Vantage point

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Typology of the Indian Fan in the context of the FIFA World Cup.

I don't really follow soccer*. So I don't know much about soccer. But I follow a lot of Indian soccer fans. I view them with mild amusement mixed with scientific curiosity. I study them. I try to find patterns in their bizarrely enthusiastic behavior. And I love doing pop-socio and pop-psych analysis of their behavior and their attitudes towards a game where India ranks even lower than countries smaller than my apartment building in Pune.

So I present here a typology of the Indian Fan in the context of the upcoming World Cup. The typology is arranged according to which country they support or bet on to lift the cup.

BRAZIL: This one is a no-brainer really, so let's get it out of the way. Everyone loves Brazil. It's a country that has won the cup the most often. They always have some of the best players, a style of play which is considered exciting, and wear really eye-catching yellow-and-green colors. So even someone with or without the most rudimentary knowledge of the game feels comfortable saying "Brazil of course!" when someone asks "Which team do you support?" It's like picking the Patriots at the beginning of the NFL season.

But it goes beyond just how good the team is on average (here comes the pop-socio and pop-psych). Brazil is "nice". Brazil is "safe". Other than soccer, what is Brazil associated with? Carnivals, pretty people, beaches, being part of the fashionable BRIC block, and again, carnivals. If countries were brands, Brazil would be like Linux - not really that relevant to your life but easy to love. It's the kind of country that if you visit as an Indian, you expect to love.

So might as well support them. Plus they are the hosts this time. Western media is being mean to them just like they were mean to India in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They have messy social inequality issues just like us. Yes, Brazil is safe to support.

BEST 2 EUROPEAN UNION TEAMS: At any given time, at least 2 of the 3 objectively best teams in the world are from the EU. So the self-proclaimed "knowledgeable" soccer fan from India will be telling anyone willing to listen that one of those two teams is SURE to win. One of the two is always ALWAYS Germany. And the other is some country whose economy Germany has bailed out or will be bailing out soon. Right now it's Spain. A decade ago, it was France. In between, Italy took a break from electing Caligula-esque Prime Ministers to occupy that spot.

So Germany and "Another EU country" are the best bets for Indian soccer pundits who want to set themselves apart from the bandwagon Brazil supporters and maintain a chance for gloating when the dust settles.

ARGENTINA: Ah, Argentina! The most bizarre underdog-favorite combinations in the history of sport. I say this because some of my friends who support Argentina are genuinely convinced that Argentina is THE best team, regardless of the FIFA rankings. These verbose justifications start with "Messi is...." and then meander into incomprehensibility. Other friends supporting Argentina are steadfast about the team's underdog tag. "I always support an underdog, yaar!"

The media helps in whipping up support for Argentina too, given that Argentina is to FIFA what Notre Dame is to college football in America. Every damn year when the college football starts, there will be pundits in the media saying "OH NOTRE DAME HAS A FINE FINE TEAM THIS YEAR!". Most years, they stay in the rankings for three weeks before dropping out. Once in a couple of decades, in the vein of a stopped clock being right twice a day, Notre Dame will indeed have a great season. And then the pundits preen. And Hollywood makes an atrociously weepy movie starring a hobbit. But I ramble.    

So it goes with Argentina. Call it the continuing halo effect of bad boy Maradona. Or maybe the current halo effect of some guy named Messi who's done diddly-squat in two World Cups, but apparently does great in domestic soccer matches in Europe.

HOLLAND: The Dutch team is for true-blue underdog supporters. Again, I don't know much about soccer. But from what I am told, this team has choked more times than the South African cricket team, the 1990s Buffalo Bills, and Ivan Lendl combined. Which makes them particularly alluring for people who just love supporting an underdog in the faint hope that they will be proven right. Last time, these fans were rewarded by having to wait as long as the finals to have their hearts broken.

But still, for these folks, it is HUP HOLLAND HUP. A friend of mine says that the bright orange jerseys appeal to the latent Hindutva tendencies in some Indian fans, but we'll put a pin in that for now.

ANOTHER EU TEAM: The previous four categories take care of 90% of Indian soccer fans. Which brings us to self-proclaimed "knowledgeable" fans of the game who don't like being lumped with the conventional wisdom. They need to cogently claim that a different underdog is actually going to take home the cup, but the heathen masses are too blinded by media tropes to see it. So they pick a team which is ranked somewhere from 4th to 8th in the FIFA rankings and which has a player they have watched in one of the domestic soccer leagues from Europe.

"Of course it'll be Portugal yaar! That Cristiano Ronaldo I tell you...."

For the last 3 World Cups, the top choice for these people has been Portugal, thanks to this Ronaldo fella. Never mind that he and his team have shown the poor judgment of associating themselves with the New York Jets to practice for the World Cup. That anyone can think that a guy who voluntarily decided to learn something from Rex Ryan has any chance of winning anything shows how little soccer fans know about real football. But I troll. And I digress.

When it's not Portugal, it is some other European country that yes, Germany will also have to bail out.  

ENGLAND: Don't ask me why. Seriously don't. I know very little about soccer but even I know enough to know that the chances of England winning the cup are only negligibly higher than an Indian winning the Olympic 100 meter gold. And yet a few Indians will be steadfast in their support of England.

One guy I knew used to base his support on the supposedly "under-appreciated talents" of David Beckham. This was before Beckham became known as the guy who sells underwear on giant hoardings in Times Square. These days, I suspect the support for England is driven by the fact that so many Indians spend so much money on low quality made-in-Bangladesh jerseys of teams from the EPL, that they feel obliged to go all the way.

But seriously Indian supporters of England soccer, what are the chances that an England cricket team will win an ICC title AND a notionally English guy will win the Wimbledon AND England will win the FIFA World Cup, all within 5 years?

USA: The only Indians who support the US are a) Indians who live in the US, and b) follow only cricket and/or American sports. Yes, this includes me, ok? The rest of the time, we are happy with our WillowTV subscription, our NFL fantasy football leagues, out March madness brackets, our opinions on LeBron and the Heat, our love or hate for the Yankees or the Red Sox. We look at MLS ads and go "lulz". We see European soccer matches on our cable guide menu and go "WTF?".

But then once every four years, this damn World Cup thing comes along. And everyone is talking about it. Not just CNN, who will usually talk about the most vapid things. So what do we do?


We google furiously to find out who our players are. We try to figure out what the hell "Group of Death" means. We practice our pronunciation of Klinsmann. And we set a countdown clock to the start of the NFL season.

* "SOCCER? IT'S FOOTBALL BRO!!!" you say? Read this.