If they ever get around to bottling the whole ‘world peace’ formula, it would involve a heavy dose of football. There is no other sport that incites as much passion across the globe, and the World Cup is its zenith. The Olympics involves more countries, but causes less heartbreak. It is widely believed that Brazil’s (host of the previous World Cup) semifinal loss almost cost the then President Dilma Rousseff her re-election! Then there are stories of viewing parties held on both sides of the Gaza Strip to watch the best in the world take on each other, even as their armies are engaged in an exchange of fire just kilometres away.
Passion is the keyword here – it is what drove Zinedine Zidane to head-butt Marco Materazzi in the chest in the World Cup final in 2006; it is what made Luis Suarez punch the ball away from the goal line against Ghana in 2010; and it is what will drive an expected 3.5 billion+ people to tune into the FIFA World Cup in Russia this month! To put this in perspective, the International Cricket Council (ICC) finds that 14 teams are too many, and henceforth the World Cup will have only ten teams in the fray. Where cricket is trying to make its world more concise, football is talking about expanding the scope of the tournament, which already has 32 teams.
Some key teams will be missing in Russia – European giants Italy and Netherlands, and Chile, the 2016 Copa America champions. Their absence is not expected to result in viewers turning away from sports channels; it might mean more beer and fewer tears for the fans. For those whose teams are in the mega tournament, tracking the opponents and the medical reports of favourite players should become important rituals of the day. Harry Kane’s ankle and Neymar’s foot have never been the focus for so long – the only thing that stops them from having an individual personality is a social media account!
Even before the tournament begins, fans take to discussing the group of death, in which top teams of each respective region (Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas) land up by sheer chance. This year, however, there doesn’t appear to be that proverbial group of death for fans to obsess over; Group D with Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria comes closest. Going back a few decades gives us solid examples of this phenomenon: Group F of the 1990 World Cup (England, Ireland, Netherlands, Egypt), in which five of the six matches were drawn, and the Group E of the 1994 World Cup (Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Norway), when all four teams finished level on points and goal difference; Mexico winning the group on account of maximum goals scored; Ireland finishing ahead of Italy because they beat the Italians earlier during the group stage.
While they can’t do a lot about the draw, player performance can come back to haunt them off the field. After the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the 27-year-old Andres Escobar, a Colombian footballer known as The Gentleman due to his clean approach to the game, was said to be murdered by the infamous Colombian drug cartels who are said to have lost a lot of money in bets. Escobar had scored an own goal, which contributed to Colombia’s elimination from the tournament.
Eight years previously, Diego Maradona’s ‘mistake’coloured as divine intervention by myth and media, resulted in a church being built in his name. Maradona, then 25 and already the world’s costliest player, took the field against England for the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. He scored two goals in the match, helped guide his team to the semi-finals and eventual victory. But, of the two goals he scored in the quarterfinals, one was a sublime example of a man at the top of his game, and the other – infamously dubbed by Maradona himself as ‘hand of God’ – continues to divide opinion on whether it was a head or a punch. His World Cup career ended in tears when he was sent home after failing a drug test for ephedrine in the 1994 World Cup. There have been players like Pele, who scored at a phenomenal rate. More recently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are listed among the all time greatest footballers. But, the joy of watching Maradona weave a web around the defenders is what the magic of the World Cup is all about.
Going further back in history, we can trace another maverick, again from South America – Brazil’s Garrincha. He was born with a deformed spine and curved legs, but after Pele got injured during Brazil’s 1962 defence of the trophy, it was Garrincha who almost single-handedly steered the team to a second successive World Cup victory.
Philosophy around soccer, and by extension the World Cup, varies, with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff saying, “Soccer is simple, but it is difficult to play simple”, to Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Hughes Galeano claiming, “In his life, a man can change wives, political parties or religions, but he cannot change his favourite soccer team.” The jury is still out, but the verdict is clear—love for football unites all.
FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off on the 14th of this month at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia. Live telecast on Sony in India. The final will be telecast on 15th July, 8.30pm onward.
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