As the date for the June 15 kick off of 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia draws near, mind goes back to the year 1986. The 1986 Football World Cup Final, that was played in Mexico, was a defining World Cup for the Indian football lover. Simply because that was the first time the entire tournament was telecasted live by Doordarshan.

Also, that was the tournament that belonged to Maradona. That mercurial Argentine player who not only took his team, almost single handed, to the footballing glory but in the process scored what is regarded as the goal of the century against England. After watching that goal, we were sold as the diehard fans of the ‘beautiful game.’ We are still at it.

In India there are two kinds of football fans. The first variety is the younger lot, the teenagers basically, who follow the European football leagues with passion and in detail. That is an all-year-round thing. They are always in the know of the latest footballing sensations to hit the World. This is the direct result of beaming of European Club football games by sports channels to Indian homes in the last decade and more.

The second variety is of the older fans. They are in their late thirties and above. They are the ones who rise up and take notice of the ‘beautiful game’ once in four years. That is, when the World Cup of Football arrives. Every four years they wake up to the world of football and promptly get nostalgic and all that. During the World Cup month, such as now, both the variety of fans converge to make for a huge fan following of the game in India.

India Connection?

But the hard reality is that it seems we are eternally damned to be on the side lines of the World Cup Football. As the world prepares for the spectacle of World Cup our Indian team (present FIFA ranking of 97) is trying to hold its own against the likes of Chinese Taipei and two others, in the Intercontinental Cup (which FIFA has listed in its section of ‘freindlies’ with some FIFA ranking points at stake).

As a nation of football lovers, we are always looking to have some tangible connection with the World Cup. No matter how far flung or fickle it may be. Once I guess one referee from India got selected to officiate in World Cup matches. That made news.

This time though there are 16 referees from Asia selected for officiating in the matches but none from India. Also, from the last few World Cup finals, the footballs used during the tournaments are being provided by a manufacturer from Sialkot, Pakistan. For this 2018 World Cup in Russia too, the footballs are being provided by Pakistan.

Things for us Indian football fans are so bleak that we took pride in this fact too. No matter the poor political relations with our neighbour, they are after all our estranged cousins. So even if we have to make a connection through Pakistan with the Football World Cup, no matter how frivolous, we are ready to take it.

But when it comes to passion for the game, and yes, the knowledge of it, among the followers of football, we are second to none.

During the tournament or few weeks before it, many mornings, among visitors to Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarovar Lake Park, is spent discussing about the makeup of various teams, strategies employed by their coaches and as to who is the best player ever? Ronaldo or Messi or Maradona?

The Brazilian Connection

Traditionally we Indians have supported the Brazilian football team. Not only because it is the most successful footballing country ever (5 times winner), but also because of the free flowing style of attacking football the Brazilians always played (which has though changed in recent years) and for the passion for the game in that country.

We want to share that passion and shine in their reflected glory. Another more underlined reason is because Brazil is also a huge developing third world country, trying to find its justified high place in the World, like us. A multi ethnic and diverse society like us too. We love it when they put the rich European teams (past colonial masters) on the mat with their dominant game.

People from Goa, who are very passionate about football, love Brazilian team for the Portuguese connection. Both were once colonized by Portugal. The people from Kolkata love Brazilian team simply because the Bengali Manush is as passionate about the game as a Brazilian is. Besides all the major cities, there is unbridled passion for the game in North Eastern states of India, especially among the youth. But their choice is not just restricted to Brazil. Having grown up on European club football, they also root for Spain, France and England.

Russia 2018

Among the 32 countries that have qualified to play in the finals, the traditional powerhouse of world football would all be there. They include Brazil, Argentina, Germany (defending Champions), England, Uruguay and Spain. Other regulars such as Mexico, Belgium, Sweden, South Korea and Columbia would be there too. Notable absentees this time around are the four-time Champions Italy and the long standing under achievers Holland.

Tiny Central American country of Costa Rica would be participating for the fifth time. They surprised everyone by reaching the quarterfinal stage in the last edition. Panama is another small Central American country with insane passion for the game. They will be there too.

Africa once again would be led by the talented and entertaining players from Nigeria called the Super Eagles. The African teams are often defined by having players with great individual talent and skill. They often play with a lot of flair. Who can forget the World Cup exploits of Cameroon’s Roger Milla in Italia 90? Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia would also represent Africa. We Indians generally love African sides and always back them to do well (much more than our Asian brethren). Iceland with a population of just 3,30,000 is the smallest country to have qualified for the world cup final.

Eastern European countries such as Poland, Croatia and Serbia among others have always been strong footballing nations. They show strong physical presence on the field and often play less attractive but effective brand of football. They are always tough to beat and often beat more fancied sides. They usually do not have huge stars in their ranks as far as us Indians are considered.

Stars to watch

The World Cup finals is not just about national pride and passion for the game it is also about star power, especially for neutrals such as we Indians. The big names of the game, who usually shine in the hugely followed club football leagues of Europe are followed in the World Cup too. Names such as Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Iniesta, are a huge deal for us. They will all be there. But they usually fail to shine as bright in their national uniforms. Present gods of the game Messi (Argentina) and Ronaldo (Portugal) have failed to set the turf on fire in the World Cup. That is where Pele (Brazil), Diego Maradona (Argentina) or Zinedine Zidane (France) stand out. The way they led their teams to World Cup glory has made them immortal in the history of football. Other stars to watch out for include Eden Hazard (Belgium), Pogba (France), Cavani (Uruguay) and Toni Kroos (Germany).

Mohamed Salah, the mercurial forward of English Premier League club Liverpool would be representing his country of the birth Egypt. He is a huge star in his country and in the world too. Specially the hopes of the audience of Asia and Africa, which are traditionally considered poorer footballing nations as compared to European or South American sides, ride on him.

We would love to see one star from the unprivileged footballing nations to shine at the world stage. But following the injury he sustained in his last outing in the finals of the Champions League his participation hangs in balance. Millions must be praying for his swift recovery.

Asian Imprint

The 2018 FIFA World Cup final will kick off on June 15, with the host Russia taking on the lowest ranked team in the tournament Saudi Arabia. With it once again we will look with great interest as to how our Asian friends fare on the highest footballing stage. Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has been active in improving the level of the sport in Asia. Usually Asian countries have done poorly with the exception of 2002. Will this time be any different?

In Russia, for the first time 5 countries from Asia would be participating in the football World Cup Finals. Japan has been a regular in the world cup since 1998 and so is South Korea. South Korea in fact became the first country from Asia to reach the semi-final of a World Cup in 2002.

Besides these two, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Australia are also in the fray. Besides 2002 when the Cup finals were jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea where Japan too did well to reach quarterfinal stage, the Asian teams have not exactly set the World Cup Football on fire by their performances.

In fact, in the last edition in 2014 the four participating Asian teams collected just a paltry three total points. Not surprisingly Indian fans do not lose much sleep over the fortunes of Asian countries in the tournament. They follow the more fancied teams. And with a lot of passion.