The table is set for what is sure to be a delicious meal of the finest of football display and its enthralling add-ons served a la carte from Russia.
For the next one month it will be a buffet of the best of hard and soft tackles, mesmerising dribbling runs, near misses, unpardonable errors, blistering shots, textbook goals and hair raising moments incorporating the agony of defeat, the joy of victory and uncommon human drama enacted on and off the field of play as players from 32 of the world best playing nations and their vociferous supporters converge on Russia to get the 2018 World Cup under way on Thursday June 14.
Russia is ready for the feast of football with gleaming stadiums and officials of the Federation of International Football Associations, FIFA who have managed, in spite of scandals, to maintain the preeminent position of the Championship, are also set to direct proceedings in the land of the enigmatic Vladimir Putin.
The contest like the ones in the past will still be a stiff contest between the European and South American countries who have won all the past editions leaving the other continents in the lurch. Germany, winner of the last edition in Brazil, is top on the list of expected winners by the ranking of bookmakers.
And for good reasons too. The German squad combines the athleticism of youth with the experience and stoicism of tested football jugglers. Spain, which won the trophy in Nelson Mandela country in 2010, and Portugal are also tipped to lead the challenge from the European nations, with Denmark and France given outside chance to battle for gold. Of course the grittiest of them all, the Azuris, will be missing in action as Italy failed to qualify for the Mundial.
Brazil, yes Brazil, the country which gave Pele to the World of football, will lead the South American challenge. The Samba boys are in Russia on a revenge mission. Expectations were that the samba playing country would host and win the world cup in 2014. That was not to be as they suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat in the hands of the Germans in the Semi-final. It was heart rendering.
The team has since been rebuilt and there is the belief among their numerous admirers and even their traducers that Brazil may go all the way to win its sixth world cup in Russia. And with Argentina hungry for another world cup lap of honour, this may be another victory for a South American Country in Europe.
Africa, represented by Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt is expected to put up a respectable appearance. However, nobody is sure that Africa will cross the quarter final mark, its best so far. All the five teams cannot be compared with the Cameroonian, Senegalese and Ghanaian teams that reached the quarter final mark in past competitions.
Nigeria is actually seen as the weakest of the African representatives. They carry the underdog toga into the competition. This, to some extent, is a fair assessment. Not just because it suffered three defeats in warm-up matches. The fact is that the Super Eagles Class of 2018 does not have the flair, experience and stars of the classes of 1994 and 1998 when the likes of Stephen Keshi, Austin Okocha, Mutiu Adepoju, Rasheed Yekini, George Finidi, Daniel Amokachi, Ben Iroha, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Samson Siasia, Nwakwo Kanu and their co travellers, who commanded regular shirts in first rate world clubs, went to USA and France to show the rest of the world the stuff Nigeria was made of and formally announced the arrival of Team Nigeria in the scheme of things in World football.
The Super Eagles class of 2018 do not have remarkable and solid players in the mould of their predecessors. The experienced ones, like John Mikel Obi, are almost nearing the end of their careers and Ahmed Musa has been average all year long. Kelechi Iheanacho, in spite of great expectations, has not fully come into his own with tentative performance for club ad country. Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi are perhaps the two players that some flashes of brilliance are expected from. Others are simply unpredictable and when they are expected to give their best they may disappoint with shambolic outing.
There is a disconnect between the midfield and the attack and the glaring shortcomings in the defence is making even incurable optimists tone down their expectations from the team. For former Super Eagles Dean of Defence, Yisa Sofoluwe, there is nothing super about this team.
His assessment: “The midfield lacks a playmaker who can hold the ball and make accurate passes, the defenders make costly mistakes that can ruin a team. The world Cup is not a tea party.”
It is not only Sofoluwe who is predicting a hazy flight for the Super Eagles in Russia. Bitrus Bewarang, the technical director of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) also concurs that all is not well with the Nigerian squad.
“I feel that we need to get the right combination in our mid field. We need speed and more mobility in the midfield, so that the attack could function better,” Bewarang said shortly after Nigeria lost its last warm-up match to the Czech Republic.
And the Captain, John Mikel Obi, who reportedly promised that the squad would win the World Cup, has apparently changed his mind. He said the team has learnt a lot from the build-up matches and that the underdog tag may work to their advantage. He said the team was working very hard on its weaknesses and that that would be seen when the battle lines are joined.
