The World Cup-crazy Kerala village where Messi and Ronaldo are larger than life

Huge cardboard cut-outs of footballing heroes are the stars of perhaps the world's most unlikely tournament fan zone

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World Cup fever is sweeping through a tiny village in the Indian state of Kerala where global superstars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo truly are larger than life.

Thousands of kilometres from the drama in Doha, Pullavoor village comes alive with cheers inside a tent near huge illuminated cutouts of some of the sport's biggest names.

This land of the football giants emerged several weeks ago when cheering Argentina fans, waving blue and white flags, proudly carried a vast cardboard cut-out of their hero Messi.

Wading through chest-deep water, they used ropes and levers to set up the nine-metre high frame on a sliver of land mid-river.

We can’t see the real Messi so we have a big Messi here
Nousheer Nellikkode, Argentina fan

A few days later, a rival fan club took on the challenge and built a 12-metre cut-out of Brazilian striker Neymar on the river bank.

Not to be outdone, the villagers then helped Portugal fans build a 15-metre frame of Cristiano Ronaldo.

News of this most unlikely of football fan zones has spread far and wide, with tens of thousands of football enthusiasts travelling to the village to take selfies with the four-storey- high creation as they stand on a bridge that straddles the Cherupuzha river.

Celebrating the beautiful game

The three large wooden frames have been lit up so fans from neighbouring villages and towns can enjoy the spectacle late into the night.

Nousheer Nellikkode said he and a friend had been quietly planning the homage to Messi for six months but kept his friends and brothers who support rival teams in the dark.

“Even my wife did not know, it was a secret plan and took everyone by surprise,” said the 35-year-old who owns a sports shop in the village and previously worked in Dubai. Many residents have left the village, dotted with rice and banana fields, to work in the UAE and Qatar.

“We love Messi too much, this is for him and Argentina,” he said. “Messi really needs a World Cup win.

“He inspires us, we love the Latin American style and have always been Argentina fans.”

The Kerala native made a 50-metre long Argentina flag for the 2018 World Cup and decided on the cut-out to surpass the earlier effort.

The river was selected as the ideal spot for the gigantic portraits as it borders the ground in which the football enthusiasts play.

A large screen has been set up with more than 500 fans gathering daily for every World Cup game.

Football on the rise

India has a reputation for being cricket crazy but football is the most popular sport in several states, including Kerala.

“In this area it’s only football. I played football with my father and came to this ground since I was two years old and now my daughters also play,” Mr Nellikkode said.

“I would have liked to be in Qatar. We can’t see the real Messi so we have a big Messi here.

Argentina's World Cup hopes got off to a bumpy start on Tuesday, as Saudi Arabia secured a shock 2-1 win in their opening Group C match.

“It’s really a heartbreaking time,” Mr Nellikkode said. “I’m very sad now. But I still believe we will win. Today we were just unlucky.”

It is an extra special World Cup for the Kerala locals as most people share the excitement in Qatar as they watch videos posted by friends and family from the games.

“This is first World Cup that most Keralites will be watching live,” said Muhammad Ali, a civil engineer and the long-time Brazil fan who put up the Neymar cut-out.

“My friends and classmates in Qatar are lucky. They will not bother about work or how much it costs for tickets, their only wish is to watch the World Cup.”

Smaller images of World Cup trophies to signify wins — five for Brazil and two for Argentina — have been secured with ropes in front of the football stars' images.

The three enormous cutouts have even caught the attention of Fifa officials, who tweeted a photograph portraying “World Cup fever” in Kerala.

The frames have also drawn criticism, however. One Pullavoor resident petitioned civic authorities to demand the removal of the images, claiming they have obstructed the flow of the water and polluted the river.

But state authorities rejected the plea, standing by the fans with a tweet on how football gives joy and “unites people across countries and languages”.

Fans in many Kerala villages and towns have painted their homes with “home team” colours and decorated walls with the flags of Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, England and Germany.

“Every village has football fever, outside some homes I even saw flags of Japan,” said Mr Ali.

“We watch every match — Premier and Champions League, every club and national game.

“We celebrate every World Cup. This time it’s in the Middle East so it feels closer. Everyone can watch easily because it’s the same time zone.”

Free chicken for Argentina triumph

A restaurant owner from Kondungallur, a neighbouring town has promised a specially prepared biryani for all if Argentina are crowned world champions.

'Kuzhimanthi' is the Malayalam word for the southern Indian twist to a popular Arab rice and chicken dish slow-cooked in an underground clay pit.

Yadil Iqbal distributed the dish to 360 people last year as he rejoiced when Argentina ended a drought to beat Brazil and win the Copa America, their first major title in 28 years.

The superfan is now in Qatar to watch his idol play after decorating the outer walls of his restaurant with Messi art and propping up 15 large cutouts as World Cup decor.

“It’s like a drug for me to watch Messi,” said the 26-year-old, on his first trip outside India.

“When Messi scores a goal, it gives me energy and happiness.

“After Copa, I gave the mandi [special biryani] free, now I have announced the offer again because I know Argentina will win.

“It is a dream of each and every football fan to watch the World Cup live and mine has come true.”

Updated: November 23, 2022, 1:18 PM