The contrast between Club and International football has never been starker in the history of the beautiful game. This round of International friendlies, albeit the last one before the 2018 World Cup in Russia couldn’t come at a worse time and only serves to extricate us from the soap opera that is Jose Mourinho at United, and the glamour and intensity of club football across leagues the world over! Club football is miles away from most of International football: from the unending riches and defiance that bankroll PSG, Manchester City, Barcelona and company to the goal-scoring exploits of mavericks: Mo’ Salah, Mauro Icardi and our Lord and Saviour, Cristiano Ronaldo; the magical combination down the right wing, at the Camp Nou, of Leo Messi, the greatest club footballer of all time, and Ousmane Dembele remains one of the most satiating sights in football and club managers are equally intriguing: Wenger is still in charge at the Arsenal- perpetually one bad result away from the exit- that is if he will ever leave and Jose Mourinho is keen on convincing the world that United’s bad football is everyone else’s fault, whenever he is not bullying Luke Shaw.
One might argue that Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus and Gor Mahia will still be crowned champions in their respective leagues. What remains of interest, however, is the relegation battle royale: whether Sunderland will avoid the second drop it is so keen on; how West Bromwich Albion justify sacking Tony Pulis; will Wolfsburg, SPAL 2013 and Lille hold on for dear life et cetera. On the other hand, International football, honestly is rote with mediocrity! Anyone for Montenegro v Turkey? Gibraltar v Lativa? (No offence to these teams and/or their federations). Despite these ‘lesser’ ties, these fixtures’ importance cannot be understated. Squad selections, tactical plans, new managers steadying ships and federations letting go of underperforming ones… will all be on display. All these, give us something worth looking forward to and watching from Thursday, especially before the rodeo that promises to be Russia 2018 and the oddity of the hottest winter of Qatar 2022.
Corruption at FIFA and by extension its members is nothing new. As is Russia’s. It will be very interesting to see the conundrum that FIFA and host Russia have to contend with, with respect to causation and correlation. The Russian national team qualified as hosts- their old stars from Euro 2008 to former coach Leonid Slutsky’s team have given way to a younger outfit. They have only one win since and inclusive of the Confederation’s Cup, yet are expected to qualify from the group. The only hosts to leave the tournament at the group stage were South Africa; Russia would want to go down in history as the only other team to go that soon and I won’t be surprised if there are further reports of their involvement in some outside the lines’ shading, for which they are serving a national ban from the Olympics and the former banned chair of that disgraced national Olympics just resigned from their FIFA World Cup Organising Committee.
The political overtures and implications of the finals in Russia and their continued unravelling make headline fodder in our dailies. Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as the Russian President and his quest to reestablish the Kremlin’s dominance over World politics is unrelenting. Putin is the master marionettist at the Whitehouse and it will be interesting to see whether he can attract, traditionally, the largest tourist audience at the World Cup- the Americans to his bastion of soft power. Similarly, 10 Downing Street is shook at the brazen tentacles of Russian influence in the United Kingdom with another assassination of former KGB/MI6 operatives in London. A protest of some sort is in the offing- yet the devil is in the details- with the indecision derisive on whether to protest in Russia or boycott the tournament altogether. Furthermore, it is an open secret that some parts of sovereign Eastern Europe, are under Moscow’s suffrage, with the UN and world at large blind, deaf and dumb to their plight, perhaps with the Poles being the lone voice in the desert against Putin’s over-handedness. Similarly, those who are not politically, morally, sexually and religiously correct are strongly dissuaded from attending the games in Russia, as her laws and authorities are explicit in not tolerating that bull! Finally, the Russian authorities have to contend with violence by Russian ultras, as there will be violence and its mitigation and suppression within the spectrum of upholding human rights, red herring to Human Rights Watch groups and the community of International Jurists.
International football although fraught with negativity isn’t entirely dour. Germany is literally bursting at the seams with talent and quality and is favourite to retain the title in Russia; Brazil will also definitely be going all the way as she mounts a title challenge. They have players who have played in Russia, Ukraine and the larger region; Tite has made the team larger than the sum of its parts and should Neymar be fit, they’ll have their cracka back to get them through a hard game or two. In the middle of the pack, nations like Portugal, Spain, France will bring some of your favourite A-list players to add spice to the tournament. Argentina will once again prove too infertile to nurture Messi’s brilliance, making him fall short of the world’s greatest player title for the umpteenth time. England will collapse under their own over-expectations, all the while producing the most incoherent, unamusing displays of the tournament. There is hope in Colombia, Poland, Iceland and Egypt to be the giant killers with Nigeria, Panama, Saudia Arabia and Australia only there for the group stage ride.
The games in Russia will feature that brand of football that espouses a lot energetic running, yet betraying the lack a clear sense of purpose with emphasis on ‘defensive steel’ and should things get a little too exciting, well there will be a poorly implemented VAR (Video Assisted Referring) to slow down the pace of the game to nought and set the game squarely down the path of controversy. This is FIFA, in Russia after all. Thus far they haven’t gotten VAR right, and in no way because the technology is wanting or has failed but because the human element either refuses to understand its implementation or has been inadequately trained in its operation and I am certain that we will go into the World Cup with certainly more knowledge about VAR than during the Confederations Cup but strangely, the same level of preparation. Bottomline- VAR FIFA and Russia will be the new definition of the word quagmire after the 2018 World Cup.
The football appeal of Nations and fans waving flags has been lost amongst this ‘woke’, ‘hashtag’ generation, who form the largest demographic of potential spectators and customers for FIFA and Russia during these games. In fact, if anything were to happen to Cristiano Ronaldo, that would culminate in his absence from the World Cup then FIFA should just wind up the tournament and let everyone be. Players like Neymar, Pogba and those Ligue 1 tropes who can score from the middle of the park, form that cadre of footballers that FIFA recognises as are the ones who fans want to see- not their countries! I’m sure there is all manner of marketing gimmicks with these players to that effect, but all that said and done, FIFA should be desperately trying to arrest the mediocrity and slide down into the abyss of the World Cup and International Football, given Qatar will be rock bottom!
In the meantime, the International fixtures promise some exciting match ups in the build-up to Russia 2018, of which we shall follow with keen interest and get a mirth of entertainment and fond memories, as The Dugout continues to preview and cover the World Cup. Enjoy the International Friendlies and RUSSIA 2018!