The FIFA World Cup, which any sports writer with a half-decent spell-check system will describe as ‘quadrennial’ football festival, kicks off in Russia on June 14 amidst hope, optimism and expectation that this edition should provide plenty of drama that soccer is richly famous for, especially like when the Uruguayan Luis Suarez bit off the ear of an opposing team’s player. (Topic for discussion: Should helmets be mandatory for football, at least the ones that involve Suarez?)
This edition of the World Cup (21st) is one of the most open as experts believe there are no clear favourites, but you can safely say that one among Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina, France will be the winners as the World Cup has seldom thrown up surprise champions, except in 1966 when England managed to win through the rarely-used veto power of the host country to award controversial goals for itself in the finals.
Anyway, as the world gets down to follow the soccer matches, here is a quick lowdown on the World Cup.
Number of matches and teams
A total of 32 countries are participating in the tournament, and analysts using all their expertise predict that 31 of these teams are most certain to return home without winning the Cup.
The tournament will see a total of 64 matches, 60 of which you’ll hardly recollect a week after the World Cup.
Russia bid for the World Cup aggressively when it became pretty much clear that it was the only way that it could qualify for the tournament — Russia is the lowest ranked team among the 32 teams. Mind you, this fray includes Peru that for the record has only a total of five or six football grounds and just 20 playable footballs in reasonable condition in the whole of the country.
Russia, of course, won its bid based on the impressive football infrastructure and the fact that it has access to nuclear arms and that it would not be averse to use them if need be. But before we get all snarky on Russia, let us also remember that it is the land of Lev Yashin, Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov, and countless number of journeymen football hooligans who leave a strong imprint wherever they go.
The 64 World Cup matches will be played across 11 Russian cities including Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Saint Petersburg, Volgograd, Yaroslavl, Yekaterinburg, all historically well-known for the fact that you can’t spell them correctly without a handy Atlas by your side.
Heading into the World Cup, it is peak summer in Russia and the temperatures have already hit around a sweltering 19 degrees Celsius, which to give you a perspective, is also the temperature here in Chennai inside a well insulated refrigerator.
The spotlight is fully on teams like Costa Rica, South Korea, Senegal. Ha Ha. Ha. Who are we trying to kid. You will hardly read about them unless they somehow make the semis or finals. Mostly, you will be stuck with having to read about teams that involve the likes of Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Mo Salah, Iniesta. This also the case when they play club football.
All eyes are undoubtedly on Lionel Messi and whether he can help his Argentine team win the Cup or not. The World Cup medal is the only thing missing in his CV, even though we can’t think of a situation of him being ever in need of an CV.
Argentina is predicted not to be among the favourites to win the Cup. This should make Messi and Argentina happy, because this prediction has come from Goldman Sachs, the global leaders in not getting any prediction right.
Brazil has a settled unit, while Germany looks sturdy, France is brimming with energy, Spain is organised. But we hope Poland has a great run, just for the fun of journalists and broadcasters trying to get the hang of names like Wojciech Szczesny, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Lukasz Piszczek. (If Poland does well many sub-editors in sports desk will have quit due to extreme stress).
And there are the first-timers to the World Cup like Panama and Iceland. Iceland is one of the smallest nations to play in the World Cup and its population is so less that it has to make do with the cricket team’s wicket-keeper as its football team’s goalkeeper. It is also not sending a 23-member squad as required because that would reduce the country’s population by a huge percentage.
As far as Panama goes it is a country that has a rich tradition in making people wonder as to what it could be famous for. Basically, very little is known of the country, including in which continent it is located.
Apart from the prestige of winning the World Cup, there is also prize money to be won. The winning team gets to take home 38 million dollars, which when you convert to reality is not even half of what an individual player like Messi earns in a single year. The teams will probably use the prize money to tip the ball boys.
This is the first World Cup where VAR (Video Assisted Referee), the football version of DRS, as it were, will be used, and this will help end bickering over on-field refereeing, and start new bickering over video refereeing. But it is still not clear that using VAR technology whether it is possible to retrospectively disallow the goal that England controversially scored in 1966 finals. FIFA rules are silent on it.
The World Cup has a mascot, but nobody knows why. The mascot is named Zabivaka, a wolf, that you can’t tell by looking at its mascot image. All mascots are basically unrecognisable, silly, goofy versions of the animals they are supposed to be.
The World Cup also has an anthem for the same reason we have Governors for our States. A silly tradition.
The match ball has been a subject of discussion ever since ‘Jabulani’ (the name of the match ball used in 2010 World Cup) created huge controversy with its wild trajectory. Every time a goalkeeper kicked it, it swung back into his own goal. This is how 2010 WC became one of the high-scoring ones.
The makers Adidas have named this year’s ball as Telstar 18 — Telstar in remembrance of the football of the same name used in 1970 World Cup, and 18 in remembrance of the number 18.
The main attraction of Telstar 18 is that it comes with embedded near-field communication (NFC) chip because the makers were high on heroin during the manufacture.
The chip, we are told, can be connected to a smart phone to get access to how many times Sergio Ramos feigns injury or falls down when he so much as comes into contact with a violent air molecule.
That more or less covers the pre-tournament details, and now over to the much expected first match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Russia should relish the home conditions, and they have also got their strategy down to pat by playing first a team whose players must have been fasting all day for Ramadan. If Saudi Arabia has at the end 11 players standing, it can be deemed to have done well for itself.
Anyway, we at Crank’s News are excited about following the World Cup over the next month or so, and we are hoping to get to know of new players, fresh tactics and hopefully the spelling of Jedrzejczyk at least once without using the copy-paste option.