Rus­sia rocks world foot­ball

We’re a tad shy of next year’s great­est show on earth, but Swiss watch­maker Hublot is al­ready an­gling for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Rus­sia to be the best yet.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Trends - By N. RAMA LOHAN star2@thes­

AND there we were, fol­low­ing the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, lis­ten­ing to the winds of change ... .

Well, much of it, any­way ... fol­low­ing the lyrics of the Scor­pi­ons’ power bal­lad. But Hublot’s rock­et­ship ride into the un­der­bel­lies of foot­ball’s leadup to next year’s great­est show on earth, was a highly dra­matic one for the party of three at the re­cent Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup in Moscow.

We made the news, ap­par­ently ... lug­gage “hickup” at Heathrow meant we (two Malaysian writ­ers and our Hublot rep) were left deal­ing with the nerve-wrack­ing pos­si­bil­ity of not be­ing in our own clothes for a few days.

We’ll say it again, though ... we met Pele. And it was all worth it. The man has ab­so­lutely dom­i­nated the World Cup like no other. Diego Maradona can al­ways claim to be the sin­gle most bril­liant player to have kicked a ball and who dom­i­nated a tour­na­ment, but Ed­son Arantes do Nasci­mento did it over three cham­pi­onships.

And him be­ing a re­ally hum­ble leg­end – all is as good as what has been writ­ten or heard about him ... and “seen”, th­ese days. But he was sim­ply all that. He walked with a cane and the aid of his min­der ... who looked a little like a lean Mike Tyson. And Pele did it all with a smile and grace that is hum­bling.

He en­ter­tained all our (jour­nal­ists from Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore, In­done­sia and Viet­nam) ques­tions for 20 solid min­utes. No ques­tion was barred. Like how he had done so, he agreed no player could dom­i­nate world foot­ball like that again be­cause play­ers’ club com­mit­ments now out­weigh their na­tional duty, with a keen in­ter­est al­ways on eco­nom­ics.

“Be­fore, peo­ple fo­cus more on the game. Now, all the big in­vest­ment in clothes, shoes and foot­ball equip­ment has be­come part of the busi­ness. But most im­por­tantly, foot­ball is a sport that brings peo­ple to­gether. Un­for­tu­nately, some­one has to pay the bill,” said the 76-year-old.

There is hope, though, in greater ini­tia­tives like that of the Swiss watch maker’ s Hub lot loves foot­ball cam­paign, ex­em­pli­fied at the last two World Cups, the Eu­ros since 2008, and the Cham­pi­ons and Europa leagues since 2015. Af­ter all, a foot­baller of Pele’s re­pute is not go­ing to place his name or mug next to a prod­uct or en­deav­our that doesn’t ben­e­fit the game.

“I have a lot of pro­pos­als ... for beer, al­co­hol. But th­ese are not good for the sport or peo­ple, so that’s why I don’t ac­cept them. Hublot tries to sup­port the sport, and the sport is im­por­tant for the life of the peo­ple and chil­dren. So, that’s why I ac­cepted it,” Pele of­fered, all of which can only mean the beau­ti­ful game should reach out to a larger au­di­ence, and bring the world closer to­gether.

Rock around the clock

As a city, Moscow shows the kind of prom­ise FIFA has placed faith in. For a laugh, un­for­tu­nately, na­ture de­cided to in­ter­vene and turn sum­mer into its cold­est in 60 years. The light­ning show was fright­ful and there was this per­sis­tent doom of the sky open­ing up at any time, and like clock­work (par­don the pun), it did. It poured when Pele, Hublot’s CEO Ri­cardo Guadalupe and se­lected guests, in­clud­ing the great Lev Yashin’s widow, Valentina, and for­mer Rus­sian cap­tain Alexei Smertin, were at the Hublot count­down clock, which started the count­down less than a year from 2018’s sport­ing ex­trav­a­ganza.

A cou­ple of touch­ing scenes luck­ily warmed the at­mos­phere as Valentina pre­sented Pele a lam­i­nated pass and he, in re­turn, handed her a framed pic­ture of him and Yashin, his great­est goal­keep­ing neme­sis, at the World Cup.

Leav­ing it to the weather, the cap­i­tal’s peo­ple didn’t seem the warm­est be­yond the or­gan­is­ers’ care ... or the ho­tel’s bound­aries.

