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Without doubt, football or soccer as the Americans would always like to put a distinction, is an amazing game of skill and talent exhibited by both players and the management team. It is a team sport and you can never be prepared enough. Reality clicks in when the whistle goes for the start and each team knowing they have 90 minutes to show what they are made of and how coordinated their actions as a team can carry them through a tournament like the World Cup. Football is equally amazing because it is a reflect of the complete sport. One which is void of discrimination and social standing. A sport where the poor and the rich go toe to toe based on their level of talent and skill. This is completely different from a sport like tennis or golf where a lifelong level of training at a certain level can be the only means to propel one to worldwide success and domination.
The good game of football in the past years has been engulfed in controversies as discussions on fraud and corrupt practices for the attribution of the host was made public. These allegations led to resignations, charges, court appearances and condemnation of top personnel within the governing body FIFA and national delegations. Allegations of corrupt practices in the sport and in country officials representing them were put on the spot starting with Russia and Qatar. A backdrop of these allegations evidenced a complex web of political affiliation and intent with some countries even threatening to quit the tournament before it even started. Football is joy, glamour and money, all facilitated by current media deals. And where there is this concoction, there is bound to be trouble. Russia has not been spared and Qatar should embrace itself for the next.
Nevertheless, for those who watched the recent organisation and roll out of the 2018 Football World Cup tournament in Russia, these allegations never removed the gloss from the beautiful game of football. Give recognition where it is due! Russia pulled off a good show and oh my God, they did it in style both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, the Russian team was just spectacular driven by the huge fan energy. Off the pitch, Russia pulled off another show. No real incidents of hooliganism, free transportation across the entire Russian federation for fans with tickets and excellent pitches across a vast geographical landscape. This has never happened. As FIFA grew and became more inclusive with a fairer regional representation under the Blatter administration with the core objective of spreading the hosts across continents, the attribution and organisation of the tournament experienced more scrutiny and were logged in controversy once the usual suspects did not get their way. As Lavrentiy Beria, the once head of the secret police (NKVD) under Joseph Stalin in Russia once said, “Show me the man and I will show you the crime”. Russia and Qatar after winning bids of this prestigious tournament for 2018 and 2022 respectively, became a target with winning bids resulting to unprecedented scrutiny. They have been on the football World Cup tournament spotlight engulfed in allegations of fraud and corrupt practices.
The tournament itself irrespective of what is said, is one of the most important sporting and business events that do take place in the world. Bridges are built within power brokers. Relationships are created. The tournament brings together citizens from all over the world eager to come and represent their country. The pride to represent their jersey is unprecedented and as professional players, they play for the pride of their countries and go extra miles to show their patriotism in putting on the colours of their country. What other way can a professional football player express his love for his country than the smile, sweat and blood shed in defending his country. On the pitch and back home through TV screens and smart phones there is the continuous out pour of love from fans to those representing them. Teams and their fanbase develop slogans to spur them up. The soul and emotion of an entire country gets engulfed in the slogan. Leaders of countries stand tall and proud being there to support their countries. Emmanuel Macron from France and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović from Croatia together with Vladimir Putin of Russia as host, in a rain soaked Sunday afternoon expressed their emotions and satisfaction in a beautiful final. They all left as winners!
“Allez les bleu!” has always been the resounding slogan of the French national team. After two decades of lurking in the World Cup shadows, another golden generation of French football has been born, enshrined in one of their teenage illustrious sons Kylian Mbappe of Cameroonian origins. France won the World cup and they genuinely deserve all the glories. As a football fan, it is worth praising the French football authorities for standing strong on what they believe is a genuine path for success to empower the French society. It is evident that the only two most successful French teams who have successfully brought world cup glory to France have a unique characteristic. That of diversity and playing the most talented in their squads. Sport is an activity of physical exertion and skill. The power of diversity can never be understated and can only enhance the contribution of these communities to the countries they call home.
