Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
S Chander

Will it be Messi versus the rest?

If Russia is experiencing the frenzy before the much-awaited FIFA World Cup, the enthusiasm of Indians is no less. In fact, with Russia hosting the event, a record number of Indians have bought tickets to watch the event live in their friendly neighbourhood.

Notwithstanding the fact that India is not amongst the team qualified for this prestigious event, there is every possibility that the TRP ratings of this mega show would overshoot any other WC hosted in the past. Going by an estimate conducted by leading football site, fans from India have bought more tickets than the English fans who are known all over the world as biggest supporters of the game.
There is a reason for this. Fans from states like Kerala and Bengal are applying in large numbers to the Russian embassy for visas during this time. Traditionally, Indians have always backed Argentina and Brazil. But this time around, Russia being the host and the country’s long-standing friend, it is certainly going to get a lot of support from this part of the world.
And who doesn’t know that host countries have always excelled in the past. This time, Stanislav Cherchesov carries the hopes of making a positive impact on home soil. Russians will certainly draw inspiration from South Korean experience in 2002.
There are other countries which have failed to handle the pressure of performing before the home crowd. Be it South Africa in 2010 or Poland & Ukraine in Euro 2012, they have all failed to advance beyond group stages.
Therefore, it remains to be seen what results Russia can show. Russia is clubbed along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay in Group A. And mind it, Uruguay with Barcelona star Luis Suárez and Egypt with Liverpool best striker Mohamed Salah have already been picked as best two to advance by football pundits.

Where do world No. 66 Russia’s hopes and dreams die is something everyone would love to watch in coming days. Especially, when several Russian regulars are sidelined with injuries and only one is a full-time starter in a major league outside Russia. The key to remaining hopeful would certainly be a win against Saudis in the opener.

Spain or Portugal
Group B, one would think, is much more sorted than others, with Spain and Portugal certain to advance to the next round. But hold on… Playing in Russia will be like having home advantage to its friendly country, Iran.
Despite worldwide sanctions, Iran has managed to reach this far for the second successive time and can dream more with the support of local fans. Morocco being the other country may not be as dangerous as Iran, but there are mouthwatering contests between Spain-Iran or Portugal-Iran in the offing. Morocco qualified for the first time in 20 years, beating out group favourite Ivory Coast.
Spain, on the other hand, has got back to their best which helped them win WC and European Cup at one go. Having a record of nine victories in qualifying and a draw, the entire world took notice of Spain when they defeated a team like Argentina 6-1 in a friendly this summer.
And who doesn’t know players like Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Sergio Busquets or Jordi Alba from teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona. Their familiarity with Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo could well come handy when the clash of two titans would take place for a top spot in the group.

Les Bleus are back
Champions in 1998, exited from group stage four years back but reached the finals again in 2006. France will be a force to reckon with in Russia this time around.
Given the way Les Bleus have vibrant attackers and a great line-up with a rich experience of European club soccer, many pundits see them as genuine title contenders. France has three of the top five most expensive players, in club transfer history, in their squad. Kylian Mbappe (Monaco to Paris Saint-German for $168 million), Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona, $122 million) and Paul Pogba (Juventus to Manchester United, $122 million) are all lined-up in national jerseys to make their coach Didier Deschamps (skipper of 1998 WC winner team) dream of one more WC trophy.
Despite being clear group favourites, France will have to slug it out with Peru and Denmark to reach summit. Peru, in particular, are making their first appearance since 1982. One would be surprised to know why on the earth despite so much talent and Copa America successes (semi-finals in 1997, 2011 and ’15) that Peru had such a long drought. The credit now goes to Peru’s Argentine coach, Ricardo Gareca, under whom this team had rocking start to qualifying winning eight matches without a defeat.
With skipper Paolo Guerrero having been reinstated after being suspended for failing a drug test, Peru is reaching Russia on a mission.
Australia, being the fourth team in the Group C, have made it for fourth consecutive finals.

