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Saturday, June 30, 2018

FIFA World Cup 2018: A Russian roulette in knockout stages

After 48 matches, 4,340-odd minutes of helter-skelter football, spread across scattered venues of a country as large as a continent and cultures as distinct as the moody shades of the Volga, the World Cup has shrunk, both literally and metaphorically. Half the participants are eliminated, three fourth of the matches are archived sheets, nearly 70 per cent of the tourists are either heading home or exploring Siberia. The world in the Cup is shrivelling, the romantic allure is extinguished, as they enter the familiar entropy of well-tempered caution, or sombre business, as the platitude-spewing coach would spit out.
Each of the departed countries seemed to convey a symbolic message to those that are alive. That all but one are bound by the implacable uniformity of an inescapable doom. But once the sudden bitterness of the defeat dies down shall their perceptions clear themselves to savour the pervasive reality that they were privileged enough to be in Russia — 178 others missed out, among them four-time world champions Italy, three-time finalists Holland and a legion of erstwhile challengers like Czech Republic and Ghana — and they shall probably never enjoy such moments in their lifetime.
Like for instance Panama’s first-ever goal-scorer in a World Cup, the 37-year-old Felipe Baloy, a defender by trade, brought up in one of Panama’s most populated barrios and battled both poverty and drug cartels, Cereo Batos. The celebrations were manic, and Baloy himself couldn’t fathom if it was a reality or an illusory trip. “The next day I woke up and skimmed through the newspapers and television to confirm that I was the goal-scorer,” he said. Or like the feisty Peruvians, who stunned Australia to achieve their first World Cup victory in four decades, their colour-smeared, vocal fans, some shelling out 800 dollars for a 10-hour taxi-ride from Saransk to Moscow, communicating with the cabbies through Googletranslator. Back home, the government has promised an open-roof bus ride through Lima and a hefty reward for the players. Or like the unfortunate Iranians and the Senegalese, the latter who became the first ever team to crash out on disciplinary grounds, and the former who came tantalizingly close to extending their Russian sojourn. Or the thunder-clapping Icelanders, who leave with their reputation enhanced of having tied the two best players in the world in knots, Cristiano Ronaldo in the Euro and Lionel Messi in this World Cup.
The Moroccons, Tunisians and the Egyptians have all enriched their lives with bed-time stories that they could tell and re-tell their grandchildren, of a distant world they might never set their foot again, a world that would get dreamier with rolling years, of buying tickets from a stall overlooked by Vladimir Lenin, or watching matches from stands that stood as monuments of multi-culturalism, or craning their necks from a makeshift park near the grave of philosopher Immanuel Kant in Kaliningard.
Thus the World Cup is about these little moments too — as much as about Alireza Beiranvand’s dive to deny Ronaldo as the latter’s psychedelic free-kick goal against Spain, as much as about Germany’s anguish as the pain of Senegal. They might not have ultimately elevated the quality of the tournament, even some of the most impressive teams like Morocco and Iran showed more promise than prowess, gutsiness than grandeur, but they certainly tickled us, made us emote, celebrate and cry with them. Nonetheless, they offered drama and thrills, in part paeans need to be sung on VAR too, a pleasantly unprecedented aftermath of technology. The group stage served up the excitement and intrigue of a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie, though it never came close to a Rashomon or Bicyle Thieves. But the World Cup group stages, yet again, emphasised that there are very few sporting or cultural entities that cross international boundaries, cross all cultures and have a direct impact on the way societies interpret themselves and each other, blending design, art, photography and literature. The intuitive historian Eric Hobsbawn noted the phenomenon in his book Nations and Nationalism “What has made football so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is that the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
In this sense, the World Cup is greater than the Olympics, though the latter has a bigger cross-section of the world and culture, and has slightly more television viewership.But Olympics, fundamentally, is an individual pursuit, where the notions of nation-hood are less pronounced. So while Usain Bolt is the greatest athlete to have strode on earth, less than thousand of his compatriots travelled to Rio to watch him, despite the geographical proximity, whereas nearly 20,000 landed in France to witness their country’s maiden, and the only, World Cup exposure. In South Korea, they might not remember the hundreds of their Olympic medallists, but the name of Ahn Jung-hwan, who scored the golden goal in the pre-quarterfinal against Italy, evokes a sudden romance.
The Olympics doesn’t persuade fans to endure the sort of sacrifices and hardships some of the football thrust themselves on—like the Mexican student who washed dishes in a Los Angeles hotel, living in streets, surviving on as few meals as possible and played sombrero-tricks to fund his ticket to Russia, and still flip-flaps the sombrero in Russian streets to sustain his trip. Or the group of Panamanian waiters who sold all their belongings to reach Russia. The World Cup, no doubt, will be poorer without them, but the world, as the world is, would move on and bury them into the hazy past and retune their sensibilities to the more sombre business that is the knockout. Unlike the group stages, knockouts have a sense of quick end about them, like a bullet being fired point-blank. Group-stage deaths are more incremental, making them pass through an emotional rough-ride, hope lurking till the very last, at least for 12 of the 16 teams that exited, a slim ray of hope until the last whistle was blown. What the audience and the players themselves wouldn’t mind is sustained quality—as the event has rode on individual brilliance that beautified the lack of great teams. We have not witnessed the emergence of a great team – rather, thanks to Germany, the unravelling of one. No single team has emerged as a definitive contender, rather there has been a flakiness about most teams — Spain and Argentina have defensive issues to sort out, Portugal have to unearth a hero beyond Ronaldo, Brazil have yet to hit the high notes they’d promised, Uruguay, England, Croatia and Belgium will have to fight the collective hurt accumulated over years of freezing in the knockouts. France have to meddle with out-of-groove talismans. The rest, like Japan, Sweden, Switzerland Colombia, need to play out of their skins to proceed further.
The diction too would change — it could be less of sombreros and Viking headgear and more of Messi’s gambeta, Neymar’s twinkling feet, Andres Iniesta’s intuitive passing, or Diego Godin’s stealthy tackles, of 4-3-3s and 3-5-2s, of carpe diem and schadenfreude (though the Germans aren’t here). But the overriding narrative remains the same — that the world in the Cup would shrink further, until it merges with just one, like the narrow streams, etochnik in Russian, that flows into the Volga, slicing through the massive continent of a country.