Neymar celebrates scoring Brazil’s first goal from the penalty spot against Uruguay during an international friendly at the Emirates Stadium, London, on November 16, 2018. This will be Neymar’s third World Cup and his best chance to scale the podium. Image Credit: Reuters

Whom are you backing at the World Cup? I’m rooting for Brazil, as always. They are my favourite football team. Moreover, India won’t be there in Qatar; they have never been at a World Cup although they did qualify in 1950.

Why Brazil? Why not back Germany, England, Spain or any other nation? The answer is simple: If you are from the south Indian state of Kerala, you support either Brazil or Argentina. There is a smattering of support for Portugal due to Cristiano Ronaldo. Spain have some following after their World Cup and Euro wins wrought by the golden generation, including Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, and Andres Iniesta. The support for other nations are far too insignificant.

Why do Keralites cheer for Brazil and Argentina? Highly successful football teams tend to gain supporters worldwide. This is why you find Manchester United supporters in Japan and Chelsea fans in the football-crazy Kerala district of Malappuram.

Kerala’s love for Brazil and Argentina

That still doesn’t explain a Keralite’s affinity for Brazil or Argentina, since the Latin American teams haven’t been successful recently. The love for Argentina owes to the genius of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. I love them and their incredible skill, but I prefer Brazil. And for me, Pele is the greatest footballer.

I have backed Brazil at every World Cup. Even their recent lack of success haven’t deterred me. Brazil have won the World Cup a record five times, but the South Americans have had only two wins in 30 years. And the last win was 20 years ago. So what?

Many countries haven’t made it to the tournament since the World Cup’s inception in 1930, let alone win. England, the home of football, have little to show other than the 1996 triumph. The Netherlands, the land of Total Football guru Johan Cruyff, merely have two runners-up medals. Brazil’s five wins top everything.

Brazil practice
Brazil’s Eder Militao, Raphinha and teammates train at the Juventus Center in Turin, Italy, on November 14, 2022, in preparation for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

My passion for Brazil goes beyond their success. I had seen them win the World Cup only twice, but I fell in love with their game much before their 1994 triumph. It was in 1982; I remember it clearly since that was the year television came into my life. It was also the year Spain hosted Espana 82.

The black-and-white telecast was grainy, but I vividly remember Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao and others working magic on the football pitch. There were no brutal punts and no long crosses. The moves had an ethereal quality: with deft touches, the Brazilians drew arcs and angles on the field. With swift short passes, the Brazilians spun a web around their rivals. They were such a joy to watch.

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My joy was shortlived. The Samba boys were ousted from the World Cup by Paulo Rossi, the Italian who shrugged off a betting scandal and subsequent ban to slam a hat-trick. Sheer injustice, I thought. After all, Italy hadn’t won a single league game; they drew all and progressed narrowly on goal difference. Rossi scored in the semifinal and final, helping Azzurri captain Dino Zoff to sign off on a triumphant note.

Socrates and Zico, two of the greatest attacking midfielders, figured in the Mexico World Cup four years later, but they were past their best. Brazil’s quarterfinal loss was more remembered for the misses of Socrates and Zico from the penalty spot. Zico fluffed it during regulation time and Socrates in the tie-breaker. France won despite Michel Platini driving his spot-kick over the bar.

The successors of Zico and Socrates

I digress. The team of 1982 went on to be called the best Brazilian squad never to have won the World Cup. The quality of the squad coached by Tele Santana drew comparisons with the 1970 squad that helped Brazil and Pele win their third World Cup. But critics dismiss such comparisons since the 1982 team had a weaker defence and lacked the cutting edge upfront.

None of that has dimmed my passion for Brazil. They remain firm favourites for me in Qatar, although their last two World Cup campaigns came to grief. The Brazilian press blames it on Neymardependência (Neymar dependency). This time around, there is more than just Neymar. There’s Raphinha, Vinícius Júnior, Richarlison, Lucas Paquetá, Alisson Becker, Casemiro and many more. An exciting bunch, really

I just can’t wait to see them in Qatar. It’s Samba time again.