All sys­tems go as the Beau­ti­ful Games be­gin

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE - Rod­ney Rein­ers

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.

PIC­TURE: EPA-EFE

Colom­bia’s fans cheer near Red Square in the cen­tre of Moscow, Rus­sia, yes­ter­day. The Fifa World Cup 2018 be­gins in Rus­sia to­day.

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

Sup­port­ers of the Egyp­tian na­tional soc­cer team cheer dur­ing a gath­er­ing near Red Square on the eve of the World Cup.

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