London, UK (ViaNews) – And now we know. The thirty-two teams in the 2018 World Cup have learned their fate following the draw for the group stages. The FIFA brown envelope fest is getting close to reaching the apex of its four-yearly cycle.
As for the hosts, Russia, the lowest ranked team in the competition, well it looks good on paper. Not sufficiently good to suggest any kind of inappropriate behaviour on behalf of FIFA during the draw, woe betide anyone who makes such an insinuation against that fine, upstanding body. But in terms of rankings Group A gives Russia a more than fair chance of progression, thus maintaining national interest in the tournament. Their opponents? Uruguay were the second weakest team in Pot B, Egypt the third weakest in Pot 3 and their opponents for the opening match of the tournament, Saudi Arabia, are the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament, is just a couple of places above Russia themselves.
If the hosts qualify through to the last sixteen, and few would bet against it, they will almost certainly meet Portugal or Spain. The aging Portuguese especially were Ronaldo to pick up an injury or suspension, would offer them an even chance of making it to the quarterfinals.
Of course, the whole concept of the World Cup taking place in Russia has been steeped in controversy. Not that, in the days of disgraced FIFA leader Sepp Blatter, there is anything unusual in this. Allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the host status both for Russia, then (bizarrely) the steaming heat of Qatar in 2022, will not go away. That any suggestions of dodgy deals were cleared in Fifa’s interpretation into the Garcia report has not helped, since little faith is held towards anything from the days of the wonderfully named Chuck Blazer, Jack Warner, Blatter et al. Of course, that back in 2014 Garcia himself said that his report had been misrepresented by football’s governing body, did not help the organisation’s credibility. Fifa has now published the report in full, but far too late in the day, it would seem, for its findings to impact on decisions already made with regards to host nations.
Further, some newspapers have tried to link the sponsored drug misuse which has plagued Russia’s Olympic athletes to their football team, although it is hard to inject much evidence into the allegations. The news that Russia has now been banned from the Winter Olympics only adds fuel to the burning anger some Western leaders and media seem to have towards the country. Within hours of the news breaking, the BBC were debating the implications for the World Cup. However, there is no chance of Fifa taking any overt action. Issues over Russia’s attitude towards race and LGBT peoples has allowed additional head shaking, and the annexation of the Crimea encouraged more opponents who seek to batter Putin’s regime to call for the tournament to be moved elsewhere. Sport and politics separate beasts? Get real.
The President counters, with some justification, that many of the complaints are unjustified and simply ways to criticise his leadership. Both he and many residents of the region portray the situation in Crimea very differently to leaders in the West.
But controversy and World Cups run hand in hand. Even pre-dating the former Swiss FIFA boss, the tournament has been used as a front for political posturing. Uruguay refused to travel to Italy to defend the trophy in 1934 because so few European teams had made the journey to South America four years prior to that. Africa withdrew as a continent in 1958 after their qualification process was made so long by the powers that be that one could almost suspect some form of discrimination. Firstly, those taking part hard to win through in Africa, then the victorious ones would have to play off against European teams. The Africans decided enough was enough, and collectively withdrew. In 1962 we had the infamous Battle of Santiago, where Italy became confused between the ball and the opposing Chileans, kicking both just to be on the safe side. Suffice to say, international relations between the two countries took a step backward on that occasion. Not helped, it must be said, by slurs against the Chilean people made in Italian newspapers.
Britain rose above it all, the FA declaring that the World Cup was an inferior competition to the Home Internationals, so they wouldn’t sully themselves by taking part. It’s a fair point, after all, there are few who would have swapped Northern Ireland v Wales for the second-rate standards of, say Brazil v Hungary or Argentina v Germany. When Britain did finally agree to take part, it was with the understanding that their ‘qualification group’ would be the Home Championship, with the top two winning through. (Keeping them away from Johnny Foreigner for as long as possible, especially as said JF was now a rather better footballer than they would choose.) In fact, Scotland, who came second, had a sulk and refused to go along. Good to see that the FA uphold such forward-thinking principles even today.
So really, a little controversy over racism, homophobia, invasion of a neighbouring country and alleged vote rigging (the only way to win, many would suggest) is nothing to get worked up about.
And the tournament itself? Forget Brexit, forget the North Korean crisis – the important news is out. England have the group of death. Well, the group of mild discomfort. OK, a group they should be able to get through even if training involves punting up St Petersburg’s River Neva and downing the odd champagne cocktail or ten.
Indeed, manager Gareth Southgate decided to spend more time discussing the travel arrangements (pretty good, he says) than the opposition; and commented that he was ‘grateful’ for the six-day break between games.
Highlights include a minor distraction from the Catalonian issues in Spain, as being in the same group as neighbours Portugal may cause the eye to wander from the more important ball for some. Nigeria have been drawn to play Argentina yet again, only once have they qualified and NOT had to face them. And we will get the chance of seeing the amazing Iceland crowd perform their intimidating Viking chant as the only country with more geysers than professional footballers take part in its second major championships.
But it is all an irrelevance, since the Germans, as we all know, will be the winners (defeating Belgium in the final, I reckon.) Unless Russia pull something out of their footballing bag…