Familiar faces & hope of a new star

Cup a feast of continuity and uncertainty

By Keir Radnedge in Moscow
  • Published 14.06.18
Brazilian star Neymar at a training session in Sochi, Russia, on Wednesday. (Reuters)

Nothing compares with the World Cup on a global, sporting or societal level. G7 meetings are important and may weigh on world diplomacy and economic balances. But nothing reaches into the heart of the masses like sport and, within that sphere, nothing like football.

That is what makes the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia -- to apply the marketeers' formal terminology - such a magnet of worldwide attention across all strata of society.

Modern association football was designated by one of its English founding fathers, back in the 19th century, as the "simplest game". One team of 11 players must score more goals than the other. Easy.

The 32 teams here in Russia and the thousands of fans who are trailing in from not only the usual take-offs points in the affluent western world but Peru, Egypt, Mexico, Panama and the like ---- these are the most important players.

The media may obsess about President Vladimir Putin's political machinations, about governance chaos within Fifa, about the billions generated by the sponsors and paid by the television channels plus the duel for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights between Morocco and the United States (and junior partners Canada and Mexico).

Once the final whistle has been blown back here in the rebuilt Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on July 15, however, the only single fact that will resonate down the years - or, at least, until 2022 - is the result of the last match and the identity of the winners.

Six nations, at most, have reasonable hope that history will alight on their shoulders: record five-times winners Brazil, holders and four-times champions Germany, Argentina (winners in 1978 and 1986), Spain (2010) and France (1998) - though Spain may have committed an own goal by sacking Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui. Both Uruguay (1930 and 1950) and England (1966) travel in hope but will be satisfied - even relieved - if they make it as far as the quarter-finals.

The unpredictable competitors are 2016 European champions Portugal. If they have to set Russia alight then they must improve on their stunted displays in France when they drew all their group matches.

For the likes of newcomers Iceland and Panama, their World Cup triumph has already been achieved in appearing here. Anything further is a bonus. Iceland will not benefit this time from the complacency to which their opponents succumbed when they reached the last eight at Euro 2016.

This is one of the entrancing powers of football: continuity. The same nations have been entertaining and frustrating generations of fans down not merely the months and years but decades. Uruguay, Argentina and France were all competing in the inaugural finals in 1930; Germany and Spain since 1934; England since 1950.

That continuity is a twin-track trail that also keeps fans "imprisoned" through the club system. Players come and go but clubs and countries keep on going.

Occasionally the game throws up players whose exceptionality blasts through the barriers of team loyalty. Two will grace the finals here in Russia: Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. In a football world of high-focus fitness, preparation and tactics, their goal-scoring activities have been nothing short of a sporting miracle.

Messi has scored 552 goals in 637 games for Barcelona, a record 64 in 124 outings for Argentina; Ronaldo boasts 573 goals in 761 club games for Sporting, Manchester United and Real Madrid plus a record 81 in 150 for Portugal. Watching them with envy is Brazil's Neymar whose ambition is to push them both off all the world player prize podiums.

No one expects any of them to threaten the all-time record of 13 goals set by French centre-forward Just Fontaine in 1958 or even the 11 by Hungary's Sandor Kocsis in 1954, even though those were achieved in 16-team tournaments.

Brazil's Ronaldo Nazario managed eight in 2002 in Japan and South Korea but since then? Germany's Miroslav Klose scored five in 2006; Germany's Thomas Muller, Spain's David Villa and the Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder hit five each in 2010; and Colombia's James Rodriguez tallied six in 2014. So there is an extra challenge for Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.

Of course Russia 2018 could see a new superstar to match them, as did James Rodriguez in 2014. Egypt's Mo Salah? England's Harry Kane? France's Antoine Griezmann?

Here is the other attraction of the World Cup: the proof of an endless turnover of star names to keep refreshing the enthusiasm, the magnetism. Russian fans are hoping to see such a feast, amid pessimism over their host national team who are bottom of the Fifa world ranking among the 32 finalists.

Still, Russia might surprise their own fans. That would be good news for Fifa. The tournament needs the hosts to overcome not only Saudi Arabia on Thursday but also the first-round group. Uncertainty reigns.

Keir Radnedge, a former editor of the World Soccer magazine, has covered several World Cups for The Telegraph. He will be writing for the paper during this World Cup, too.