The greatest show on turf begins today. Russia isn’t a cold and unwelcoming place as the Western media depicts it, and as host it can put on a lively tribute to the beautiful game. The usual problems of effective security against terrorist threats and stopping hooliganism from spoiling the atmosphere for genuine fans are what Russia has been preparing to face. Besides being the West’s outcast and paying the price of economic sanctions for its Crimean adventure, little can stop Russia from placing the delights of the world’s most popular game in front of a global TV audience. The charms of old Russia can be sold to tourists as over a million fans are expected to come during the event even if it means longer flights and more expensive visits than in travelling in Western Europe. The Vladimir Putin-led nation has done much to combat the kind of hooliganism Russians showed in Euro 16.
The pundits would have us believe Germany, the defending champion hit by injuries and lacklustre performances in the lead-up, has about the same chance as Brazil, with a rejuvenated Neymar bearing the burden of passionate fans’ expectations; Argentina, whose star striker Lionel Messi still has to live up to carrying his nation all the way to the Cup; Spain, always to be fancied as talented players; and France, not to be discounted. While some may say Croatia can also sparkle and others bring up Uruguay as an overachiever, the point is that it’s a very open World Cup. Germany seemed destined to win the last one even though they did so in a last gasp goal in extra time by an unknown midfielder. The passions that football stokes during a World Cup is unique and the Russian setting will change none of it as the old sporting bragging rights are up for grabs between Europe and South America.
The number of nations viewing the World Cup wistfully would, however, be far larger than the 32 that get to play in the grand finals. China, hoping to be a world soccer power at least by 2050, plans to put up hundreds of academies. India, a lowly power just beginning to ascend the Fifa ladder, is more ambitious but less organised. Its recent victory in an Intercontinental Cup beating Kenya, thanks to the diligence of captain and striker Sunil Chhetri, has given fans great hope for the future, although when looked at realistically, the chances of making it to the finals from among 211 nations that play the beautiful game are very slim. This joyous sport of soccer revolves around talent, tactics and teamwork and, more important, very rigorous training. Do we Indians have it in abundance in a team setting — is the bugging question on the eve of another great showpiece event of the world’s best soccer talent.