This is it. 24 hours from now we'd have seen the first game of this World Cup. I expect it to be very poor quality football, as I expect it to be rigged. Hosts Russia have already been assigned to the first seeding pot and have landed in a relatively easy group, so I expect a replay of South Korea's World Cup run in 2002 on a bigger scale. Too mean? FIFA is corrupt, Russia is corrupt and they both have a reputation of cheaters. I'll find it very hard to forgive Russia after the 6-1 against Cameroon in Italy in 1990, a game that was rigged so blatantly obvious, yet a game that has put the otherwise completely unremarkable Oleg Salenko in the history books for scoring the most goals in a World Cup game.
That's right, one of my first world cup memories is Russia cheating, and you're damn right I'll hold a 30 years grudge for that. My very first world cup memory dates from 10 days earlier, the opening game in which the unknown Untamed Lions of Cameroon defeated the defending champions Argentina which included arguably the biggest footballer ever to have walked the earth: Diego Maradona. And I've been writing about the World Cups ever since. On dedicated notebooks for Italy 1990 and USA 1994, in a folder that I doubt still exists about France 1998, on BB forums about Korea & Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 and on this very blog for the last two editions. The novelty this time is that I'll be writing in English, as I have with most of my online presence for the past 5 years or so. Simple reasons: wider reach, and the vast majority of my Romanian speaking audience is literate in English, whereas the opposite is not true about my English-speaking audience/friends/entourage.
It's probably clear by now that the magic of the World Cup is still alive and well inasmuch as I'm concerned. I'm hoping the magic will hold after this edition too and we will be gifted memorable moments despite the build up being under rather poor auspices. And in this series of posts I'll try to capture these moments of magic the way I'll see them and live them. If you're gonna keep reading, expect a lot of subjectivity and supporter bias.
As of yet, I don't have a clear favorite.
- Brazil are sort of perennial favorites for me and for the world, though I have to say I do not like Neymar. I do not like his football, I am not impressed with his skill, I hate the hype around him and I despise the money used to move him around.
- Germany seem to be one of the cleanest candidates and, although I never felt any sort of special connection with Nationalmannschaft, I'd be happy for Low to become the first manager to win two World Cups after Vittorio Pozzo in 1938.
- I do not support Spain, France, England or, until Messi retires, Argentina and find it disappointing that Italy, Netherlands and USA are not present.
I suppose once I see the first round of games I'll start leaning towards one or a couple of teams. Speaking of, let me take a look at the groups and try some predictions:
Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay
I'd love for Russia not to qualify, but I don't expect it. I hope at least they won't win the group. Regardless, I expect them to go through, one way or another. Which means Uruguay will probably get the second qualifying spot. Egypt might have the one season wonder Salah, but he's the one flower that don't make a spring and Misr Pharaos are traditionally bad at world cups. Saudi Arabia has a great history, with the likes of Al-Owairan or Al-Jaber making history in their own right, but the Saudi Falcons might have to sit this one out.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Both Morocco and Iran had their 15 minutes of fame at world cups, but this group seems relatively straightforward. Only question mark hangs around Spain and their silly decision to sack the manager 48 hours before the start of the World Cup. Add this to the abysmal performance they had in Brazil 4 years ago, and the Islamic nations might be vying for blood (no, it's not Islamophobic, I'd love them to). I'd love to see it happening, and I'd love Iran to go through. It always has political consequences when they do well on the pitch.
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Much as I'd love the Socceroos, they'll probably go home after three games. Peru will very likely accompany them to the airport, as Denmark seem to have a good generation this time around. Yeah, France will go through, probably qualifying after a bad refereeing decision.
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Oh, wow. Assuming Argentina gets a spot, the second will be fiercely contested. Iceland did great two years ago at the Euros, but I'm not sure that says anything about their ability to compete this month. I want Nigeria to go through; sub-Saharan Africa is rather under-represented this year, with just Nigeria and Senegal flying the flag. Ideally it would be Nigeria and Iceland, though it might be a hard ask. And normally I'd be more sympathetic towards Croatia, but their national team seem to be less and less remarkable each year, despite Modric. Besides, the Davor Suker penalty in 1998 in France is hard to forget.
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
I hope Costa Rica will provide great moments to rival the ones of their magnificent Luis Gabelo Conejo in 1990, or Paul Wanchope taking on Germany single-handedly in the opening game of WC2006, but I doubt they have the strength to qualify. I think and I hope Serbia will go through alongside Brazil. Switzerland have a good enough team, but Serbia is better prepared to deal with the Latin American flair.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Looks like the most straight-forward: Germany and Mexico. Sweden have been gifted with a second sentence every time their name is uttered (Can you imagine this? Sweden!) and a poor-ass Italian team in the play-offs, but this is real life and Zlatan is gone. South Korea? Nice try.
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
People are speaking about Belgium as being in with a chance to win it, but those of us who've seen all this before know better: they will fizzle out in front of real opposition. Which they won't get from this group though, so they'll advance alongside England, traditional QF losers.
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
Uhh, this is hard. I have sympathy for each and every team here, but for different reasons. I like the fact that Poland has a generation good enough to matter and they're the best Eastern European team at the moment. I still keep fond memories of Bruno Metsu's Senegal at WC2002, as I do of the relentless Shoji Jo, never stopping from his runs on the pitches of France in 1998. As for Colombia, how can one not be sympathetic for a team that came through the tragedies that battered their country in the 1990s, culminating with the assassination of Andres Escobar during WC1994? Who do I want to go through? Very, very tough, but I'm going to say Poland and Senegal. And because I want to, it will happen.
Let there be football and let us all cheer and get happy for countries we've barely heard of before. And for goodness' sake, let's fight all of our wars on a football pitch!
Go on Saudi Arabia!