The Beautiful Game


By Rijul Nadkarni (RBG)

Football isn’t just a game ; it’s an emotion . The World Cup isn’t about Football. It’s about everything. The planet’s greatest traveling festival is  here , alive and kicking  and it’s about a lot more than what happens on the pitch. It’s about politics, economics and  social issues. It’s about race ,  class and history. It’s about corruption and nationalism, fear and joy. It’s about everything , an event that brings Political leaders together , plans reunions for long lost friends in different parts of the world, and spreads a unique flavour . Not to forget , the official FIFA World Cup songs always create a buzz among the circuit . “ Live it Up “  and “Colors “ have done their bit , hitting the billboards in style , but there’s no denying that the most impactful World Cup songs were Shakira’s “Waka Waka “ and K Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag “ in 2010 .

 

 

 

 

As I write this , here we are again on the eve of penultimate round of the planet’s greatest traveling festival: Yes, it’s almost time  for the World Cup Semi Finals .  This event — every four years, 32 teams, one champion — is about so much more than what happens on the grass among 22 men. Now , only four teams are alive in the tournament.

 

 

 

While some countries, like Germany, Argentina , Brazil and Spain always  expect to be the stars of the show, others such as  first-timers –  Iceland and Panama  are happy just to have made the lineup/ draw . As ever, those who failed to qualify will have their noses pressed enviously against the fence.  There may be no more fitting host, given the state of the world today than Russia. Every country that hosts this tournament does so in order to boast, to make a statement about its place on the world stage. In 2010, South Africa hosted in part to show that an African country, despite doubts and stereotypes, could superbly stage a global showpiece. Brazil did it in 2014, against the backdrop of egregious corruption and soaring inequality, to project the sense its own competence and prowess. When France won the World Cup in 1998, claiming the trophy on home soil with a team whose heroes hailed from diverse backgrounds, its victory was viewed as a decisive triumph for inclusivity and racial harmony. And Russia, of course, is unconcerned with maintaining any progressive facade. So it’s appropriate that the tournament’s first game — between Russia and Saudi Arabia — featured two countries whose abuse of the human rights of its own citizens is particularly egregious.

Coming to the main tournament draw, the World Cup hasn’t failed to amaze, grip us and sometimes shock us. Simply, what a tournament we’ve had. In terms of uncertainty and quality of football , from Day 1, this has been one of the best tournaments of this era.

 

 

For starters, no Italy and Holland was a big jolt for the tournament as they’ve always been big performers at big tournaments. Who can forget Robin Van Persie’s flying header in the last World Cup or Holland’s run up to the final at 2010 or Italy’s triumphant campaign of 2006 . They were missed but their deficiency was compensated by the  ‘not so iconic’  football teams , who really upped their game, rose to the occasion and gave the big guns a run for their money.

Come the end of the group phase and suddenly favourites Germany were gone. Argentina just about scraped through thanks to  a scare or two  from Iceland and Nigeria . South Korea and Mexico produced an upset  . Senegal, Columbia and Japan had a  close toss up between themselves . Iran and Morocco gave a tough fight to Portugal and Spain in their group . These aren’t teams you expect to generally take a World Cup by storm . But they all had their part in making this tournament special .

Many people were of the opinion that Mr. Putin was pulling some strings , with Russia making it as far as the Quarter Finals . But in my opinion , they put in a real spirited performance this World Cup and were finally Dumped out by Croatia , who have by the way rode their luck nicely up to this point and  make serious contenders for the title .

Every tournament from the past has had one stand out team , but there are no real stand outs this time . It’s just been about with what mindset every team turns up on a given day against a given opposition. There has been no flair , which we associate with Brazil , no precision , associated with Germany , no Tiki Taka , associated with Spain and no solidarity , associated with Italy . There has just been a tactical approach , one game at a time .

My personal favourites have been France and Belgium and it’s sad to see them face off in Wednesday’s Sem-Final as they would’ve made a great final match up . They have been prime examples how to make use of talent to your advantage with hard work , dedication , focus , drive and zeal . I expect one amongst them to lift the trophy on Sunday .

So what could be the reason for these upsets ? or In Star Wars terms , It’s often  said balance of the Force . What could be the reason that we’ve witnessed a balance in the Football ‘Force’.

1. Fatigue :

Most of these players play for high profile clubs 10 months of a year , week in week out and then come play the World Cup . So at the tournament , it’s a real test of mental and physical strength and only the fittest survive . This is one of the prime reasons for the Germany debacle , Spain exit and Ronaldo/ Messi teams exits ( Intentionally named so !) . You can’t blame the players since  club football is where the money is , so some of them just simply turn up as a mere formality to represent their countries . No past preparations , no time to gel with team mates and no time to recover between such intense and high profile games . In this regard , I liked how England have altered their preparations before the semis through Yoga Sessions and light pool sessions to cool the body and mind . As the elderly say  just before a big exam that  recuperation and relaxation is more important than training .

2. Evolution of Football Analytics :

 With so many videos , stats and numbers now available to teams , they’re able to analyse opponent style , formations , key players much more accurately and are able to crack the code to beat any team on their day . Of course , what is said on paper has to be implemented precisely and the ones who do so make the stride forward in a knockout tournament. There is a new generation of football analysts whose attempts to predict outcomes have been tested on betting markets and then sold to clubs. Football analytics has grown leaps and bounds and is a viable career option in Europe  now . Probably , I can write an entire article on football analytics and will reserve the material for my next article if the Editor approves !

Here in India , we’ve had a massive following of this tournament through the years and Sony Entertainment has been given Official Broadcast Rights this time around . But however much we back  our favourite teams , Sport is all about passion and the passion with which one supports his/ her own country at a tournament is something else .  We Indians  miss our country in this tournament . But hopefully one day , we will get to support our  country at a  FIFA World Cup with the same spirit and passion with which we support her at the Cricket World Cup.

 

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