Legend tells of a superman in the Soviet ranks. He was not of the army, but was a super soldier on a battlefield of a different kind. Between the sticks, Lev Yashin could shut out the strongest attacks in the world, while he guarded the Soviet Union goal in three FIFA World Cups—1958, 1962 and 1966—and led them to their best outing in a World Cup, a fourth-place finish in 1966. A deluge of accolades were conferred on him, including FIFA naming him the keeper of the 20th century in 1998.
Fast forward to November 2017—FIFA once again paid homage to the ‘Black Spider’ by putting him on the official poster of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The vintage-styled illustration has Yashin wearing his iconic cap and all-black gear, leaping for an oversized ball that has the outline of Russia on it. It looks odd at first glance, but the old-fashioned imagery fit the message. For, it is in the land where Yashin drew global attention to his motherland’s capabilities—on the football pitch for a change—that FIFA’s 21st quadrennial juggernaut is heading. The FIFA World Cup could be referred to as a juggernaut for a variety of reasons, both positive and negative. To focus on the positives would be to celebrate the tournament for the carnival it is.
And so, 31 teams and more than a million visitors are expected to descend on the 11 Russian cities hosting the FIFA World Cup, all of which except one are in European Russia. The 80,000-seater Luzhniki stadium, one of the two venues in Moscow, is all set to stage the grand opening on June 14 as well as the final on July 15.
Four years after Mario Goetze’s stoppage-time goal crowned Germany world champions at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s largest sport spectacle has travelled from the samba land to the other side of the globe. It comes as a breather for Russian sports, tainted by allegations of state-sponsored doping that ruled out 110 athletes from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“Everyone is obviously excited to host the FIFA World Cup here,” says Russian sports journalist Margarita Yakoupova. “It is a big deal, and it is something the country has never experienced before. As for our national team, unfortunately people are mostly pessimistic, but everyone still hopes that Russia can qualify for the knockout rounds.”
The Russian team secured automatic qualification as hosts, but is a shadow of Soviet-era football. The loss of Ukrainian and Belarusian players cost Russia, post the breakup, and it qualified for the FIFA World Cup only thrice (1994, 2002 and 2014), exiting in the group stage every time. Russia has not reached the knockout stage of any tournament since 2008.
Russian fans know that their team is not the strongest in the mix, says Denis Kolomensky, but he expects the event to be a grand celebration for Russian locals. “It would be great for people to see world-class football live. Also, getting to meet foreigners, that is great cultural exchange,” says the music producer and DJ.
Most of the preparations for the FIFA World Cup were subject to a dry run at the Confederations Cup last year. Besides putting the stadiums and facilities to the test, spectators were allotted free tickets for transport between host cities. For the FIFA World Cup, 728 additional trains with pre-booked free tickets will run between host cities. FIFA and Russia also introduced the Fan ID to give visa-free entry for foreigners to explore the country during the World Cup. It doubles as a security feature to keep track of fans who enter stadiums.
Nine of the tournament’s 12 stadiums were built just for the event. The three others, in Moscow, Ekaterinburg and Sochi, underwent extensive renovations. It is reported that a part of the turf from the Centenario stadium, in Uruguay, where the first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930, was used when laying the pitches in Russia as a symbolic gesture.
Preparations have gone to plan for FIFA, according to Alan Moore, who worked with city administrations and NGOs in getting the cities ready for the FIFA World Cup, and was a project consultant. “Transport has greatly improved,” he says. “Cities are much improved, not just host cities, and there is a real push to normalise streets and services.”
India got a first-hand experience of FIFA’s lofty standards and attention to detail, when it hosted its first FIFA tournament last year—the Under-17 World Cup. It was largely the efforts of tournament director Javier Ceppi that helped India avert a 2010 Commonwealth Games-like disaster. “The influx of visitors is much larger for a senior World Cup, which effectively means that usually there is a larger need for service and tourism infrastructure,” says Ceppi. “Since there are more teams playing, there’s also a much larger need in terms of capacities of the stadiums, training sites, media requirements, etc. Expenses for a youth World Cup are probably not even one per cent of what could be spent on hosting a senior event.”
Alexey Sorokin, CEO of the local organising committee, had announced in early May that Russia was ready to host the World Cup. Sorokin has overseen affairs for the project since 2009, when the country bid for the tournament. But, most of his interaction with the foreign media has been reduced to defending Russia’s right to host the FIFA World Cup.
