If there was a sense that the build-up to the 2018 Fifa World Cup was a bit dull, it was punctured on Wednesday when Spain decided to sack its manager Julen Lopetegui two days before the team plays its opening match against Portugal. Here, perhaps, lies the magic of the World Cup. When everything looks certain, an astonishing turn of events lurks in the corner.
The Spain fracas should be a reminder to everyone who thinks the World Cup in Russia will play out on expected lines. When the teams were drawn last December, the group stage seemed rather benign for the major teams. Since then, Argentina’s defensive problems have multiplied, Portugal and France have struggled to find fit defenders, Brazil has lost its first-choice right back Dani Alves to injury, and now Spain has chosen to dispense with its manager.
Even though the top four contenders – Brazil, Spain, Germany, and France – remain formidable, it takes very little to dislodge the best of sides. However, it would be no less shocking if any of them were to fall before the knockouts. There exists a considerable gap between the top four sides and the rest, with Brazil arguably edging ahead of everyone at the moment.
Among the rest, Argentina is arguably the biggest force with feet of clay. Despite possessing arguably the most talented of footballers on the planet in Lionel Messi, there is a discernible lack of pace to the rest of the team. Belgium is better placed, but, under manager Roberto Martinez, the side has a soft underbelly. England’s history of underwhelming displays at the World Cup means that it will be rated lowly. But the English side’s underdog credentials are strong since its pacey youngsters can hurt any opponent on their day.
Outside this circle lie teams with giant-killing potential. Morocco will fancy its chances of upsetting either Portugal or Spain in Group B, boosted by the skilful Hakim Ziyech. Uruguay and Croatia are bursting with individual talent while Denmark is fast, direct, and aggressive in its style of play.
Russia is an obvious name which has failed to make the list. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament is considered to be the weakest Russian side in history. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has qualified for the World Cup thrice but failed to progress past the group stage. When the host lines up to play Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, its fans will not be too hopeful of an improvement in Russia’s record.
The tempered expectations are a result of a slide in standards of Russian football over the past decade. It was only at Euro 2008 that Russia took the tournament by storm, losing only in the semis to eventual champion Spain. However, after ill-fated stints with managers like Dick Advocaat, Fabio Capello, and Leonid Slutsky, the Russian side finds itself under the leadership of coach Stanislav Cherchesov.
Cherchesov is often seen as an establishment man, his grip on tactics never too certain. With his football pedigree under a shadow of doubt, Russian fans are not very excited about the team’s prospect. After arriving in Moscow on July 10, I noted with some surprise that the World Cup build-up was somewhat muted.
It has risen a few notches since, with visiting fans more responsible for bringing colour than the host. In the days leading up to the World Cup opener, one was likely to see the flag of most participants on the streets. Iranians led the noisy delights in Moscow, while Peruvian fans stood out for their coordinated chanting.
However, Russian fans are expected to come out in large numbers for the opening game. A good start could transform the side’s confidence and one should expect a sold-out Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday. The World Cup iconography has been understated for the most part but the renovated Luzhniki stands as a reminder of past glories – the old structure preserved by a façade wall.
Now that the World Cup is here, it will also be time for the Russian public to assess whether the outlay of $11 billion was justified. The home team may not give the fans much joy on the pitch; the greater issue here will be that no less than seven venues at the World Cup face an uncertain future.
Whether the Vladimir Putin administration is invested in associating itself with this tournament to the extent it was involved with the Winter Olympics in Sochi remains to be seen. Early signs suggest that is not the case; the Russian establishment had its hands burnt, after all, with the subsequent doping scandal. If there are any controversies to follow this time around, though, they are unlikely to be as pernicious.
Inevitably, we will see some handwringing over the newly introduced video referrals, which will make its World Cup debut in Russia. But if VAR turns out to be the only scare, the tournament organisers will heave a sigh of relief. However, as Spain reminded us on Wednesday, we should know better than to expect a serene ride.
Priyansh is an independent writer, presently in Russia for the FIFA World Cup. He tweets @GarrulousBoy