Listen for the first whistle

Lance
Neita

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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World Cup excitement has gripped Jamaica and we are getting ready for those four weeks of world-class competition June 14 to July 15 in Russia.

The Kingston vendors have been out on the streets with the flags of seemingly all nations from early May. In our neck of the woods the flags are also flying, although on closer scrutiny I noticed that some belong to countries not represented in Russia, but nevertheless they are flying high on pole.

World Cup brings out a nice feeling of belonging, not just to your favoured country, but to the world. It is a certainty that we will be seeing good football from every team and, even if our country is not in the draw, we can empathise with the effort, the skills, the talents, and the incredible stories behind every team that made it through the qualifiers to reach where they are now.

It has not been easy. The 32 teams now in Russia had to go through an intense qualifying period over the last three years.

Most surprising, and disappointing, was the elimination of four-time champions Italy, who lost out when they drew with Sweden and relinquished their place to them on goal aggregate 1-0.

They are not the only missing ones. What about the Netherlands, Chile (South American champions), and the mighty USA?

But while the world weeps with Italy, all eyes are firmly fixed on the playing fields of Russia. In making my own preparation, including drawing my armchair closer to the TV, I took time out to research through Wikipedia the facts, the history, the records, the structure of this competition. I am pleased to share some of these with my readers, many of whom are already well-informed, others who will need the information to bolster their arguments at home and abroad.

Here goes my 'did you know?': The previous 20 World Cup tournaments have been won by only eight national teams. Brazil have won five times, and they are the only team to have played in every tournament. The other World Cup winners are Germany and Italy with four titles each. Argentina and Uruguay with two titles each, and England, France and Spain with one title each. So there you have it, sorry to spoil the fun, but don't allow those boys to tell you anything else.

The competition, as we know it today, had its formative year in 1930 when FIFA named Uruguay as the host country of the inaugural tournament. However, the choice wasn't popular. For the Europeans, it meant long and costly trips by boat across the Atlantic. Eventually Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia made the trip, and 13 nations took part.

Uruguay defeated Argentina 4-2 in front of a huge crowd of 93,000 people in Montevideo and became the first nation to win the World Cup.

On to the fabled 1950 World Cup which was held in Brazil. The final turned out to be a historic match with Brazil, the favourites, upset by old-time rivals Uruguay. The story is told of how the confident Brazilians organised a street carnival the night before the final and had their newspapers printing bold headlines before the kick-off, 'Meet Brazil, the new world champions'.

The game was played at the Maracană Stadium, and even today the mention of it evokes a feeling of national shame in Brazil, with the match referred to mockingly as the “Maracanazo”.

Interestingly, the 7-1 defeat suffered by Brazil to Germany in 2014 is referred to as the “Mineirazo”, and the term “sete a um”, which means 7-1, is set to haunt Brazil again this year when they face Germany in the semi-finals or the final, which I confidently predict from my armchair that they will.

The tournament was expanded from 16 to 24 teams in 1982, and then to 32 in 1988, allowing more teams from Africa, Asia and North America to take part. Since then, teams from these regions have enjoyed more success, with several having reached the quarter-finals: Mexico, quarter-finalists in 1986; Cameroon, quarter-finalists in 1990; South Korea finishing in fourth place in 2002; Senegal along with USA, both quarter-finalists in 2002; Ghana quarter-finalists in 2010; and Costa Rica quarter-finalists in 2014.

Nevertheless, European and South American teams continue to dominate; for example, the quarter-finalists in 1994, 1998, and 2006 were all from Europe or South America, and so were the finalists of all tournaments.

The competition has now been upped to 48 teams, starting with the 2026 World Cup.

The corruption cases that erupted in 2015 amongst FIFA executives has marred the image of the game, with charges of bribery, fraud and money laundering. FIFA officials have been accused of taking bribes totalling more than US$150 million over 24 years. The jury is still out on some of these case, but there are other controversies looming over the Russia's hosting of the games.

Issues such as racism in Russian football, and Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict, charges of meddling in the USA elections, and accusations of arson-linked killings have all intensified public discussion on the appropriateness of Russia as a host country.

Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin, without the presence of the US and their president, Donald Trump, is riding high and using the tournament to showcase the best of Russia to the world. Security will be key to the successful hosting of the games and Putin has made it abundantly clear that security all around Russia will be tight; so dissidents, watch out!

