Fans call it the beautiful game while detractors wonder why 11 men would go chasing a ball round a 100m by 64m field. But every four years, who can resist cheering when a player streaks down the wing and crosses the ball to the goalmouth, then watches, heart in mouth, as it grazes the bar before rolling into the net?
Smart, talented and fearless players weaving magic with their feet is the stuff dreams are made of. It is the reason many Malaysians stayed up late in the summer of 2014 or set their alarms to awake in the wee hours — we are 11 hours ahead of host Brazil — to catch the World Cup action. It is also what prompted those who did not subscribe to Astro to drive out to the mamak shop, share a table with strangers and join in the chorus of shouts and commentary.
Agony and ecstasy are played out continuously at the world’s largest single-sport event that attracts millions of TV viewers around the globe. There is also exaltation and glory, for no matter which side you are on, you will be moved when minnows rise to the occasion and rout bigger opponents, as happened when Colombia thumped Uruguay and James Rodríguez became a World Cup poster boy.
The countdown to the 2018 FIFA World Cup has begun for five-time champions Brazil, whose players, led by Neymar, checked into their Granja Comary training complex on May 21 in preparation for the games in Russia from June 14 to July 15.
Brazil, whose people eat, sleep and breathe football, had hoped to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy for the sixth time in 2014. Alas, it was routed 1-7 in the semi-final by Germany, who went on to beat Argentina 1-0 for its fourth title. The forlorn image of real estate agent Clovis Fernandes, the “Cowboy of the Cup” — who had followed the team to over 60 countries to watch them play — clutching a replica of the trophy is as indelible as that of thousands of weeping fans amid waves of green and yellow in the Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte.
Such is the drama of the tournament.
Who can forget Les Bleus captain Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt to the chest of Azzurri defender Marco Materazzi when the teams were locked 1-1 at the 2006 final in Berlin? Zizou’s red card cut short his last national outing and tripped the French momentum: Italy won 5-3 on penalties and became champs for the fourth time.
There were stars who dazzled with daring dribbles and thunderous volleys four years ago, among them Lionel Messi, Tim Cahill, Luka Modric, Robin van Persie, David Luiz, Gianluigi Buffon and Alexis Sanchez. And there were those that brought shame to the game, such as striker-biter Luis Suarez.
Who can forget the coaches who paced the sidelines, jumped for joy or placed a consoling arm on their players after a heartbreaking loss, as did Croatia’s “Sexiest Coach” Niko Kovač, when Mexico sent them packing?
Remember the vuvuzelas that caused a racket in South Africa in 2010? Or the wives and girlfriends who graced the stands and sizzled the tabloids? In the WAG gallery are Gerard Piqué’s partner Shakira, Russian model Irina Shayk, who is dating Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gabriella Lenzi and Margaret Natsuki, the girlfriends of Neymar and Shinji Kagawa respectively.
The 21st edition of the World Cup will see 32 teams competing in 64 matches at 12 venues in 11 Russian cities. Iceland and Panama are first-timers at the global finals. Inaugural 1930 winner Uruguay and Argentina (two titles each) and one-time winners Spain, France and England will be there. Among others who made the cut are Australia, Iran, Morocco, Belgium, Peru, Portugal, Costa Rica and Japan.
Die-hard England supporters — probably spawned by its seasonal leagues and championships — may have lost hope in the country repeating its 1966 victory, on home ground, led by Alf Ramsey. But newly appointed captain Harry Kane is confident.
“We know we’re not favourites to win it. But you look at this season, for example, no one would have thought Liverpool would have got to the Champions League final [on May 26] and they did. I believe we can win it and that’s what we’ve got to try and do. Anything else is not good enough, really,” he told the British papers on May 22.
Game to place your bet on the Three Lions or follow the punters, who are looking at Germany and Brazil (both with odds of 5/1), France (6/1) and Argentina (8/12)? England is a long shot at 25/1; likewise Croatia (28/1) and Colombia ( 33/1).
Germany, hailed for its teamwork and precise passes, has astute Joachim Löw taking a mix of youth and experience to Russia. Inspiring skipper Philipp Lahm has retired, as have dependable midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and World Cup-record goalscorer Miroslav Klose (16 goals in 24 appearances between 2002 and 2014).
But there is enough fire in the bellies of Mario Gomez (who slotted in the winner against Argentina in extra time), Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Sami Khedira and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for Die Mannschaft to bring home the prized trophy in consecutive tournaments.
Brazil will want to redeem itself after its devastating last outing and Neymar is heading the charge. But, as they say, the ball is round and anything can happen. Crowd favourites aside, analysts suggest that viewers keep an eye on underdogs Denmark, Egypt, Poland and South Korea.
Those who do not hope to catch a World Cup match in a stadium or will not be able to park themselves in front of the telly may find consolation in getting hold of its official merchandise. There are a lot out there, from stickers to scarves, mugs, duvet covers, totes, jerseys and trophy glasses.
For something inspirational that will never date, there is a poster featuring quotes by a quartet whose names are etched in the annals of World Cup history — Bobby Robson, Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona and Pelé. The last reminds us that in football, “Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string”.
So, bring the chips and chocolates out and get ready to chant olé!
This article first appeared on May 28, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.