – a page with nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook.
His passion for the 'Albiceleste' – the sky-blue-and-white, as the Argentine national team is known in Spanish for their iconic striped kit – is reflected across the state. It began with Diego Maradona, a larger-than-life superstar adored by millions in the region.
An icon of the game, Maradona had everything - pace, power, ball control, audacity, and a penchant for controversy on and off the pitch. Widely revered as one of the best-ever footballers, he was at the peak of his powers during the 1986 World Cup when he dragged Argentina to the title.
"Maradona is the main reason [people support Argentina]," said Taher Chowdhury, a civil engineer from Chittagong in Bangladesh. "It comes from when he won the World Cup in 1986. More than 70 percent of those who like football support Argentina [in Bangladesh], and I think it’s due to Maradona."
At 64, Chowdhury watched Maradona and his team lift the 1986 World Cup after defeating West Germany 3-2 in the final.
"His skill and wonderful goals stole the hearts of everyone," he said.
"There is no religion, no culture, no gender, nothing in football. Everyone can enjoy it."
"In Kerala and south India, Argentina became a part of everyone’s hearts because of Diego Armando Maradona – no doubt about that," said Ansary.
"I have never seen Maradona play, I just read about him. There are many football fans still alive today who watched the 1986 World Cup - they talk like babies about Diego Maradona! Even today, in 2022, they cannot forget what they saw from 1986."
Keralites are so obsessed with Maradona that the local government declared two days of mourning after his death in 2020.
And following Argentina’s victory in the 2022 World Cup, it looks like Lionel Messi will have a similar effect on the current generation. A magician with the ball at his feet, pundits and critics alike acknowledge him as the best footballer in decades and perhaps the greatest to ever play the game.
Messi evokes the same feelings as Maradona used to, said Chowdhury. "He is called the 'shadow of Maradona'," he said.
"Messi is different from all footballers. [He] does not step on the field to subdue his opponents, he does so to enhance the world. And that’s not something many footballers can do," he added.
"After Maradona, there is Messi."
"As a football lover, Argentina is the best, Messi is the best. This is in the heart of Bangladeshi football lovers, and we cannot remove this from the heart."
Chowdhury believes that Messi will become even more popular than Maradona because of widespread internet use, which allows millions – perhaps billions – more to see him play than before.
"There was limited TV broadcasting [in 1986]," said Chowdhury. "Now there are many sports channels and the internet. More young people have strong feelings about football, more […] are coming to understand football. So [Messi’s popularity] should be more than Maradona’s."
The love for Argentina runs so deep that neither Taher Chowdhury nor Nizar Ahmed Ansary could decide who they would support if their nation played Argentina.
"If India faced Argentina, everyone [in Kerala] would be neutral. If India wins they will celebrate, if Argentina wins they will celebrate," said Ansary. "They love football because of Argentina, so they will definitely be happy if Argentina wins too.
"But this is a very difficult question, you shouldn’t ask anyone!" he laughed.
Chowdhury also said it would be difficult to pick either Argentina or Bangladesh because both are in his heart.
"I would wave both flags!" he said. "As a football lover, Argentina is the best, Messi is the best. This is in the heart of Bangladeshi football lovers, and we cannot remove this from the heart. But even our nation is also the same – it’s in the heart.
So we love them both – our national team and this Argentina team."
Despite their fervent support, the fans’ passion has not translated onto the pitch.
No country from South Asia has ever played in the World Cup. India was invited to participate in the 1950 tournament in Brazil, but pulled out for unspecified reasons.
India ranks at 106 in the FIFA rankings, while Bangladesh ranks 192. The lack of investment in football makes it extremely difficult for these teams to rise in the global rankings, according to experts.
Football is predominantly a working-class sport, wrote Vinod K Jose, the executive editor of Indian magazine The Caravan in 2010, and lamented that there was little attention given to spot talent in India. "It is from the streets of the blue – sometimes less than blue–collar suburbs, plantations, and smelly, dirty beaches where the world’s top talents come from," he wrote.
"The class where the football movement should have stronger roots, in the working class and Dalit (lower caste) areas, there are no motivational factors such as a promising career, nutritious food, social security, or fame."