Chief Coach, Gernot Rohr, also knows that the team is still not the ideal. He aligns with his captain that the failure in the build-up matches will yield positive results. “Together we have reviewed the matches and learnt so many lessons; we will approach the World Cup matches differently. Because we need humility, it is helping us we will deliver better performance in Russia,” he says.
This is not to say that pundits have completely written off the Super Eagles. The team is not wholly bereft of character. Cohesion and determination and hunger for success are in abundance. Such came to the fore when it handed Argentina a 4-2 defeat in Russia in a friendly match. And of course when they were paired against Cameroun, the reigning African Champion, Algeria, the best team on the continent then and Zambia nobody gave them any chance. But they stunned the pundits and destroyed the bookmakers’ prediction by winning the sole world cup ticket of the group. Who knows, the zeal, cohesion and camaraderie, and may be a bit of mother luck, could take the team to the second round.
The shape of what will come will begin to emerge on June 16 when the Super Eagles file out against Croatia in Kaliningrad for its first Group D encounter. This will be followed by the crunchy encounter against Iceland in Volgograd on June 22 and the final group match against familiar foe Argentina on June 26 in St Petersburg.
Okocha has an advice for the team and its teeming supporters. He says Nigerian football fans should not expect too much from the Eagles in Russia. According to the man who dazzled the world with his peculiar brand of football in his playing days, it is not going to be easy for the Eagles.
“Experience is the best teacher and I believe that we should not expect too much from the team in Russia. We should set a realistic target for them-to first qualify from the group stage, they can then take it from there,” he said. Okocha is hopeful that the players could still get their acts together and shine in Russia.
Of course, football is nothing without the stars. Their nimble play and guile will give the games verve and excitement. And they are already in Russia ready to light up proceedings and win fame for self and country. The pack is led by the one they fondly call CR7. Yes Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and current world Footballer of the year is the main man for Portugal. We are yet to forget his acrobatic goal against Juventus in the 2018 Champions League Semi-final. And with his pace and brilliance in front of goal Russia may see magic if he gets his acts together.
Lionel Messi of Argentina will also fight for the headlines as he looks for a world cup diadem to add to his impressive records. All eyes are also on Neymar, that Brazilian with the football sense of the legendary Pele and the guile of Bebeto is the lynchpin of a team that is in Russia for self-discovery and history. Some have said that among the three men one of them would win the World cup for the first time.
Much is also expected from Kylian Mbappe of France, Manuel Neuer, the German goal tender currently being touted as the safest pair of hands in the World, Mohammed Sallah of Egypt, Sadio Mane of Senegal and to some extent, Victor Moses of Nigeria.
In line with tradition it is also expected that some new stars will play themselves into the history books and some countries not in the pantheon of World Cup Super Powers will create upsets.
In cities across Russia, it will be a fiesta like no other. And the world too has already gone football crazy in anticipation of the brightest and the best displays from the stars of the round leather game. There is no doubt that the managers of the game have succeeded in keeping the razzmatazz associated with the championship intact which has made the World Cup a phenomenon of uncommon spectacle. We expect the Russian extravaganza, for that is what the greatest sporting event in the world has become, to follow the huge successes recorded in past competitions.
Before the whistle is blown and the gritty battles begin, let us sound some notes of warning. Those with high blood pressure, palpitation of the heart and who cannot simply withstand the shock, excitement and sudden change of fortune associated with the electrifying game called football should not watch live proceedings. For football increases tension, causes depression and excitement at the same time. But then all these are the ingredients that make football, especially the World Cup variety, the greatest sporting fiesta on the planet.
And for the brief period when the World Cup casts its spell on the globe, the pains of the unending wars in Afghanistan, erraticism of Donald Trump, the self-inflicted misery in South Sudan and of course Nigerians unending political debacle and killings and other shenanigans will not grab as much headlines at it wont to.
Let the excitement and soothing balm of the World Cup cascade round the globe and give some respite to a troubled world.
Come on, we are ready. Kick the ball, let the fun begin.
Adebanjo, former TELL Magazine Sports Editor, sent this piece via firstname.lastname@example.org