CAPE TOWN – Football’s inordinate capacity for wonder is all set to have a planet spellbound for the next month.
The Fifa 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia today – and, as happens every four years with this global spectacle, in every nook and cranny of the universe, an audience of billions will be bewitched by every touch and pass, and seduced by the intensity of the emotions emanating from the unfolding drama.
Hosts Russia get the tournament under way in a Group A clash against minnows Saudi Arabia today (kick-off 5pm) – and, by the time the event finishes on July 15, we will have been through 64 games, with 32 teams in action, in 12 stadiums across the length and breadth of Russia.
The allure of the World Cup, and the reason why it captures the imagination, has its roots in football’s simplicity, in its appeal to the common man. It’s not played on one continent, it’s not restricted to just a few countries, and its appeal is certainly not for an esoteric elite.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: be it in Djibouti or Andorra, São Tomé e Príncipe or Samoa, Guam or Malta, there’s football; on every patch of grass, sand or tar, in every little corner of the world, they’re playing this sport well-known for the enduring sobriquet of “the beautiful game”.
And this, in a nutshell, is why it is the biggest, most popular sporting show on earth: every four years, it brings people together, from all over the world, and the only thing that matters is football.
Whatever our differences, in race, creed or culture, football binds us all. The World Cup is a celebration of our shared passion for a past-time that has, through the generations, over the decades, come to symbolise so much more than mere sport; it has become woven into the fabric of our existence.
Defending champions Germany will, once again, be the leading candidate to hold the trophy aloft in a month’s time. They have four World Cup titles (1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014) – and, looking at the awe-inspiring squad they’ve put together, a heady blend of youth and experience, it’s easy to understand why the Germans are favourites.
But Brazil, Spain, France and Argentina are primed to give Germany a run for their money. Brazil undoubtedly look far, far better than they did at the 2014 event when they crashed out after a 7-1 hammering by Germany.
Defensively, the South Americans are more organised and structured – and, as the only country to have won the World Cup on five occasions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002), they will be keen to add another.
The squad is a veritable feast of talent, including master magician Neymar, the brilliant Coutinho and the tricky Willian, and they are certainly poised to shine in Russia.
The world’s best player, Lionel Messi, carries on his slight shoulders the hopes of Argentina. The Barcelona star hasn’t always reproduced his club form at international level – but this is his last chance to chisel his name among the greats who have won football’s most coveted trophy.
France have probably the most gifted squad at this year’s tournament, while Spain will be keen to emulate their World Cup success of South Africa 2010.
Of the others, Belgium, Columbia and Uruguay have to be mentioned as possible upsets, while perennial under-achievers England, despite a strong, talented squad, are likely to be found wanting again.
The African challenge will come from Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. The continent, despite its wealth of talent, has never managed to qualify a team beyond the quarter-finals. The three countries to have sneaked into the last eight are Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010).
This time Egypt, with the inspirational Mohamed Salah leading the attack, and a highly talented Senegal, with Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, probably have the best chance of getting out of the group stages.