Okay, Kerala-Argentina football bonhomie is getting into next level— Rajaneesh (@vilakudy) December 24, 2022
◘Argentina offers football coaching for children in the state
◘Argentina Ambassador HJ Gobbi to visit Kerala
◘On Friday, a top embassy official visited Kerala House to discuss modalities. pic.twitter.com/CFOkM64du0
But it would be wrong to say there is no football culture in the region. Football dates back centuries, to when it was played among colonial soldiers of the British Empire. South Asia is home to some of the oldest football clubs in the world, such as Wari Club in Dhaka, or Mohun Bagan in India’s Kolkata, both of which were founded in the late 1800s – earlier than Real Madrid in Spain.
"There is a football culture here. There are clubs, there are club tournaments and national tournaments, but our clubs cannot compete at that level," said Chowdhury.
"So the supporters who love football find the best in the world to follow. They like teams that are the best, those that play the nicest, and so they of course like Maradona and Argentina.
"For them when there was Maradona, there was no comparison. Now there is Messi there is no comparison. They are bound to support that person."
Crazy Messi fans in Kerala & Lakshadweep - installed a cutout on the beautiful coral reefs 100 feet deep near Kavaratti Island ahead of FIFA finals! pic.twitter.com/RejMOpjLIs— Porinju Veliyath (@porinju) December 18, 2022
Come the World Cup, entire neighbourhoods in Kerala and West Bengal in India are painted in the colours of their football teams every time a World Cup comes around.
And Argentine supporters, Ansary said with a hint of pride, are the most active fan group.
"Argentina fans live for Argentina!" he said. "If you ask an Argentina fan who are the 26 players of this squad, they know. […] If you ask them who are the 3 or 4 assistant coaches of Argentina, they know. How many other fans from Brazil, England, Germany or France, know the third assistant coach of their team?"
This fervour was clearly visible this time around when giant cut-outs of Messi were set up in the middle of rivers and villages in Kerala. One was even erected under the sea following Argentina’s World Cup win.
There was similar dedication in Bangladesh. Around 12,000 fans watched a screening of Argentina’s win over Poland in the group stages at Dhaka university in the middle of the night, and tens of thousands celebrated when their team finally lifted the World Cup eighteen days later.
Last Night at Dhaka University, Bangladesh 🇧🇩— 𝐊𝐚𝐢𝐮𝐦 𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐬𝐡𝐢 🇧🇩🌹 (@MonshiKaium) December 19, 2022
Congratulations Argentina, you make us proud
You make us happy😭😍😍🇧🇩🇦🇷❤✌🏆
We love you,,,,#Argentina #bangladesh #Messi𓃵 #ArgentinaVsFrance #Champion #LionelMessi𓃵 # pic.twitter.com/o7XqKEzNkD
This outpouring of joy has been matched by the profound sorrow of the past 36 years, since Maradona’s Argentina last won the coveted tournament in 1986. "I remember after the heartbreak in 1990 WC defeat, there were tears and even some suicide attempts," said Chowdhury.
Despite being on the other side of the world and sharing little culture, the fans in South Asia are as passionate as any Argentinian fans. They wear the same colours and sing the same songs, despite not understanding the Spanish lyrics.
"We have two songs. One that everyone sings is the Argentinian song with which they celebrated when the 1986 World Cup – Vamos Vamos, Argentina!" said Ansary, referring to one of the team’s most popular anthems. ‘Let’s go, let’s go Argentina!’
"When it came to the 2022 World Cup, they had their own lyrics and mixed it with Malayalam (the local language) – and that was so fantastic!" he added.
Thousands of Keralans descended on Qatar for the 2022 tournament – many of whom have a strong connection to the country as they live and work in the Gulf state.
This led to the spread of misinformation when media reports falsely claimed that many Keralans pictured supporting their teams were 'fake fans' paid for by Doha in an attempt to con the western world into believing there was a fan culture in Qatar.
Both the Qatari government and Keralans reacted angrily to these claims, and highlight that there is little knowledge of football's massive fanbase in South Asia.
The global nature of football has earned it millions of fans in the region. The beauty of this sport is that it is for everyone, said Ansary, and that one can support a team despite having no visible connection to it.
"There is no religion, no culture, no gender, nothing in football," he said. "Everyone can enjoy it."
Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a staff journalist at The New Arab. He has experience in writing, photography, design, and data journalism, and focuses on culture, history, human rights and conflict resolution in India and South Asia.
Follow him on Twitter: @aliabbasahmadi2