Messi’s Argentina
Lionel Messi and Argentina, this combination is hard to face for Iceland or Croatia or even African eagles Nigeria in Group D.
Four years after finishing second, Argentines are certainly one of the top three teams expected to win in Russia. Keeping aside the 6-1 fiasco against Spain in a March friendly, was the only blot, which would be advised to forget, Messi has this last chance to make himself an immortal. He is certainly extraordinary but needs to get ample support from his mates like Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.
Going back in history, Messi understands that he will be tightly marked and tested by his opponents like the way Diego Maradona in 80s and 90s. Knocking off Messi could well be his opponent’s strategy but then Barcelona star is not ignorant of any such evil ideas.
On the other hand, Iceland is the feel-good story of the tournament. Having missed out 2014 WC by a whisker, Iceland went unbeaten in group play and upsetting England in the round of 16 to finish ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.
Croatia finished third in their first-ever appearance in WC 20-year ago as an independent nation. However, things turned topsy turvy as they won just two out of nine. While, Nigeria are eager to count their appearance this time around. Gifted with enormous promise, Victor Moses-led Nigeria have never ventured beyond the round of 16.

Brazilian samba
Brazil lived a horrible dream on home ground four years ago when they were routed 7-1 by Germany, the eventual champions.
Four years have healed those wounds but complete comfort can only be achieved by lifting WC again. Having won the WC a record five times, Brazilian football is a combination of entertainment and technique. The artistry of Neymar can certainly be not matched by anyone else, but the defence needs to be at its best if Brazil has to win the Cup one more time.
Serbia and Switzerland are the teams to compete for a place behind them. Though Costa Rica was a delight in 2014, topping England, Italy, and Uruguay and reaching the quarter-finals before falling to the Netherlands on penalty kicks. But a lot has changed since then. Swiss have risen to No. 6 in the FIFA ranks and Serbia has many stars from Europe.

Germany machines on display
Group F has champions at display. Joachim Loew, who has spent 14 years as an assistant and head coach implementing a mechanical system of playing football has once again assembled a dozen machines to follow his gameplan. This can be judged when Mario Goetze, who scored the winning goal against Argentina in 2014 final, was left out of the squad for Russia because he failed to fit into Loew’s plan of action.
But the core group of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler remains in the German team. The only worry for them at the group stage can be Mexico who have young talent like Hirving Lozano, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Hector Herrera.
Sweden will be returning to WC action after a gap of 12 years and this is not good news for others. The genius called Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back on the world stage. Though a bit aged now, Ibrahimovic could still spell magic with his smart dribbling or fast runs. South Korea can only be treated with a tag of consistency, qualifying for nine consecutive tournaments.

Belgium’s golden generation
If everything works according to their plans, Belgium’s golden generation will have this last chance to corner glory. The No. 3 ranked Red Devils could well be the most dangerous of the team as a whole in Group G.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany (should he recover in time from a groin injury) and Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku and Napoli’s Dries Mertens are some names who are hard to be stopped by their opponents.
Needless to say, this country with 11.4 million population has produced mind-blowing talents in last decade or so.
England, on the other hand, fell short of expectations. Aside from runs to the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and ’96 European Championship, England have failed to reach the quarter-finals in eight of the past 12 major competitions.
Tunisia returns to the WC after missing two tournaments, while Panama joined Iceland as the tournament’s only first-time participants.

Surprise for Poland
Strange but true… It was six months back when FIFA conducted the draw using the most recent rankings to determine the top eight seeds. Russia was obviously ranked as hosts, but Poland coming in top eight shocked almost everyone along with Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, and France.
Having failed to qualify for five of the previous seven WCs, Poland ranking has made it the fanciest team in the competition. The rising Poles enjoyed a fruitful Euro ’16 by equalling Germany’s point total in group play and defeating Croatia in the round of 16. And this was after Poland qualified for Euro Championship after 48 years.
Counting players like Robert Lewandowski, who scored 89 league goals in the past three Bayern Munich campaigns and 10 in World Cup qualifying, Poland will need his assistance to finish ahead of tough Colombia in the Group H.
Colombia is richer with Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao who have enjoyed tremendous success at the European circuit.
Japan have appeared at the World Cup each time since its 1998 debut, but have not reached the round-of-16 in last five tournaments. While Senegal is another underdogs to be wary off by many as their entire squad has been playing top club football in Europe.

