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The new football season has started with a bang. Neymar’s dramatic transfer to Paris Saint Germain for a fee that doubled the world transfer record may have troubled purists, but high-scoring games in the Barclays Premier League and Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Barcelona in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup offered a timely reminder that the real thrills of football happen on the pitch.
A new season is also a reminder that another event seeped in money and sporting glory is on the way. The 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup will take place in Russia between June the 14th and July the 15th 2018 and will, as usual, draw the eyes of the world.
The 2017/18 football season won’t really end – it will escalate. World Cups have long been considered the pinnacle of the sport and host of its most iconic moments: Pele’s goals; Maradona’s dribbles and Hand of God exploits against England; Ronaldo’s breakdown and Zidane’s double at France ’98; Iniesta’s extra time winner for tiki-taka Spain.
In recent years club football has threatened to usurp international football as the highest level of the game. Ever-increasing TV revenues have armed the biggest clubs with the resources to build star-studded teams, with the consequence that international breaks are viewed by many as an interruption to the club season.
World Cups, however, remain the exception to the rule. The quadrennial format ensures that, like the Olympics, World Cups generate a sense of occasion few tournaments can match.
Russia 2018 has been dogged by controversy. Revelations of corruption within FIFA have led to investigations into the bidding process for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, while Russia’s aggression towards the Ukraine and issues with racism and intolerance within Russian football have led to calls for boycotts.
It’s worth remembering, however, that both preceding World Cups, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, were plagued by concerns over funding and the potential for civilian unrest in the build up to the events. Both tournaments took place and were a success, with a TV audience of 715 million (almost one tenth of Earth’s population) said to have watched Germany’s 2014 final win in the Maracana.
When the first game kicks off in Russia 2018 football will do the talking. Ultimately, that’s what the World Cup has always been about.
The first FIFA World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930. The success of recent Olympic football tournaments convinced many within FIFA, notably its president Jules Rimet, that there was an appetite for a worldwide football championship.
Uruguay were granted the right to host the inaugural games to tie in with celebrations for the 100th anniversary of their independence – and because they promised to pay the travel and accommodation fares of all the other teams!
Worldwide travel in 1930 was a significant consideration. European teams heading to South America would have to prepare themselves for a two-week ocean liner trip across the Atlantic and a two-month absence from home, which deterred many nations from committing to the event.
France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia were finally convinced to make the crossing by Rimet and joined seven teams from South America plus the USA and Mexico in the draw. Uruguay won the tournament with an exciting 4-2 final victory over Argentina but did not take part in the next two World Cups as a protest at the poor turnout of European teams.
If European teams weren’t prepared to travel why not take the tournament to Europe? Italy won the next two World Cups, their home championships in 1934 and the 1938 World Cup in France, before the outbreak of the Second World War led to an inevitable hiatus.
The World Cup returned in Brazil in 1950, with Uruguay returning to the action (and winning again) and British clubs invited to participate for the first time after settling historic differences with FIFA.
Brazil may not have won their home World Cup but they stamped their authority on the tournament in the following two decades. One Brazilian in particular became synonymous with the World Cup. Sweden 1958 introduced a new world star, perhaps the greatest star of them all, when an inspired 17-year-old named Edson Arantes do Nascimento propelled Brazil to the title.
Pele, as do Nascimento was also known (much to the relief of commentators), came into the tournament carrying an injury but scored a hat-trick in the semi-final against France and a double in the final against Sweden to put his name up in lights. His second goal in the final, a deft flick over a defender followed by a volley into the net, was voted one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time.
Perhaps only Diego Maradona’s heroics at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico rival Pele’s impact. Maradona scored or assisted 10 of Argentina’s 14 goals as they claimed their second World Cup and scored his infamous Hand of God goal against England in the quarter-final.
By now the World Cup had expanded to a 24-team event. It was increased to its current 32-team format at France 1998 to allow more teams from Africa, Asia and North America to take part. The scale of the event was emphasised by the mysterious malaise that affected Brazilian superstar Ronaldo in the final, where he was withdrawn from the starting line-up then reinstated as Zinedine Zidane scored two headers to earn a home triumph for France.
Ronaldo found redemption four years later in South Korea and Japan when he scored eight goals, including a double in the final against Germany, to give Brazil their record fifth World Cup victory.
The rich heritage of the World Cup gives it a prestige that arguably outshines any other sporting event. Who will write the next chapter in the great World Cup story?
At the time of writing only three teams have confirmed their place at next year’s finals. Home team Russia received direct entry, while Brazil and Iran have produced such fine results in qualifying their places are already assured.
A quick glimpse at the qualifying tables suggests that many of the “big” European teams will make it. France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Italy, England and Belgium all have strong points tallies and will be scouting hotels in Russia, though the Netherlands have some ground to make up in their group.
The African qualifiers are still wide open, but perhaps the most competitive qualifying group is South America. Despite the presence of Messi in their ranks, Argentina have failed to convince in qualifying and currently sit fifth in a table where only the top three automatically progress to the World Cup.
Argentina remain in contention but are competing with three strong teams, Uruguay, Columbia and Chile, for a place in Russia 2018.
Messi failing to make it to the World Cup sounds unthinkable, but the brilliant Argentine has failed to light up the event like his countryman Maradona did in 1986. Messi’s only real contemporary rival, Cristiano Ronaldo has also enjoyed mixed fortunes at World Cups.
It is perhaps a sign of the recent shift in power from international to club football that Messi and Ronaldo are assured of their place in football folklore even if they fail to dominate a World Cup in the manner of Pele and Maradona.
That said, both superstars will be desperate to make an impression if they make it to Russia 2018. With Ronaldo 33 and Messi 30, Russia 2018 probably represents their last opportunity to drag their team to the title.
Many have argued that Neymar’s move to Paris St. Germain was an effort to escape the shadow cast by Messi. Neymar may have played second fiddle at Barcelona, but he has always been centre stage for Brazil and has formed a potent attacking trident with Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Man City’s Gabriel Jesus for the Seleção.
Brazil will rightly go into Russia 2018 as one of the favourites, alongside champions Germany and 2010 winners Spain, who are still the pass masters of world football.
Who else can launch a serious bid for the title?
France have fallen apart badly at recent World Cups, notably South Africa 2010 where the players infamously mutinied. The rise of young stars such as Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Anthony Martial, alongside the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Raphael Varane, offers hope for a brighter future and, on paper, the French squad is as strong as any.
Belgium are also in the midst of a Golden Age. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are among the star names that could take them to their first World Cup and, with French champion Thierry Henry in their coaching staff, they have someone in their ranks who’s been there and done it.
Looking beyond Europe, Chile have won the last two Copa Americas and play with pace and energy, while African teams have long been tipped to make a bigger impression in the final stages of World Cups. Could Russia 2018 produce the first ever African World Cup winners?
The eyes of the world will turn to Moscow and the other host cities in June 2018. Predictions are always risky, but let’s hope it’s the football that dominates the headlines.