As a piece of his­tory, how­ever, all our ill-con­ceived per­cep­tions are tan­ta­mount to stereo­typ­ing – CCCP and the sickle and ham­mer on the Soviet Union player’s jersey, the goose-step marches of its armed forces, and of course, the stun­ningly gor­geous St Basil’s Cathe­dral in the Krem­lin.

Down by the river ...

But there we were, again, fol­low­ing the Moskva (pro­nounced Muskva) ... and the Luzh­niki Sta­dium loomed, with the ham­mer and sickle pow­er­fully em­bla­zoned at its en­trance, re­mind­ing us un­flinch­ingly of the na­tion’s foot­balling pas­sion, eas­ily at­tested to in its global in­ter­est, what with the 2008 Cham­pion’s League final see­ing Manch­ester United vic­tors there. The ac­tion for the open­ing game, though, was in St Peters­burg. But al­most like a freak of na­ture, another de­ba­cle un­folded at the do­mes­tic air­port, where be­ing late for the cur­tain raiser was a real prospect be­cause of sneak­ily in­com­pe­tent air­port staff. Af­ter sweat­ing it out for half an hour, the port city beck­oned.

Here comes the sun ...

St Peters­burg is ev­ery­thing Moscow isn’t. The ar­chi­tec­ture, for one, is more Euro­pean, un­like Moscow, which is more Rus­sian. The cul­ture cap­i­tal also ex­hibits its in­dus­trial past. A guide re­vealed that an­cient wooden roads were dis­cov­ered be­neath some streets not long ago, struc­tures which saw ac­tive use in the 11th and 12th cen­turies, trivia that eas­ily gen­er­ated an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­trigue.

With its sun­shine and eye-catch­ing wa­ter­ways, St Peters­burg is eas­ily the more at­trac­tive propo­si­tion. The “cli­mate” here seemed more pro-tourism; it just felt like folk here are more ac­cus­tomed to deal­ing with peo­ple from else­where.

The balmi­ness seemed ideal for the open­ing game, in which the host na­tion took on Ocea­nia cham­pi­ons New Zealand. Watch­ing paint dry might have been more ex­cit­ing, given the poor qual­ity of the match, in which Rus­sia won 2-0, but a high­light was wit­ness­ing the na­tion’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin, give his wel­come speech. The lan­guage was alien to us, but Putin has a pres­ence and power that’s sim­ply po­tent.

Time to play

Like­wise, Hublot. The time­piece maker is ev­ery­where th­ese days, seen on the wrists of some of the great­est sports peo­ple and celebri­ties, ev­ery­one from Manch­ester United’s Jose Mour­inho to fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt.

There’s good rea­son why th­ese peo­ple have cho­sen to em­brace horol­ogy the Hublot way – style and class don’t come in many other guises. And its re­cent open­ing of the Metropol Bou­tique in Moscow will flash its name even brighter and cater to a grow­ing life­style-con­scious pop­u­lace.

How­ever, with an eye on the 2018 Rus­sia World Cup, at­ten­tion will largely be fo­cused on foot­ball.

“From the last World Cup (2014), we’ve had the shape of the watch as the ref­eree board. We had 21 min­utes of vis­i­bil­ity in the tour­na­ment, mean­ing that we touched bil­lions of peo­ple,” ex­plained Guadalupe, ef­fec­tively jus­ti­fy­ing Hublot’s om­nipres­ence.

The Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup may have reached a pre­dictable con­clu­sion with Ger­many run­ning out win­ners, but there’s plenty of foot­ball to come ... and Hublot will be count­ing down every step of the way.

Hublot’s Clock Count­down to the Rus­sia 2018 World Cup at The Red Square is ob­served by (back row from left) for­mer Rus­sian foot­baller Smertin, Pele and Hublot CEO Guadalupe. — Hublot

If one sin­gle im­age rep­re­sents Rus­sia, this has to be it ... St Basil’s Cathe­dral in the Krem­lin. — N. RAMA LOHAN/The Star

Putin’s wel­come speech was heard at the St Peters­burg Sta­dium as Rus­sian and Kiwi play­ers prime them­selves for the open­ing game at the 2018 Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup.

— N. RAMA LOHAN/The Star

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