Greatest show kicks off in Russia today

…the wait is over, time for history

Russia’s men’s team will be hoping to turn the home advantage into a winning start when they oppose Saudi Arabia today in the opening fixture of the 2018 FIFA World Cup competition. (Photo courtesy of FIFA.com)

By: Ras Wadada

The long and much awaited kick-off to the 21st edition of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ has finally arrived and despite the many changes the ‘Beautiful Game’ has endured, on and off the pitch since the last World Cup finals played in Brazil, the incomparable Global passions and interests remain fever-pitch high on Planet Earth as the battle for the most coveted trophy in Sports will move into motion today in Moscow City, Russia.

This is the period that every four years become the primary focus of the majority of the world, greatly anticipating and expecting and then celebrating or moaning, as the 64 matches unfold over a month’s time. Only eight nations have lifted the prestigious trophy and twelve have played in the Championship match from among the 77 nations to have graced the ‘Promised Land’ of football in the 20 editions thus far, and it would take a herculean effort for a new Champion to be crowned when the final whistle is blown on July 15th.

The World Cup has always generated passionate arguments, before, during and after, as to who are the real contenders, who are the pretenders, who could spring a surprise and who could have won, whenever discussions and debates are fused anywhere on the Planet. In its unending innovations of the game FIFA will introduce, for the first time at a World Cup, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) so all those doubtful calls, by referees in the past, which would have brought joy to some and sadness to others can no longer determine the outcome of matches. The VAR will be linked directly to the officiating referee 

The defending Champions, Germany and the most successful country, Brazil remain the top contenders, though there are also claims in some parts of the globe that brings,  France, Spain and the last losing finalist, Argentina into the picture. And in the distance, echoing a claim as well, are Belgium, Portugal and England.

Despite the multiplicity of talents who will be on show from the over 700 players the eyes of the world will be closely following the exploits of the two most talked about, loved and known faces in present day football, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both are in their 30s and while, between them, they have won all the Ballon D’Or awards since 2008 the Big Prize has eluded them both. Messi will once again lead the Argentines with the intention of bettering his last effort that ended as runners-up and Golden Ball winner, while  his opposite and Pride of Portugal must bring his European dominance to the pitch at the Big Dance, something he has failed to do in his three previous appearances. These two proven match winners, more than the rest of the players, are under more pressure to perform since it could very well be their last chance to win a World Cup. Messi and his cast surprised all in 2014 and had it not been for missed opportunities in the first half of the final the La Albiceleste would have won their 3rd title, four years on and they have a bit of history on their side to give them hope. On both occasions the Argentines captured the Cup, in 1978 at home and 1986 in Mexico, the USA failed to qualify for the finals like they have done now in 2018.

There is one other player who is expected to light up the Tournament like no other and if what he has demonstrated so far since his return from injury is any indication of what is to come then the World is in for a special treat. Neymar the most expensive player in the world surprised the world last year when he announced he was leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint Germaine (PSG) and now one wonders if it has anything to do with past history and his desire to win a world cup. Rewind, in 1993 former Brazilian Captain and midfielder Rai transferred   to PSG and the following year the Samba Boys won in the USA, then in 2001 Ronaldinho transferred to PSG and the next year Brazil became the first team to win five world Cup titles. In addition, the only time a non-European country won the cup in Europe Italy did not qualify for the finals, and yes, Brazil led by a 17 year-old boy named Pele won their first cup in 1958 after beating the host nation Sweden. Fast forward to 2018 and Italy have failed to qualify. Can history repeat itself and promote the South Americans to Six-star status?  Under the guidance and wise-mind of Coach Tite the Brazilians look supremely ready to contest.

The Germans also bring with them some history, though it is not one they would relish as they go in search of becoming the 3rd nation to win ‘Back-to-back’ titles, joining Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962). To do this they must break the tradition of no winner of the Confederations Cup, the prelude tournament played in the host nation the year before the finals, has gone on to win the World Cup. They humiliated Brazil at home in 2014, on their way to becoming the first non-South American nation to win the cup in South America and are very much in contention to go all the way, despite retaining only nine players from the last triumph. Like Brazil they have a rich football pedigree.

The other two countries being championed as legitimate contenders are former one-time champions Spain and France, two teams loaded with technically sound players but at the Big Dance there will be very little room to perform since modern football is very compact and full of pace but less space. Ingenuity and few mistakes will be the key to success. My selection for the final four is France versus Brazil and Germany against Argentina and in the final Brazil will prevail 2-1 over Argentina.

It is expected to be another fascinating tournament watched by the world with actor Wil Smith and Nicky Jam performing the official song of the World Cup “Live it up” as part of a planned two hour opening ceremony that will also include performers paying tribute to the rich culture and tradition of Russia. It has been reported that over 95 percent of the tickets for the matches have been sold out.

No home team has ever lost at the opening game of any World cup tournament which has produced six wins and three draws, including a scoreless one in 1970 between host Mexico and the then Soviet Union. For the first time an Asian team will be featured in an opening game and while the Saudi Arabians are ranked just above the Russians the game can be considered an even match between the two lowest ranked teams at the World Cup.

It is the general belief that this game could go either way or end in a stalemate. I, however, favor the host because they are used to the conditions and would have tremendous support among the anticipated 80,000 fans to flock the Luzhniki Stadium for the opening act. Amid the excitement, let’s welcome the 5th President of FIFA to be in charge of a World Cup, Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino.

The four-year wait is over. Now for the real action that continues the colorful painting of the rich-storied history of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. 

Today’s Fixture

Russia vs Saudi Arabia

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