That an extravagant event like this is hosted by what is often referred to as the world’s most corrupt body, in a country that is forever at odds with the democratic west, would sound like a recipe for disaster. And, keeping with that, the lead up to the tournament has been riddled with controversies.
Eyebrows were raised when Russia won the bid to host the tournament in 2010. But, it was announced along with the even more surprising Qatar 2022. It could be argued that FIFA preferred to give it to countries that would not only benefit from a boost to local football, but would also be able to bear the heavy costs.
Nevertheless, it set alight the gunpowder trail that eventually led to the TNT barrel of FIFA’s corruption scandal in 2015. With a massive kaboom, the organisation spiralled into chaos, clearing out the top deck before sweeping changes were ushered in by new chief Gianni Infantino. Out went 17-year-long president Sepp Blatter for his unscrupulous activities. Even the tournament could not be spared from the politics, as legend-turned-tainted administrator Michel Platini recently admitted that the 1998 World Cup schedule was tampered with to ensure hosts France didn’t meet the rampaging Brazilians until the final, which Les Bleus eventually won. The image of FIFA and its showpiece event had taken a massive beating, signalling a low point in the organisation’s 114-year history.
The economic and social cost of making arrangements for the FIFA World Cup may not be as much for Russia as it was for the hosts of the last two editions, Brazil and South Africa. Still, the expenses for this year’s event could cross $13 billion, making it the most expensive Cup ever. “I don’t think ordinary people know anything about this,” says Yakoupova. “People are mostly noticing the better changes, and if it does not influence them directly, it never goes further than talks during the dinner.”
A more judicious selection of venues would have brought the cost down. “White elephant locations like Rostov, Volgograd, Saransk, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad were pointless,” says Moore. “Real sports and football venues like Voronezh, Ulyanovsk and Krasnodar were purposely ignored. So in this, there is a very heavy opportunity cost.”
Then, there are the controversies that have plagued Russia for long. Similar to the labour rights violations that were exposed in Qatar, reports had emerged last year of thousands of North Korean workers being forced to work like slaves in rebuilding the stadiums.
The political tension that Russia has itself embroiled in, with the west, has not helped, either. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were allegedly poisoned by Russian agents in London, may have just recovered, but the wounds the encounter left in the British-Russian relationships are far from healed. Diplomatic boycott of the Cup by members of the English Football Association was closely followed by a few other countries, making it the one of the most politically charged FIFA World Cups since World War II.
While Sorokin had to repeatedly give assurances to FIFA and participating nations that the World Cup would go on, he also had to ward off allegations that the earlier state-sponsored doping scandal was not being carried over into the tournament. The Russian team was given a clean chit to play by FIFA on May 23.
Concerns about hooliganism and racism by Russian ultras had dented the country’s desire to present itself as a hospitable host. While the White House told American fans to “think twice” before going to the FIFA World Cup, English fans were warned by their national head of football policing not to wave British flags. The 2016 Euros, held in France, brought to light the organised hooliganism by Russian gangs. Marseille, in particular, had witnessed violent clashes between the English and the Russians.
Preventing racism, another prevalent practice among Russian football fans, has been high on FIFA’s agenda. It fined the Russian football federation $29,000 on May 8, after it was proved that spectators in St Petersburg had racially abused some French players during a friendly in March.
“There are some very solid initiatives being done at club and community level, as well as a general push of acceptance that not all things are ‘harmless’ or ‘funny’,” says Moore. “Police and security services have stamped down on those who thrive on conflict. Banning orders were introduced and close to 1,000 of the worst offenders will be nowhere near football of any type. It is a long road but the FIFA World Cup 2018 will help change things.”
Moore feels that the World Cup will help build the country’s image. According to him, foreign media houses pay good money to local journalists in Russia to write pieces that slam the country with false accusations and defamatory claims. They present contradicting views in the local and the foreign media, depending on what sells where.
Nevertheless, the show must go on. Oblivious to the spectres that haunt the tournament off the field, the squads have been announced by most coaches and the teams will soon land in Russia. Omissions and injuries are keeping supporters on tenterhooks about the strength of their teams. Four-time champion Germany look their best, but Die Mannschaft have chosen to go it without Goetze, the hero who broke Argentine hearts, and Andre Schurrle, who provided him the assist on that fateful night at Rio.
