Roll over Neymar, and meet Kerala’s 60-year-old football star James PH

The sky is the limit.
The sky is the limit.
Image: Reuters/Sivaram V
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Even cricket-crazy India hasn’t escaped the football world cup fever. Fans are glued to screens, many reportedly even skipping work and school to watch matches.

But a little corner of the country is so obsessed with the game that even local authorities are riding the wave. The government of the southern coastal state of Kerala has launched a promotional video wooing tourists to the football haven.

Counterintuitively, the video, Soccer At 60, features a bunch of elderly locals who still follow and play the game as passionately as they did decades ago.

The campaign’s star is James PH, a 60-year-old truck-driver. A native of the thickly forested hill district of Wayanad, James was part of a star local team in the 1980s. But he still plays with the young footballers of his village almost every day, sometimes in his red kit and cleats and sometimes in lungi, a piece of colourful cloth wrapped around one’s waist.

“Though I might lack a bit in speed, I play the entire match with them,” he says in Malayalam. Bald and with a thick white moustache, James is seen dribbling the ball, chesting, and kicking it with the nimbleness of a 22-year-old, with a dark and overcast monsoon sky forming the backdrop. Wondering where he gets all the energy from? A handful of groundnuts eaten every day is the secret, he says.

As the camera pans over the lush green surroundings, viewers are introduced to some of James’s old teammates. Today, they’re small-time shop-owners and tailors, but their first love remains strong. Together, they even play matches, often barefoot, in the sand.

Recalling their prime, James says it is a lot easier today for football fans. “We would walk kilometres to catch a world cup match on a small black and white TV. Today, every little town has so many big screens for the public,” he says.

As James and his team’s story suggests, the craze for football isn’t a new phenomenon in Kerala. But it has grown over the years. Messi, Neymar, and Ronaldo are part of a pantheon of demigods here. Fans even paint their homes and vehicles in Argentinian and Brazilian colours. There are movies dedicated to the game and thousands descend upon stadiums every time the local team, the Kerala Blasters, is in the fray.

Kerala is one of the two such football bastions in India, the other being West Bengal, particularly Kolkata, which also goes into a frenzy over the game.

In any case, this isn’t the first time Kerala Tourism has used the state’s many quirks to welcome tourists. Last year, it released the award-winning “A Room with a View” campaign, which featured just a window to the state’s multicultural, multi-religious nature. There were Argentinian jerseys in that one, too. Kerala Tourism’s tagline, God’s Own Country, itself has caught the fancy of natives and non-natives alike for years.