Sizzling Schedule

June 14, 2018:
Russia vs Saudi Arabia (8:30 pm)

June 15, 2018:
Egypt vs Uruguay (5:30 pm),
Morocco vs Iran (8:30 pm),
Portugal vs Spain (11:30 pm)

June 16, 2018:
France vs Australia (3:30 pm),
Croatia vs Nigeria (5:30 pm),
Argentina vs Iceland (6:30 pm),
Peru vs Denmark (9:30 pm)

June 17, 2018:
Costa Rica vs Serbia (12:30am),
Germany vs Mexico (8:30 pm),
Brazil vs Switzerland (11:30 pm)

June 18, 2018:
Sweden vs South Korea (5:30 pm),
Belgium vs Panama (8:30 pm),
Tunisia vs England (11:30 pm)

June 19, 2018:
Poland vs Senegal (5:30 pm),
Colombia vs Japan (8:30 pm),
Russia vs Egypt (11:30 pm)

June 20, 2018:
Portugal vs Morocco (5:30 pm),
Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia (8:30 pm),
Iran vs Spain (11:30 pm)

June 21, 2018:
France vs Peru (5:30 pm),
Denmark vs Australia (4:30 pm),
Argentina vs Croatia (11:30 pm)

June 22, 2018:
Brazil vs Costa Rica (5:30 pm),
Nigeria vs Iceland (8:30 pm),
Serbia vs Switzerland (4:30 pm)

June 23, 2018:
Belgium vs Tunisia (5:30 pm),
Germany vs Sweden (8:30 pm),
South Korea vs Mexico (11:30 pm)

June 24, 2018:
England vs Panama (5:30 pm),
Japan vs Senegal (8:30 pm),
Poland vs Colombia (11:30 pm)

June 25, 2018:
Saudi Arabia vs Egypt (7:30 pm),
Uruguay vs Russia (8:30 pm),
Iran vs Portugal (11:30 pm),
Spain vs Morocco (10:30 pm)

June 26, 2018:
Australia vs Peru (7:30 pm),
Denmark vs France (7:30 pm),
Nigeria vs Argentina (11:30 pm),
Iceland vs Croatia (11:30 pm)

June 27, 2018:
South Korea vs Germany (7:30 pm),
Mexico vs Sweden (7:30 pm),
Serbia vs Brazil (11:30 pm),
Switzerland vs Costa Rica (11:30 pm)

June 28, 2018:
Japan vs Poland (7:30 pm),
Senegal vs Colombia (7:30 pm),
Panama vs Tunisia (11:30 pm),
England vs Belgium (10:30 pm)

Round of 16:
June 30, 2018:
Group C winners vs Group D runners-up (7:30 pm),
Group A winners vs Group B runners-up (11:30 pm)

July 1, 2018:
Group B winners vs Group A runners-up (7:30 pm),
Group D winners vs Group C runners-up (11:30 pm)

July 2, 2018:
Group E winners vs Group F runners-up (12:30am),
Group G winners vs Group H runners-up (11:30 pm),

July 3, 2018:
Group F winners vs Group E runners-up (7:30 pm)
Group H winners vs Group G runners-up (11:30 pm)

July 6, 2018: QF 1 (7:30 pm) vs QF 2 (11:30 pm)

July 7, 2018:
QF 3 (7:30 pm) vs QF 4 (11:30 pm)

July 10, 2018:
Winner QF 1 vs Winner QF 2 (11:30 pm)

July 11, 2018:
Winner QF 3 vs Winner QF 4 (11:30 pm)

Third place playoff:
July 14, 2018:
Loser of SF 1 vs Loser of SF 2

July 15, 2018:
Winner of SF 1 vs Winner of SF 2 (8:30 pm)

This article was first published in the Patriot

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.