Russia 2018: Impossible to play Nostradamus games!

Russia is all set to host the World Cup for the first time.

Three footballs lie in front of Argentina ace Lionel Messi, perhaps symbolic of the three title-less World Cups he has taken part in. This is the living legend’s fourth and possibly last attempt to win the most coveted prize in world football.   -  AFP

Performers, trying to express the complications and joys of life through a shared enterprise, need an audience. The play is unfinished without the assemblage as they are as important as anyone else.

The quadrennial FIFA World Cup provides the stars as well as unheralded players of 32 nations the platform to ply their trade in front of more than a billion eyeballs. Reputations will be built, broken or repaired with 736 players trying their best to outdo each other, as the world tunes in from Moscow and Madras and Madagascar.

The 2014 Brazil World Cup had a global television audience of 3.2 billion and in-stadia attendance of 3,429,873 for 64 games. Another 280 million watched matches online or on a mobile device.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Full coverage

For many, football is more than a sport and is perhaps the ultimate cultural countenance. While the cognition of national representation is not unique to the game, the World Cup enkindles an ardent, fervid and sacred following that dwarfs everything else.

“The joy that people have of watching their country play at the World Cup, and the excitement and the passion that it elicits are something that no other event — be it in the field of sports, entertainment or politics — in the world can match,” United States midfielder Michael Bradley, who has played in two World Cups, says.

The World Cup also transcends national boundaries as large swathes of the globe, without a participation, adopt one among the 32 countries.

“If Football is nothing more than 22 men kicking the leather sphere all over the place, then Hamlet is so much ink on paper and violin is nothing more than a piece of wood with some strings attached to it,” Nirmal Shekar eloquently wrote in The Sportstar in 1986.

WC: KNOW YOUR TEAMS

The 21st edition of the tournament, scheduled to bring the world to a standstill between June 14 and July 15, will see Russia play host for the first time as the event travels through 12 stadiums, 11 cities, four time zones and two continents.

It’s fiendishly impossible to zero in on a winner and many a clairvoyant animal — Paul the Octopus or Nelly the Elephant — and data-crunching bookmaker have failed in their quest to seek the champion. While science picks Brazil and the punter rolls with Germany (7-4 favourite), Achilles the Russian physic cat, too, has applied his powers as we wait for the kick-off.

 

Sportstar, however, well aware of its limitations, has decided to stay away from anointing a favourite. But, like every battle, Russia 2018, too, has only a handful of teams — bulked by its mega stars — enjoying any realistic chance of winning the coveted 6.1kg trophy.

“This World Cup may surprise us, my favourites are Brazil and Spain, but some other teams are also good, like France, Germany and Argentina,” Alessandro Del Piero, part of Italy’s 2006 title-winning squad, says.

The former forward’s preference, Brazil, after playing years of dour football, looks unshackled under the leadership of Tite, marrying individual flair with greater organisational discipline. The team has conceded just five goals in its past 20 matches, since the 57-year-old took charge in June 2016.

The five-time world champion comfortably topped the CONMEBOL qualification, but the lingering doubt over Neymar’s fitness casts a shadow on the progress of the South Americans, who have been placed in a difficult group with tough-tackling teams like Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica. A Neymar-less Brazil looked rudderless four years ago in the semifinals in Belo Horizonte. It lost 7-1 to Germany.

Germany, the defending champion, still benefiting from its restructured youth development programme, begun in 2002, has one of the youngest squads in the tournament (average age 27.1) and manager Joachim Loew, who has recently signed a contract extension till 2020, has an array of talent to pick from despite keeping Leroy Sane out of his final squad.

Germany, however, suffers from a lack of ruthlessness upfront as Thomas Muller shows signs of slowing after lighting up the past two World Cups. Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and the veteran Mario Gomez (Stuttgart) fail to inspire much confidence in the international arena, but the national team’s bull run in major tournaments holds Loew’s boys in good stead. The manager won the Confederations Cup a year back without most of his senior men.

Spain, too, will be another European contender, while Belgium, France and England — boasting young, creative talent — can make a dash if fortune sides with them.

La Roja, which redefined how the world should play football post its EURO 2008 success, starts its campaign with the Iberian derby against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Julen Lopetegui — taking advantage of his superior wing-backs and a bullying forward in Diego Costa — has introduced a more attacking, direct approach to Spain, moving away from its passive possession-based, horizontal passing game.

 

The top three European leagues account for 37 per cent of the selected players while England’s Gareth Southgate is the only manager to have picked 23 home-based players.

England, the current under-17 and under-20 world champion, is on a quest to alter its footballing DNA and Southgate, bold and brave in leaving Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart out, has introduced an artistic ball-playing game, a welcome departure from the long-ball punt of yesteryear.

For many, however, more intriguing is the battle within, which pits Argentine Lionel Messi against the ever-growing shadow of El Diego’s 1986 legacy.

After three final failures, including the 2014 World Cup, Russia 2018 offers Messi perhaps the last chance to truly establish his credentials as the greatest of all time.

“Every World Cup brings us a lot of good players and surprises. I hope this World Cup will be Messi’s World Cup. Argentina lost the last World Cup final, but Messi deserves to win the honour with his country,” Del Piero says.

Messi, always playing “with a revolver to his head” for the national team, will need manager Jorge Sampaoli to find a suitable playing structure and adequate support from his team-mates. The former Sevilla manager, who led Chile to the 2015 Copa America title, is yet to find a cohesive shape and his predilection to play his wing-backs high might cause his team defensive trouble. Messi’s anxiety to add an international crown is palpable. “I would change a Barcelona title for one with the national team. Winning a title with Argentina would be something unique,” the Barcelona star says. “I have great faith in this group, we are working very well, we have players with a lot of capacity and experience.”

How wide is the goal? The Spain team head coach Julen Lopetegui seems to have the answer. He has also injected some aggression in his team’s approach.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

His Ballon d’Or rival, Ronaldo, perhaps more at ease after helping Portugal to the EURO 2016 crown, will look to improve on his personal performance and add to his tally of three goals in the World Cup. The team, which surprised many to win the EURO in France, will again look to adopt a hard-headed style and bank on Ronaldo’s individual brilliance to extend its stay.

The brigade of neo superstars like Neymar, Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah and Antoine Griezmann can challenge the duopoly and pick the stage to announce their arrival as the world casts a scrutinising eye. Asia and Africa, still having disproportionate representation (just 10), will also look to assert their influence and teams like Egypt, Nigeria, Japan and Iran are well capable of creating a stir.

For Russia, the lowest-ranking host in the history of the tournament, the month-long event provides an opportunity to reassert its dominance as a world power and also to change the negative narrative that often dominates the Western press.

Armed with 17,040 volunteers and more than 70,000 security personnel, the country is ready to serenade more than 600,000 football fans who will pack the stadiums and fan fest arenas to add their voice to the adrenaline of the gladiators on the pitch.