All systems go as the Beautiful Games begin
SOCCER will have the world spellbound for the next four weeks.
The Fifa 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia today – and, as happens every four years with this global spectacle, in every nook and cranny an audience of billions will be bewitched by every touch and pass, and seduced by the intensity of the emotions from the unfolding drama.
Hosts Russia get the tournament under way in a Group A clash against minnows Saudi Arabia (kick-off 5pm) – and by the time the event finishes on July 15 we will have been through 64 matches, with 32 teams in action, in 12 stadia across the length and breadth of Russia.
And just for last-minute extra spice, Spain, one of the hot favourites, yesterday sensationally sacked their coach, Julen Lopetegui, just two days before their mouthwatering game against Portugal tomorrow.
The allure of the World Cup, and the reason why it captures the imagination, has its roots in football’s simplicity, in its appeal to the common man.
There’s football on every patch of grass, sand or tar – in every corner of the world, they’re playing this sport well-known for the enduring sobriquet of “the beautiful game”.
Defending champions Germany will once again be the leading candidates to hold the trophy aloft in a month’s time. They have four World Cup titles (1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014) – and looking at the awe-inspiring squad they’ve put together, a heady blend of youth and experience, it’s easy to understand why the Germans are favourites.
But Brazil, Spain, France and Argentina are primed to give Germany a run for their money. Brazil undoubtedly look far better than they did at the 2014 event when they crashed out after a 7-1 hammering by Germany. Defensively, the South Americans are more organised and structured – and as the only country to have won the World Cup five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002), they will be keen to win again.
The squad is a veritable feast of talent, including master magician Neymar, the brilliant Coutinho and the tricky Willian, and they are certainly poised to shine in Russia.
The world’s best player, Lionel Messi, carries on his slight shoulders the hopes of Argentina. The Barcelona star hasn’t always reproduced his club form at international level – but this is his last chance to chisel his name among the greats who have won football’s most coveted trophy.
France have probably the most gifted squad at this year’s tournament, while Spain will be keen to emulate their World Cup success of South Africa 2010.
Of the others, Belgium, Columbia and Uruguay have to be mentioned as possible upsets, while perennial under-achievers England, despite a strong, talented squad, are likely to be found wanting again.
The African challenge will come from Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. The continent, despite its wealth of talent, has never managed to qualify a team beyond the quarter-finals.
The three countries to have sneaked into the last eight are Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). This time, Egypt, with the inspirational Mohamed Salah leading the attack, and a highly talented Senegal, with Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, probably have the best chance of getting out of the group stages.
AFTER 210 teams entered the tournament – including debuts for Bhutan, South Sudan, Gibraltar and Kosovo – 872 matches, 2 454 goals and the attendance of 18 720 691 supporters during the qualification stages, the final 32 nations will participate in the Fifa World Cup 2018 in Russia from today.
Over the next four weeks, culminating in the final on July 15, teams will battle each other to hold aloft the Fifa World Cup Trophy.
They will look inward during times of strife to find greatness, experience the agony of defeat, celebrate the grandeur of greatness achieved and the jubilation of victory. In the 12 host stadiums, spread across the vast steppes of 11 Russian cities, the world’s greatest current players – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Andrés Iniesta and Neymar, to name but a few – and the nations they represent – Brazil, Germany, Spain and France among the favourites – will rediscover the emotions that truly define mankind and make us all great. Let’s for a moment forget about the controversies that surround the tournament – from Fifa’s corrupt bidding process that marred the early days of Russia’s participation, the now almost constant threat of terrorism at such an event and the manoeuvrings of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his government which seeks to redefine geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe – and take joy in the virtuosity that will be on display in the coming month.
Indeed, the World Cup transcends all those travails and has the power to bring us all together. As Clint Smith, American poet and author, said: “The beauty of the World Cup is that while 32 countries get to cheer for their respective teams, the event also affirms a global pluralism – it is as much a festival of cultural multiplicity as it is a competition featuring some of the best athletes in the world.”
And the athletes that have contributed to the myth that has become the World Cup are themselves legends. From Pele to Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff to Zinedine Zidane, Roger Milla and Didier Drogba, each has left their indelible mark, through their rousing victories and abject defeats.
In the coming weeks, who is to know which new hero will emerge to stand upon the echelons of the beautiful game.
To our African neighbours who will participate in the event – Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia – we wish you the best of luck and our support.
Do the continent proud and make it a showpiece to remember.
Colombia’s fans cheer near Red Square in the centre of Moscow, Russia, yesterday. The Fifa World Cup 2018 begins in Russia today.
Supporters of the Egyptian national soccer team cheer during a gathering near Red Square on the eve of the World Cup.