KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- Summits of the G7 are important and may weigh on world diplomacy and economic balances. But nothing reaches into the heart of the masses like sport and, within that sphere, nothing compares with the World Cup.
That is what makes the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia — to apply the marketeers’ formal terminology – such a magnet of worldwide attention across all strata of society.
Modern association football was designated by one of its English founding fathers, back in the 19th century, as the “simplest game.” One team of 11 players must score goals than the other. Easy.
The 32 teams here in Russia and the thousands of fans who are trailing in from not only the usual take-offs points in the affluent western world but Peru, Egypt, Mexico, Panama and the like . . . these are the most important players.
Media may obsess about President Vladimir Putin’s political machinations, about governance chaos within FIFA, about the billions generated by the sponsors and paid in by the television channels plus the duel for 2026 World Cup host rights between Morocco and the United States (and junior partners Canada and Mexico).
Once the final whistle has been blown back here in the rebuilt Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on July 15, however, the only single fact which will resonate down the years – or, at least, until 2022 – is the result of the last match and the identity of the winners.
Six nations, at most, arrived with reasonable hope that history will alight on their shoulders: record five-times winners Brazil, holders and four-times champions Germany, Argentina (1978 and 1986), Spain (2010) and France (1998) – though Spain may have committed a fatal own goal by sacking Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui.
Both Uruguay (1930 and 1950) and England (1966) travel in hope but will be satisfied – even relieved – if they make it as far as the quarter-finals.
Unpredictable competitors are 2016 European champions Portugal. If they do set Russia alight then they will have to improve on their stunted displays in France when they drew all their group matches.
For the likes of newcomers Iceland and Panama their World Cup triumph has already been achieved in appearing here. Anything further is a bonus. Iceland will not benefit, this time either, from the complacency to which their opponents succumbed when they reached the last eight at Euro 2016.
This is one of the entrancing powers of football: continuity. These same nations have been entertaining and frustrating generations of fans down not merely the months and years but decades. Uruguay, Argentina and France were all competing in the inaugural finals in 1930; Germany and Spain since 1934; England since 1950.
Clubs and country
That continuity is a twin-track trail which also keeps fans ‘imprisoned’ through the clubs system. Players come and go but clubs and countries keep on going.
Occasionally the game throws up players whose exceptionality blasts through the barriers of team loyalty. Two will grace the finals here in Russia: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. In a football world of high-focus fitness, preparation and tactics their goalscoring activities have been nothing short of a sporting miracle.
Messi has scored 552 goals in 637 games for Barcelona, a record 64 in 124 outings for Argentina; Ronaldo boasts 573 goals in 761 club games for Sporting, Manchester United and Real Madrid plus a record 81 in 150 for Portugal. Watching them with envy is Brazil’s Neymar whose ambition is to push them both off the all the world player prize podiums.
No-one expects any of them to threaten the all-time record of 13 goals set by French centre-forward Just Fontaine in 1958 or even the 11 of Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis in 1954, even though those were achieved in 16-team tournaments.
Of course Russia 2018 could see a new superstar to match them, as did James Rodriguez fleetingly in 2014. Egypt’s Mo Salah? England’s Harry Kane? France’s Antoine Griezmann?
Here is the other attraction of the World Cup: the proof of an endless turnover of star names to keep refreshing the enthusiasm, the magnetism. Russian fans are hoping to see such a feast, amid pessimism over their own host national team who are bottom of the FIFA World Ranking of the 32 finalists.
Russia might, just might, surprise their own fans. That would be good news for FIFA. The tournament needs the hosts to overcome not only Saudi Arabia in the Opening Match but also the first round group. Uncertainty reigns supreme.
One more reason why nothing quite compares with the World Cup.