Ever since Russia won the hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup — some allege due to Vladimir Putin’s lobbying and arm-twisting — there has been a political undertow to the football tournament. Not since the 1980 Moscow Olympics has Russia opened its doors, windows and even a few closets to the world. It hasn’t helped Russia that its footballing culture is still steeped in hooliganism and racism. Putin tries to allay the fears in recorded speeches. In the latest one, he says: “For our country, it is a great joy and honour to welcome the international football family… we’ve opened our country and our hearts.” In times of global churn and changing power equations, Putin understands the importance of hosting mega sporting events and its potential to build Brand Russia, win new friends, influence enemies and in the bargain gather soft power.
But as it has happened in the past, once the ball starts rolling, politics takes a backseat and the pre-event noise gets drowned by the roar from the terraces. In isolation, cleansed of political pixellation, this instalment promises high-definition football, brimming as it is with an array of wide-ranging styles and stylists, tactics and tacticians, contenders and dark-horses. Not since 1998 has a World Cup tournament featured so many sides capable of lifting the Cup. There is, in no specific order, a bevy of contenders — France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Belgium — all at their peak, unlike in Brazil where Spain was a ragged old team, France talented but callow and Brazil an imbalanced ensemble.
This time around, all of them have retooled themselves to mount another serious challenge at reclaiming the Cup from the Germans, who, too, have upgraded their processors. There’s a raft of dark horses too, like Croatia, England, Argentina, Portugal and Uruguay, making it perhaps the most open Cup in a long time. What’s more, most of these teams are bound by a fast, attacking brand of football, with some of the finest footballing minds harnessing them. A shadow of fear stalks every group, for almost every team has the potential to be a giant-killer.
Few World Cups would be enriched with such a generous sprinkling of star-dust too. There are arguably two once-in-a-lifetime footballers, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, striving for the piece of silverware that could give closure and roundedness to their careers, the trophy that would entrench their greatness forever. Aspiring to their pedestal are Neymar, Paul Pogba, Isco, Gabriel Jesus, Julian Draxler and Javier Hernandez. And there are those departing luminaries like Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano. There are many reasons to feel excited about this World Cup, for football fans and also for Russia.