DESCRIBED as the greatest show on earth, the FIFA World Cup Finals kick off to poignant excitement today with the hosts, Russia, taking on Saudi Arabia in the opening match. Held every four years, the World Cup is regarded as the pinnacle of sports. Thirty-two teams are slugging it out in 12 venues across 11 Russian cities, including the 81,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in the capital, Moscow, which will stage the opening match and the final on July 15. It promises to be a feast of football, drama, high-octane contests and tears of joy and pain.
Nigeria’s Super Eagles are one of the finalists, although Africa is also being represented by Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco (all North Africa), and Senegal (West Africa). Thirteen teams come from Europe, excluding Russia, who qualified automatically as hosts. South America has five teams, the same number as Asia. North America has three representatives, including Panama, who are making their debut. There will be 64 games overall, with the video assistant referee introduced for the first time in World Cup matches.
The prestigious absentees include the United States of America, Chile, the Netherlands – beaten finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010 – and Italy, four-time world champions. Cameroon, the first African team to grace the World Cup quarterfinals at Italia ’90, and Ghana, quarterfinalists in South Africa 2010, also lost out.
The Eagles, led by Coach Gernot Rohr, are captained by Mikel Obi, easily Nigeria’s most experienced campaigner. He is the sole survivor from Nigeria’s U-20 Flying Eagles that lost to Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships. Nigeria will campaign in Group D alongside Croatia, Iceland and two-time world champions Argentina (in that order). Interestingly, Nigeria and Argentina are familiar to each other. Except in France ’98, the Eagles have always been in the same first round group with Argentina, starting from their debut in USA ’94. The Super Eagles have lost all their four World Cup ties against Argentina.
With the Nigeria Football Federation having resolved the habitual disputes over bonuses, there is optimism among soccer fans that the Eagles will surpass their second round record. The Nigerians qualified from Africa’s “Group of Death,” eliminating Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia. Nigerian fans pin their hopes on some of the players who achieved that feat, including Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun.
The Eagles face a daunting challenge when they kick off on June 16. In their last two friendly matches, the team lost in narrow margins to England and the Czech Republic. Croatia, their first opponents, have several stars in Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren. Debutants Iceland reached the European Championships 2016 quarterfinals in France, though it was the tiny nation’s first time in major finals. With Messi, Sergio Agüero, Paolo Dybala and Angel Di Maria in the mix, Argentina could be the toughest nut to crack in the group. For history not to repeat itself in Russia, the Eagles have to be at their very best.
From inception in 1930, only a select few – eight in all – have won the World Cup. However, Brazil, who have five titles, have never won at home despite hosting it in 1950 and 2014. Pele, their all-time standout star, is the only player to have won three titles – first as a 17-year-old – in Sweden in 1958; in Chile ’62 and Mexico ’70. Their two other titles came at USA ’94 and Japan/Korea 2002. Germany and Italy have four trophies each. Brazil are also the only team to have played in all the 20 finals (there was no World Cup in 1942 and 1946 because of World War II, 1939-1945). Argentina (as hosts in 1978 and in Mexico ’86) and Uruguay (inaugural champions and hosts in 1930, and 1950 in Brazil) have triumphed twice each. England (as hosts in 1966), France (as hosts in 1998) and Spain in 2010 each wrote their names in gold once.
The smart money this time is that the champions in Russia are likely to come from among the past winners. Pundits tip Germany, Brazil or Spain to lift the 18-carat gold trophy, which stands 36.8 centimetres and weighs 6.1 kilogrammes. Their evidence is that, as defending champions, Germany, under Joachim Low (coach), retain the core of their team that humiliated Brazil 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals and beat Argentina 1-0 in the showpiece match at the Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro. With a second string team, the DFB-Elf won the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017 in Russia.
Under Tite as coach, Brazil have not lost since July 2017. Their rich attack of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino will cause massive nightmares for opposing defenders. Although Spain were poor in the defence of their title in 2014, La Roja are blessed with stupendous talents. Those with an outside chance are France, Belgium and Argentina. It will be momentous if an African nation can make it to the semifinals.
Apart from being champions of the world, the World Cup offers mega riches for the triumphant. Russia 2018 has a total prize pot of $791 million, far above what was on offer at Brazil 2014 ($576 million) or South Africa 2010 ($420 million). This time, the champions will take home $38 million and the runners-up, up to $28 million. Each finalist is guaranteed $1.5 million as participation bonus and $8 million for playing in the group stage.
The downside is that racism afflicts Russian sports. However, the country hosted the Olympics before so this plague should not be allowed to dampen the enthusiasm and glamour of the biggest and greatest sports show on planet Earth. And for the Super Eagles, only a qualification for the quarterfinals will satisfy the aspirations of their numerous fans at home and abroad.
(The Punch editorial)