The eyes and hearts of sports lovers the world over would be focused on Qatar, a small nation in the Middle East, for four weeks starting Sunday. Though the Olympics is often called the “greatest spectacle on earth”, the FIFA World Cup attracts a bigger audience, with an estimated 1.12 billion viewers watching the final of the last edition held in Moscow in 2018. FIFA is expecting more than five billion persons to watch the event in Qatar, which will make it the most viewed one in its history.
One interesting piece of information about this popular sport is that the first international match in football was played in 1872 between England and Scotland, only five years before the first cricket Test played between Australia and England in 1877. But the game became popular in various parts of the globe so rapidly that it was introduced in Olympics in 1908. Cricket, on the other hand, never attained the universal following that soccer achieved. The ostensible reason is the simplicity of football where the objective is to place the ball, which is tackled using legs, behind the goal line of the opposite side. But, in addition to the simple laws governing this sport, it should be appreciated that soccer spews a rare but brilliant concoction of beauty, skill, power, precision and planning. These features, along with a propensity to create edge-of-the-seat excitement and thrill, makes watching a game of football a uniquely entertaining experience for the spectator.
Jules Rimet, a sports administrator par excellence, who headed FIFA for 33 years between 1921 and 1954, understood the immense potential of this game and took the lead to organise the first ever World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Rimet was instrumental in four teams - France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia- travelling all the way to this nation located in South America to take part in this championship. Rimet ensured that the next two editions of this tournament were held in France and Italy respectively in 1934 and 1938. Though the championship could not take place in 1942 and 1946 due to the World War II and its immediate after effects, it resumed in 1950, when it was held in Brazil. Since then it has been held without break at four year intervals.
As the premier tournament of the most popular sport in the world, FIFA World Cup offers the biggest stage possible for top footballers to showcase their skills. Pele achieved the status of a legend after piloting Brazil to three championship titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Diego Maradona became a household name across the globe after single-handedly taking Argentina to the title win in 1986. Same is the case with Franz Beckenbauer of Germany, Paolo Rossi of Italy and Zinedine Zidane of France, all of who attained immortal status in their respective countries for the significant roles played by them in fashioning title triumphs. It is for this reason that top stars of the present day such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Harry Kane are looking forward to the event so eagerly so as to put their best foot forward and finish on the winners' podium.
The championship has also seen its fair share of upsets. The biggest one, arguably, took place in the finals of 1954 championship, a game which has gone down in football history as the “Miracle of Bern” and is considered as the moment of rebirth of German population after the humiliation following the World War II. The Hungarians, led by the legendary Ferenc Puskas and known as the “Magical Magyars”, were the favourite to win the trophy in that edition, with an unbeaten record of 30 matches in the previous four years. They had shown their flair and caliber by winning all the games in the run up to the final with tremendous ease. In the finals, they scored two goals against West Germany, who they had defeated 8-3 in the group match, within eight minutes of play, giving the impression that they had the trophy in their bag. But West Germany slowly found their feet and equalised within 20 minutes. When six minutes remained for the final whistle, Helmut Rahn slammed a cross past the goal line to make in 3-2 in favour of West Germany. In the last five minutes West Germany survived a Puskas goal, which was denied as “offside” despite protests by the Hungarian side, and couple of other close calls to win this match and lift the title.
Who are the favourites to win the championship this time around? In popular perception the top sides in world soccer at present are Brazil, Argentina, France, England, Belgium and Portugal. However, this does not mean that sides like Germany, who usually do well in the World Cup, Spain, who have a young promising team, and Uruguay, the eternal dark horses, do not stand a chance. If one adds the Netherlands also to this list, a total of 10 countries emerge, all of who stand a chance of finishing on the pole position.
Five-time champions Brazil always figure in the shortlist of teams likely to win the championship every time it is played. This time, they present a pragmatic mix of attack and defence and instilled in their fans a genuine belief that this side will bring back the trophy they last won in 2002. Neymar, their main striker, is supported by Vincius Junior, Raphinpha, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli, all of who are young and blessed with good speed, which make them a potent attacking unit. They have the best defence as well with Allison Becker at the goal and Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Marquinhos giving it an almost impregnable look.
Argentina are on a 36-match unbeaten streak, which includes defeating Brazil in the final of the Copa America last year. The team is no longer solely dependant on Messi as it has in its ranks players such as Angel de Maria, who can play both in midfield and in the wings, Pablo Dybala, a forward of exceptional skill, defender Cristian Romero and goalkeeper Emi Martinez. They have been moulded into a successful unit by coach Lionel Scaloni, who will be keen to ensure that this side wipes away the scar of poor performance at Moscow four years ago.
Defending champions France are plagued by injuries to their charismatic midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and defender Presnel Kimpembe. But their forward line-up of Kylian Mgappe, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud has a formidable ring to it. However, they will be confronted by the history of this championship which tells us that in the last 92 years, only on two occasions (1938 and 1962) have the champions successfully defended the title.
England came close to winning the Euro Cup in July, 2021, losing to Italy only in the penalty shootout. For all the hype of having the best football league in the world, England have won the World Cup only once, in 1966, when they hosted it. This edition gives the nation a fair opportunity for regaining their lost glory. They have one of the best strikers in contemporary football in Kane and he is ably supported by an young bunch of players as Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, all of who hold tremendous promise. When the experience of Raheem Sterling in attack and Kyle Walker in defence is added to this lot, the resultant mix promises to generate a force strong enough to take the side all the way.
Portugal is another side capable of lasting the distance. Gone are the days when this side tended to be equated with Ronaldo, their most popular player, whose best days appear to be behind him. The present team boasts of brilliant players such as Joao Cancelo, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Nuno Mendes and Danilo Periera in the defence, Bernando Silva in the midfield and Joao Felix and Rafael Leao in the forward line. They have also been provided with a draw which can see them through to the semifinals without any hiccup if their top players play to their potential.
Belgium, like Portugal, have underperformed on the big stage despite a surfeit of excellent players in their ranks. Though they finished third at Moscow and have been ranked No. 2 in the world since 2018, their performance in the last couple of years has not been inspiring. In Kevin de Bruyne, they possess one of the best midfielders in the world but a weak defence, despite having in Thibaut Courtois an outstanding goal keeper, and a wooden tactical approach might prove to be their Achilles heel in Qatar.
In this scenario, who does one back to win the trophy? Football fans in Kerala are torn between Brazil and Argentina, with huge cutouts of Messi and Neymar dotting the landscape. Portugal also have their share of supporters, thanks to the popularity of Ronaldo. In fact, Kerala might be the only place outside their home country where the Argentine side gets so much support, the reason for which continues to baffle many. The average Keralite is a knowledgable observer and an ardent follower of this beautiful game and football fever in the state is set to reach its peak, eclipsing all other activities, once action commences in Qatar.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)