Russia opens its doors to the world

A replica of FIFA World Cup is seen ahead of the event in Moscow, Russia.

A replica of FIFA World Cup is seen ahead of the event in Moscow, Russia.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup promises to be as intriguing as any of its past 20 avatars, with Germany, chasing a record-equalling fifth title, all set to defend its crown.

Since Russia's announcement as the host of the 2018 edition – 2481 days back (December 2, 2010) – headlines have often veered from football, with security, racism, corruption and the technological invasion (read: Video Assistant Referee) dominating the early dialogue. The shroud of impropriety that hung over Russia's World Cup bid and the country's well-documented problem with surveillance and human rights, and its deteriorating relationship with the West, which sparked the threat of a boycott, seem to have been set aside, for now. The world's largest nation is ready to open its door to welcome 736 players and more than 600,000 foreign fans.

The hosts are sparing no effort — an integrated network, accessible by a unique fan ID, offers match ticket-holders free entry into Russian territory and intra- and inter-city transport, while 11 Fan Fests in iconic locations of the host cities – with music, food and beverage in abundance – promise a month-long carnival.

The on-field action, which will witness gladiatorial battles, should be as riveting, where unheralded players jostle for space with the galacticos of the game. Germany, with the fourth youngest squad in the tournament, will look to emerge unscathed from the relatively easier Group F, where it has Mexico, Sweden and South Korea for company.

Joachim Low, after successfully guiding a young German side — missing many of its key men — to the Confederations Cup title last summer, has the chance to emulate Italian Vittorio Pozzo, the only coach to win back-to-back World Cups. The Old Master coached the Azzurri in 1934 and '38. Sadly, Italy has failed to qualify for the 2018 edition, bringing an end to an unrestricted run that began in 1962.

Brazil, forever the crowd favourite at any neutral venue across the globe, breezed through the hazardous South American qualification, but persistent doubt over Neymar's full recovery from a metatarsal injury casts a shadow on its progress. The 26-year-old scored six goals in 14 matches in the qualifiers but has not played a competitive game since March. He, however, scored in the 2-0 win over Croatia in a friendly on June 3.

His former Barcelona teammate, Lionel Messi, will again fight a battle with the growing shadow of Diego Maradona’s 1986 legacy. After three final failures, including the 2014 World Cup, Messi, now 30, is eager to set his record straight with Argentina, which is yet to win a major international honour since its Copa America success in 1992. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has failed to replicate his club form with Barcelona at the international stage.

Jorge Sampaoli, who led Chile to the 2015 Copa title, needs to find a cohesive shape and offer his captain the best support, something many a former Argentine manager has failed to do despite an abundance of talent.

Spain, sparkling once again during the qualifying campaign and its 6-1 drubbing of Argentina in a recent friendly, will find it hard to recover from the unnecessary controversy surrounding Julen Lopetegui, who was sacked on Tuesday following his appointment as the Real Madrid manager. The Spanish capital club's haste in announcing Zinedine Zidane's replacement has caused irreparable damage to the 2010 champion, looking for redemption after its disastrous Brazilian campaign.

Belgium's golden generation, hitting its prime, and Gareth Southgate's England, trying to break clear of the country's long-ball football philosophy, also have the wherewithal to mount a challenge but only if fortune sides with them.

The World Cup, of course, will be more colourful and noisy with the invasion of Iceland's Viking thunderclaps which first made its appearance during Euro 2016. The debutants – Iceland and Panama – perhaps can weave a fairytale. Or the likes of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamad Salah, who is expected to miss Egypt's first game against Uruguay, and Frenchman Antoine Griezmann – through sheer individual brilliance – can draw the neutrals to their side.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 9:10:55 AM |

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