Road to Russia: 21st quadrennial FIFA World Cup

Sanasam Bamdev *

The forthcoming FIFA World cup Russia 2018 will witness the most extravagant showpiece in the tournament's 88 years history (1930-2018).With the cup coming for the first time on Russian soil——Moscow mulls it will add spice to the biggest sporting spectacle after winning the right to host the 21st edition of the greatest show on earth.

Just after the last world cup Brazil 2014, a Kremlin communiqué issued a statement citing its President Vladimir Putin words—— Russia will present a best ever world cup. The judoka Presiden even pondered for a ceasefire in Crimea and Syria for a peaceful passage of the tourney fearing the volatile situation in the region.

Russia 2018 will showcase a fierce competition of 32 teams in 12 venues— from Moscow to St.Petersburg, Stalingrad to Kiev, Sochi to Kazan….The top ten teams of Fifa ranking- Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, France, England, Argentina, Poland and Switzerland…are favourites to win the Julius Rimet trophy. But for Africa and Asia winning the cup still remains a distant dream.

Europe and South America stay as master of the global game with 20 titles between them- Europe 11 and South America 9. This world cup has two new debutants- Iceland and Panama. An island nation of Iceland in the Arctic Ocean with just a half million population has qualified for the cup and Panama which is size just a combine of Manipur and Nagaland too join the competition.

The absence of four times champion Italy and three time finalist Netherlands is a big miss. Russia 2018 will see a gladiatorial fight for top players in their prime and peak form- in the likes of Christiano Ronaldo, Neymar ,Lionel Messi and Egypt's Mohamed Salah.

Portugal the 2016 European champion with the exploits of CR7 (Ronaldo) has a point to prove this world cup. For decades Portuguese have been eluded of the trophy since it came close in Eusebio's 1966 and Figo's 2006. Brazil's Neymar Jr. should salvage some pride this time for his countrymen after suffering the most humiliating defeat in the Brazilian soccer history in the 2014 semi-finals at the hands of Germany which Neymar missed out of spinal injury.

Had he played the result might have been different. Argentina's evergreen Lionel Messi saved his team from certain exit in the qualifiers against Ecuador with his hat-trick made to the finals. For Albiceleste it was a escape from the jaws of death. Russia 2018 should be a redemption time for magical Messi since its defeat to Germany in a gruelling finale in 2014. A major title is still eluding this great player- be it Copa America or World Cup. Egypt's Mohamed Salah, north African desert fox is a man to watch.

Euro 2016 finalist France can fancy their chances with the trio of Paul Pogba, Greizman and Benzema. Les Blues last won the world cup as host country in 1998 with Zinedine Zidane's genius. Can a new face and young England team reconcile their title drought for half a century- last time England won was way back in 1966 as host nation- Bobby Moore's English summer. Fifa ranked world no.3 Belgium will spring some surprise. 2010 unexpected winner Spain is still a force to reckon. Can Iniesta bring second title for the La Roja?

Here, never write off the Germans – the reigning world champions is poised to retain the title given their superb form and recent victories- a chance to create history like Italy and Brazil which won back to back world cups- Azzuris in 1934-38 and Selecao in 1958-62.

Germany's most successful coach Joachim Loew boasted of his team saying his substitutes are like his playing XI- he has already proven his words- Deutschland second-string squad won the Olympic silver medal against Neymar's Brazil in 2016 and cakewalk to the Fifa confederations cup title in 2017. DieManschaft's well oiled machinery is still working to perfection with a bit of Spanish tiki –tika flavor and Bavarians rampaging run with a total teamwork.This German team has world's safest hands in goal- sweeper keeper Manuel Nuer- who won golden glove in last world cup.

Revel in Russia this summer - behold the colossal clash of the footballing giants

The colourful and exotic world cup will kick start on 14th June- host Russia and lowest ranked team of the cup Saudi Arabia will play the opening match in Sparta Stadium, Moscow.

Russia's last best performance was reaching the semi-finals in England 1966 via its legendary goalkeeper Lev Yasin- he is the only custodian to win the ballon d'or award in history. This summer football fans from Buenos Aires to Berlin, Mexico city to Tokyo will be on its feet spellbound and lie/lay in thrilling suspense.

Back home Kolkata will pray for Brazil and Argentina's triumph- worshippers of Pele and Maradona and city of Mumbai exults for Germany and Portugal victories. Which side are you on and Meri doosri country is the buzzword in the sub-continent. Coming to the northeast, soccer mad highlanders of Shillong, Kohima, Imphal and Aizawl will dream of their players making to the world cup in future- with Shillong Lajong, Aizawl FC and Neroca FC making to the national stage with impressive performance- the north-easterners has a reason to smile.

The future of Indian football is bright under its coach Stephen Constantine who is nurturing upcoming talents from nook and corner of the country with full devotion and dedication in great level. Last year India debuted in U-17 World cup as host country- first ever participation in FIFA tournament.The young Indian side put up a good fight powered by maximum Manipuri players- six from the state represented the country.

Goalkeeper Moirangthem Dheeraj's performance was phenomenal and made a special impression to football fans worldwide- he even caught the eyes of European clubs and is currently undergoing training in Europe. Not to be forgotten Thounaojam Jeakson's powerful header against Colombia was the first ever goal by India in FIFA tournament.

FIFA has repeatedly claimed India is a sleeping giant in world soccer given its vast diversity with diverse people like Brazil- if it works, India can produce vibrant football. So far in Indian football history, it did well in 1948 London Olympics –came at fourth place. A decent performance under the captaincy of Dr T Ao- Tamerlain is an Ao from Mokokchung, Nagaland.

In 1950 FIFA invited India to participate in World Cup in Uruguay but the proposal was turned down by AIFF due to travel constraint and also not knowing much the importance of FIFA World Cup at that time- preference was given much to Olympics during those days.

India was once Asian powerhouse in 1950's. Even Manipur had great footballers in 1940's and 1950's. Sir Churachand KCSI is an avid football lover- British rulers admired the skill of Manipuris playing in the pologround. Maharaj Bodhchandra introduced CC Meet from early 1950's under his father's name to promote football in Manipur.

From 2026 India is quite certain to qualify for the World Cup as the new and young FIFA president Gian Infantino has already announced that - from USA 2026 the World Cup will be expanded from current 32 teams to 48- thus Asia will enjoy more continental slots from present 4 to 6, 7 or 8. Its high chance India will make a cut after Korea, Japan, China, Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Hope maximum Manipur i players represent India and participate FIFA World Cup for the first time ever- if not in USA 2026 and it can be at Uruguay 2030.

Let the beautiful game unfold- cup of joy forever !

* Sanasam Bamdev wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 17 , 2018.

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