Outside of the games there will be plenty to see and enjoy, as Russia has scenic spots, beautiful architecture, and many historic monuments.

For anyone new to World Cup, or not too familiar with the structure of the competition, here is what you will see play out on your television screens next week. There are two stages: the group stage followed by the knockout stage.

In the group stage, teams compete within eight groups of four teams each. Each group plays a round-robin tournament (if you are familiar with bar hopping you will know what this means), in which each team is scheduled for three matches against other teams in the same group. This means that a total of six matches are played within a group. The top two teams from each group then advance to the knockout stage in the quarters and semi-finals.

So far, South Africa (2010) has been the only host nation to fail to advance beyond the first round. Russia is not expected to do any better.

Sports enthusiasts are always willing to wager a bet as to which player has scored the most goals in World Cup. The award goes to Miroslav Klose of Germany as the all-time top scorer at the finals, with 16 goals. He broke Ronaldo of Brazil's record of 15 goals during the semi-final match against Brazil. West Germany's Gerd Muller is third, with 14 goals. The fourth-placed goalscorer, France's Just Fontaine, holds the record for the most goals scored in a single World Cup, all his 13 goals were scored in the 1958 tournament.

And now it's time to talk about the 2018 possible winners. The experts are favouring Brazil, Germany, Spain, and France as the top dogs. All are former champions and will not be welcomed home without the trophy. If the tournament plays true to form, it may boil down to Brazil facing France in one semi-final and Germany and Spain in the other. Then look for a Brazil vs Germany final. From my armchair this is exactly what I expect to happen. But this is the beautiful game, round ball and all, and you never can tell what may happen.

However, 2018 for Brazil is still anchored on just how fit Neymar will be after his recent surgery. Brazil's hopes for success are centred on individual players of the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus. Brazil boast of an attacking line-up that brings back memories of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Neymar has been an international force for a while, but the introduction of Coutinho and Jesus has injected life into Brazil's forward line.

They have an enviable record in the qualifiers and recent warm-up matches, but defenders pressing forward and leaving wide open gaps behind have been the price some of the teams from the past have paid. This side will be no different. This always happens when your team is packed with outstanding individuals; so please, Brazil, don't leave those wide open spaces.

Meanwhile, the odds are against Germany winning back-to-back titles — no team has achieved that. But, unlike Brazil, they come at the opposition as a team of 11 players.

According to journalist Henry Bushnell, they will play fluidly, but mechanically, like 11 intricately programmed, sturdily built robots. More specifically, with Tony Kroos next to a more active or robust player at the base of midfield, Mesut Ozil drifting between the lines, and Thomas Muller coming in off the right to seek out space. Timo Werner, assuming he starts up top, likes to run the channels. The left-sided attacker, Julian Draxler or Marco Reus, would prefer to interchange with Ozil or drop into midfield.

The standout player for the German outfit is Ozil. The five-time German Player of the Year will participate in his third World Cup after the Arsenal play maker debuted at the tournament in South Africa 2010.

My Thursday evening amateur analysts club has been having difficulty recognising some of the new names that have been cropping up to replace the older stars. These are all youngsters who have already displayed their form in Premier League matches, but are making their first World Cup appearances. Get used to the names from now, because we'll be hearing much about them. Look out for Marco Asensio from Spain, a midfielder who they say will be taking over the tempo from Ronaldo. Gabriel Jesus (an easy name to remember), 21 years old, from Brazil, is a gifted all-rounder who was the top scorer in Brazil's qualifying rounds. A youngster, 19 years of age, Kylian Mbappe from France, is the reason so many are tipping France to colt the game and take home the prize. The name Timo Werner already has heads turning; he is from Germany and will fill the hole in the attack left by retiree Miroslav Klose. Look out too for the 'bubble gum' player, 23, Bernardo Silva from Portugal, thus nicknamed because of his ability to make the ball look like it's sewed on to his feet. And to your list add and watch out for Tottenham's Dele Alli playing for England. He's said to be a temperamental player with “pace and technical ability to link with Harry Kane and ignite England's somewhat subdued hopes in Russia”.

These are just some of the over 700 players who will be on show, a mouthwatering prospect, a summer to look forward to. Oh, to be in Russia now. But, alas, we cannot all join the government ministers and advisors (the plane can't hold all of us), so take your seats, please, sit back at home, lock your office doors, make noise at the club, and enjoy.

 

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and would-be World Cup player. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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