It could be attributed to the iron hand of German coach Joachim Loew. He continues to break the mould of the modern-day national coach, having coached this German side since 2006. The rewards of a layered grassroots structure in Germany and the stability that comes with having a long-term head coach helped the side in Brazil. Loew even took a reserve squad to the Confederations Cup, held in Russia last year, and won it.
The highlight of Germany’s dream run in 2014 was the 7-1 humiliation of hosts Brazil in the semifinal. Brazil’s dream of winning a FIFA World Cup on home soil was decimated beyond recognition by the time Loew’s men were done. The poor show continued into the initial stages of qualification for 2018, and coach Dunga was fired. After Tite took over, Brazil started to look like a team that reflected the potential of its star power.
The samba boys are contenders once again, but the nation of 200-odd million people is sweating over the fitness of its $200-million wonder boy, Neymar, who has been out of action with a broken metatarsal since February. In 2014, at the age of 22, the icon carried the weight of his nation’s FIFA World Cup hopes, and even scored four goals. But, the killer blow came when he was stretchered off in the quarterfinal against Colombia after a nasty tackle. Neymar was missed in the nightmarish semifinal, and Brazilians are praying that the PSG player makes it back in time to lead Tite’s impressive strike force of Phillipe Coutinho, Willian and Roberto Firmino.
Taking a leaf from the German system of development are perennial bottlers England. The FA has been flaunting its ‘England DNA’ programme for several years, which aims to train English teams, of all age groups, in a particular way. The process came to fruition last year, when the country won three youth tournaments, including the U-17 FIFA World Cup in India. Orchestrated by coach Gareth Southgate, the effects of the programme have started to rub off on the senior side.
The squad has an average age of 26, and Gary Cahill is the only player in the side with more than 40 caps. This comes after a string of failed World Cups that featured megastars who could not get the team past the quarterfinal stage since 1990. The Three Lions crashed out of the group stage in Brazil without a win. Striker Harry Kane will lead the young team to Russia, but will have to navigate a tricky group first.
A loaded yet unpredictable Belgium has been drawn with England in the same group. With a generation of stars peaking at the same time, Belgium were dark horses at the 2014 event, but are title contenders this time. Players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany make it look like a Premier League all-star team, and will come across as familiar foes for the English.
The same players took to the field for Belgium in 2014, but under Roberto Martinez, the side looks like a different animal. Defence might be a worry for Martinez, but Belgium breezed through the qualification process with a cool 43 goals in 10 games.
With an attack spearheaded by the crafty Antoine Greizmann, France had stormed its way to the Euro 2016 final, before eventually losing to Portugal. The Atletico Madrid attacker is flanked by big-money youngsters Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, while the likes of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante run the midfield show. Lukewarm performances in the qualifiers pulled Les Bleus through, but their zippy play and quick counter attacks will be a sight for sore eyes. For inspiration to add on to the only FIFA World Cup the country has won, the team needs only look as far as their coach, Didier Deschamps, who captained the winning squad in 1998.
The best odds for the tournament, though, have been reserved for Spain. Members of the dream team that won everything from 2008 to 2012 may be on their home stretch, but the ‘tiki-taka’ looks fresher in the hands of the younger crop. Such has been the depth of the Spain national team that ever since the 23-man squad was announced, Twitter has been buzzing with users compiling squads comprising Spanish rejects that would be strong enough to compete for the Cup.
A shake up was much needed, considering how the side went from world champions in 2010 to group stage dropouts in 2014. Alongside captain Sergio Ramos is long-time central defence partner Gerard Pique, while Dani Carvajal, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba are available options as fullbacks. Goalkeeper David de Gea completes arguably the strongest defence in the tournament.
While coaches of these favourite teams will be busy trying to build the chemistry between the range of stars at their disposal, there are those teams that are built around individuals. In what could be their last FIFA World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo (33) and Lionel Messi (turning 31 in June) have done all they could to defy the argument that players need to win the World Cup to be considered the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time).
The legacy of World Cup heroes, like that of Lev Yashin, do, in fact, live forever. Yashin remains the only goalkeeper in history to win the Ballon d’Or, in 1963. Both, Messi and Ronaldo have enough of Ballons d’Or, yet the holy grail of the team sport still eludes them.
