PARTAB RAMCHAND | 12 JUNE, 2018
The Biggest Sporting Event on Planet Earth
FIFA Russia June 14
Soccer’s summit meeting kicks off in Russia on June 14 in an atmosphere charged with tension and excitement as the clashing temperaments and styles of 32 finalist nations explode in the month long battle for this sport’s greatest prize – The World Cup
And when it is World Cup football time everything else is pushed into the background. Major political developments, breakthrough scientific achievements and endurance breaking feats are hardly discussed as the focus of the world – not just the sporting world - will be diverted to the venues in Russia that will conduct the matches which will be watched with bated breath all round the globe.
Football is the No 1 spectator sport in the world and when it is organized every four years the World Cup represents the apotheosis of the sporting world. The World Cup is the most prestigious football tournament in the world as well as the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world exceeding even the Olympic Games. For example the cumulative audience of all matches of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany was estimated to be 26.29 billion with an estimated 715 million people watching the final match - a ninth of the entire population on the planet.
The World Cup is also a gigantic feat of organization. With as many as 211 countries eligible to participate it involves any number of matches at the various regional levels. The current format of the competition involves a qualification phase which takes place over the preceding three years, to determine which teams qualify for the tournament phase, which is often called the World Cup Finals. Thirty two teams, including the automatically qualifying host nation compete in the tournament phase for the title at venues within the host nation over a period of about a month.
The 20 World Cup tournaments so far after the first was staged in 1930 have been won by eight national teams. Brazil have won five times, and they are the only team to have played in every tournament. The other World Cup winners are Germany and Italy with four titles each. Argentina and inaugural winner Uruguay have won the trophy twice each while England, France and Spain have won once each. The World Cup was not staged in 1942 and 1946 due to World War II. .
As only to be expected the World Cup has been marked by dramatic moments, which include upset victories for the underdogs against the heavyweights, goals and saves that have been discussed for years and trophy winning scenes that can never be forgotten. Who can forget unfancied USA scoring a shock 1-0 win over England in 1950, minnows North Korea stunning Italy in 1966 or Cameroon upsetting defending champions Argentina in the opening game in 1990 to name just three of the greatest topsy-turvy results in World Cup history? Who can also forget 17-year-old Pele’s unforgettable defence splitting goal in the final against Sweden in 1958 or Maradona’s ``Hand of God’’ goal against England in 1986? Or Gordon Banks’ save off a Pele header in the England – Brazil game in 1970?
Such is the aura of the World Cup that the best of players while shining for the biggest football clubs in the game are not satisfied till they have excelled on the biggest stage of all. All the contemporary greats like Ronaldo, Neymar, Zidane and Messi and others have made no secret that they want to do their best to help their country win the World Cup. .
The competition in Russia will be the first World Cup held in Europe since the 2006 tournament in Germany, the first ever to be held in Eastern Europe and the eleventh time that it is being held in Europe. All of the stadium venues are in European Russia to keep the travel time manageable.
As usual 31 teams who have come through the qualifying competitions and the automatically qualified hosts Russia will take part. Of the 32 teams 20 will be making back-to-back appearances following the last tournament in Brazil in 2014 including defending champions Germany while Iceland and Panama will both be making their first appearances at a FIFA World Cup. A total of 64 matches will be played in 12 venues located in 11 cities. The final will be held on July 15 at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow.
As to predicting the winner it has to be a hazardous exercise when it comes to the World Cup. There was a time when European teams won the title in Europe and South American teams came up trumps when the event was held in Latin America but not anymore. Both European and South American teams have an even chance wherever it is played though of course it is safe to say that the winner should be among the heavyweights – Brazil, Germany and Argentina while the chances of France, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain cannot be ruled out. The less fancied teams however will look for their place in the sun with a surprise victory or two in the preliminary rounds.
But whichever team wins the trophy the die hard football fan is already the winner for he is assured of a month long feast of the beautiful game at its zenith.