Croatia made us proud with skill possessed by a country with an estimated population of only 4 million. The presence, expression of joy and antics of their president Kolinda was beautiful, culminated with a symbolic gift of a Croatian jersey to president Putin. That was envious and how bridges are built from a football platform. For a president who travelled to the World Cup tournament at her own expense and often watching from a Non-VIP stand just to support her country and fans, speaks volumes and the players could not remain indifferent. Croatian players like Luka Modrić deserve to be counted amongst the top athletes in the current year running for the Ballon D’Or. Not forgetting the contribution of the entire team and coaching staff. They returned home as heroes, and heroes they were. Croatia, a country barely over 20 years old, is now in the sporting world map.
“It is coming home” was the catch phrase this year developed by the English fans. Never has a catch phrase in a world cup tournament, touched the hearts of a nation and instil in them a sense of belonging. From the North to South, East to West, the entire United Kingdom was engulfed in the world cup fever when they successfully navigated the quarter finals against Columbia, albeit through penalties. Worth noting that this is a nation that vehemently criticized the attribution, organisation and hosting of the World cup in Russia and even threatened to boycott the event not for sporting reasons but for political reasons. The contribution of the players and manager to instil a sense of belonging to a broken nation in turbulent times as the nation goes through an emotional and painful split with the EU was worth the spur. “It’s coming home” energized the English squad and terrified the opponents. Players of opposing teams even went on air during their post-match media duties to declare that it was not coming home when they successfully dumped the Brits out of the tornament. What a sulk! Yes, as we would all attest, it never came home. However, how quickly this catch phrase developed and started resonating within the entire football world cup ecosystem was the intriguing aspect.
The red devils of Belgium deserved also a chance. Performance from star players like De Bryune, Lukaku, Hazard, Fellaini etc was worth of praise. They held nothing back while representing their country. Tears of sadness were shed after the reality of not being able to ascend to the finals was confirmed. The golden generation left as winners and I do believe will come back stronger.
The other usual suspects like Brazil, Argentina, and Germany were unfortunately very poor. Messi, Neymar, Kroos or OZil as driving forces behind their teams were all below par. Cristiano Ronaldo however, showed why he keeps coming top in world football. He pulled his team all the way, but the inevitable team spirit prevailed and Portugal left the tournament with grace. Germany however was a disappointment. The German team is known for its shrewd preparations and a coach of Joachim Low’s calibre and experience as world cup winners is amongst the best you can get in the world of football sport. What went wrong is still like an illusion in the minds of the German public. From start, the selection spurred some controversies when young talents like Leroy Sane never made it in the team. This loss reduced their options upfront and the inevitable happened. Now is time to reflect, build a young group of players and rebound as we know they are capable.
The Japanese and South Korean teams brought joy to the rise of Asian football. They added another dimension to the global outreach of the beautiful game. South Korea outclassing Germany in such a high stake competitive match is evidence of how developed football has gone in Asia. Japan on its part, put up a respectable show especially against Belgium in the last 16 and the way they left the tournament is outstanding. Anyone who did not have a peek of the Japanese changing room after their exit should get online and search for the image. The image of cleanliness and a thank you message is testament to a people with high standards and a tradition of excellence. An example to emulate by others as a take off from the recent world cup.
The 5 qualified African teams Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia did not have easy draws. But that is the essence of competing at this level as you need to play against the best teams for world domination. The preparation and participation of the African teams was short of disastrous leading to early elimination of all the continent’s representatives. An African team is still to reach the finals of a football world cup tournament. This frustration and at same time hope, pushed the entire African continent to back France in the finals with leading chants that the cup was “Coming Home!”. Home to Africa, represented by sons of African origin within the French national team. And Yes, it did eventually come home, not to Africa but rather to France. France won the cup and deserves all the credit. They are the champions. The baton has now been passed to Qatar and all our attention are now geared towards Qatar. Are we to witness Africa Rising!