The FIFA World Cup in Qatar continues to raise a dust of unpredictability. The nerve-wracking dance of fancied teams be it in triumph or defeat and the soul-uplifting flight of the underdog have all shimmered under Qatari skies. Football remains the greatest sport and over a fortnight, the ballet between twirling feet and the ball has caught global attention despite the footprints of a waning pandemic or the devastation of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Qatar has managed to host this mega-event with minimal fuss even if whispers of human rights violations during the construction of the various stadiums continue to linger. That sport cannot be oblivious to the circumstances prevailing outside the grounds was emphasised when the Iranian men remained silent during the rendering of the national anthem ahead of their game. This act of solidarity with the women fighting for equal rights back home, comes at a time when many athletes are wary of taking a political stance. The World Cup has come a long way from the inaugural edition in 1930 when host Uruguay emerged as the champion after defeating Argentina. That Uruguay crashed out now while Argentina remains alive, is another pointer to sporting evolution. The trope of South American and European nations being football’s bulwarks is also changing.
The African and Asian nations believe that they are here to compete and not make up the numbers. The exposure to the European leagues, the prevalence of a solid grass-roots structure and adequate coaching expertise have all combined to lend bite to the efforts of Morocco, Senegal, Japan and South Korea. The quartet entered the pre-quarterfinals and kept the African and Asian flags flying high. Meanwhile, it is a sobering reality that India has never qualified for the World Cup. Sunil Chhetri’s men and the units that succeed them may launch a tilt at football’s ultimate championship. The 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico will feature 48 teams, a significant increase from the current 32 and whether India, ranked 106, will qualify through an enhanced Asian quota, remains to be seen. But for now in a World Cup with its focus on Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and an injured Neymar, maximum thrills have emerged from Asian and African boots. Even if Cameroon did not qualify, it defeated Brazil, as did Saudi Arabia which dished out a similar fate to Argentina during the initial phase. South Korea’s incredible 2-1 win over Portugal just as the group stage concluded is the perfect interlude as the World Cup’s business-end begins.