Messi came closest in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, when Argentina lost in the final. He was adjudged player of the tournament. On the final day of qualification in the South American confederation for Russia 2018, five teams, including Argentina, were locked in a battle for the remaining spots for the World Cup. Messi stepped up and scored yet another memorable hattrick to carry them through.
Great things will be expected of Messi, once again, as the team find themselves in a tough group with Croatia, Nigeria and newbies Iceland. An ageing squad that is heavily reliant on its attackers will be coach Jorge Sampaoli’s biggest problem. Argentina had lost three consecutive cup finals between 2014 and 2016.
A little poetic licence could be put to use to say that it was perhaps the failure of Argentina and Messi at the continental level in 2016 that spurred his peer and worthy equal, Ronaldo, to lead a depleted Portugal team to success on its own continent. The dark horse of the Euro 2016 manouvered its way to its first title, with Ronaldo leading the proceedings. Two years on, however, only half the Portuguese squad that beat France in the final will make the trip to Russia. Ronaldo has proved that he can do the unthinkable even with a scrappy squad. He scored an astonishing 15 goals in 10 games in the qualifiers. The mighty Spain will prove to be his first big test, in the round robin group stage.
As far as one-man armies go, there is the one from the African continent, Mohamed Salah, who, like Messi, dragged his country into the competition. Like resurrecting a mummy, Mo Salah single-handedly helped Egypt qualify for the World Cup, after 28 years, by scoring a penalty in the 95th minute of the game against Congo, sending the 75,000 fans in Alexandria into raptures. But, after the shoulder injury he picked up playing for Liverpool in the Champions League final, Salah has joined Neymar and Germany’s Manuel Neuer on the list of stars fighting to make it in time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Salah’s Egypt is joined in Russia by Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco and Senegal from the African continent.
Despite the presence of power-packed favourites at the FIFA World Cup, there are several notable absentees. It will be the first time since 1958 that four-time champions Italy will not compete in a World Cup. Italy finished second to Spain in the first round of their qualifying group, but lost the two-legged playoff to Sweden. Since winning the tournament on penalties in 2006, Italy crashed out in the group stage at the last two editions. Such was not the case with the Netherlands. The Dutch are yet to win a World Cup, but reached the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup—their third silver medal in history—and finished third in Brazil. But, just like with Italy, it was the Swedish who edged out the Dutch. The Netherlands came third in the qualifying group, losing out to second-placed Sweden on goal difference.
As was with the qualification process, the unpredictability of a cup competition could render the strongest of teams helpless. No wonder Paul the Octopus had a better chance of predicting the winner of the 2010 tournament than the best of pundits. As co-hosts of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, South Korea, reached the semifinals of the event, against all odds. The Koreans are one of the lower ranked teams at Russia 2018, and even Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son will find it difficult to pull them out of a group that consists of Germany, Mexico and Sweden.
The major development in the gameplay for Russia 2018 is the introduction of the video-assistant referee. Not since the birth and demise of the Golden Goal rule—used only in 1998 and 2002—have footballers, coaches, pundits and fans been so divided on an issue. VAR, like the decision review system in cricket and tennis, uses technology to review the on-field referee’s call. The case against VAR is the lengthy stoppages.
Moreover, the system showed that it is far from foolproof. The recently held Grand Final of the Australian A-League, which utilises VAR, was decided by a solitary goal, in which three players were offside. The VAR failed to point out the error. It is this far-from-perfect addition that FIFA has decided to make to the World Cup, which has attracted a lot of flak.
As the hourglass runs out to the kickoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 10, those associated with the game expect to see more entertaining styles of play in Russia. “There are teams that are either making their debut in a World Cup, such as Panama, or are coming back to one after a long time, like Egypt and Peru,” says Ceppi. “Coincidentally, these are teams that have a brand of football that is usually quite pleasant to the eye. Apart from that, social media could play an even larger role on the dissemination of live information, so it would feel like a more connected FIFA World Cup. The squad announcement by England [on Twitter] is one example.”
It is safe to say that all parties involved in the tournament are out to prove something. The Russians want to use this window of opportunity to open up to the world, FIFA and its officials want to show that they have cleaned up well after a messy few years, and the teams that arrive will undoubtedly want to prove that they deserve to win the championship. The spectators, meanwhile, will be hoping that whatever goes down in Russia, football will win at the end of the day.