World Cup of Soccer: How Do You Say “Mundial” in Russian?

The World Cup is coming! It will start precisely at 11am ET on June 14, in Moscow, with a match between host Russia and Saudi Arabia. Thirty-two soccer nations will vie for that most elusive title in sports, achieved by only eight countries since the first tournament was played in the Argentinean and Uruguayan pampas in 1930.

The World Cup is an entirely different world than the one we live in: it is dominated by a benevolent giant, Brazil, the only “pentacampeão”; Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million people, has won it twice, more than England, France or Spain; tiny Iceland, with 350,000 habitants, is among the top 32 soccer nations in the world! Tell this to Italy, a four-time winner; Holland, three times runner-up; and the U.S., which will all sit out the competition, having been eliminated in the qualifying phase – by minnow Panama in our case.

The only blink to current international affairs is that Iran is in, when unfortunately we are out. There will be no repeat of the U.S.-Iran World Cup match that took place in France in 1998. However, on a more positive note, did you know that President Trump is working actively with Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup in our three countries? NAFTA may be a “rip-off,” but we would love to share worldwide soccer among neighbors…In a typical tweet, complete with potential threats and negative mention of the U.N., Trump wrote on April 26. 2018:

“The U.S. has put together a STRONG bid w/ Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?”

In a world increasingly dominated by oligarchs – think Russia but also Citizens United – it is refreshing to know that the World Cup is relatively egalitarian from an economic standpoint. The top three economic powers, the U.S., China and Japan, have never won it. The most populated nations on earth, China, India and Indonesia, hardly ever participate. The whole of Asia remains an aspirant, with only South Korea reaching the semi-finals, at home in 2002. Rather, this remains a Europe – South America duopoly, with Europe leading 11 to 9 in terms of wins. It will most likely remain so in Russia, since the odds-on favorites (in alphabetical order) are Brazil; France; Germany; and Spain, with Argentina; Belgium; England; and Portugal as outsiders.

For the soccer fan who likes the sport to be more than an avalanche of dollars, or euros, one nice aspect of the World Cup is that “oligarchic” football is kept in check during the tournament. In club football, it is all about the money: $ win. Who can hope to win a European Champions League title these days, apart from Real Madrid (winning the last three with coach Zidane!), Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool, the Manchesters –United and City, Chelsea and the Paris St-Germain, the last five teams owned by billionaires? The team lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15 will likely not come from the richest country competing for it. Of course, most top players from Africa, Asia and South America play in Europe. But FIFA rules mandate that all European clubs – some of them the most valuable sport franchises on earth – release their players to their national teams for a couple of months before and during the competition. Imagine the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers forced to release Curry, Harden and James so they could play for the U.S. national squad during a non-Olympic global competition! Such is the appeal of the soccer of nations. Plus, we get to watch the absolute pinnacle of the sport. Brazil, for example, will field a starting eleven including two or more star players from Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris SG and Real Madrid.

Do I dare make a prediction that is contrarian to conventional wisdom, and the bookmakers? Err…no. Semi-finals involving Germany against Spain on one hand, and Brazil against France on the other, strike me as the most likely scenario. The “Mannschaft” has won the last edition, played in Brazil. It is long on teamwork (no super star here), tactics, and ruthlessness. Nothing is left to chance: when stationed in Salvador, Bahia during the tournament played in Brazil, the Germans endeared themselves to the locals by playing on the beach, being available for selfies at all times, and even fixing local roads! Spain (La Furia!), of course, won the prior edition, defeating Germany (them again) in the final. Busquets, Iniesta, Piqué, Ramos, et al. are still there. Ageing? Yes. But there is also great new blood, with agile and quick players such as Asensio and Isco.

The “Seleção” revolves around the magnificent Neymar. But unlike with the two other gods of soccer, the Argentinean Lionel Messi and Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, most of Neymar’s teammates are also stars in their own right: after Ronaldo, Marcelo is Real Madrid’s most potent weapon, and that winning team’s defense is protected by “the Sheriff” Casemiro; Coutinho was the best player at Liverpool, and is now with Messi at Barcelona; central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva play with Neymar in Paris; and Gabriel “menino” Jesus is the wonder boy at Manchester City.

And France (Les Bleus)? Well, it has so many good players on offer that Arsenal and Paris stars Lacazette and Rabiot did not make the list of 23 players selected to go to Russia. The French attack boasts of Griezmann, Mbappé and Giroud, a fearsome trio. In the middle field are the immensely gifted Pogba and Matuidi. On a good day, France can beat anyone – and did, thrashing the Netherlands 4×0 during the qualification phase.

What about our outsiders? The top of that heap has got to be Belgium, replete with talent, what not with goalkeeper Courtois, top strikers De Bruyne and Lukaku, middle-fielders Fellaini and Hazard, and Kompany… Then there is Argentina, “Los Hermanos” as they say in Brazil and South America. Who would begrudge Messi, arguably football’s nicest ever genius, his first World Cup? But his teammates are not getting younger: will Ángel Di María be on fire like in 2014? Can Agüero still score? And Mascherano and Otamendi defend? They all struggled during the South American qualifying tournament, finishing 4th behind Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay. And if Messi had not won the last game in Ecuador pretty much by himself, perhaps Argentina is out, like Italy…England has top scorer Harry Kane, and promising youngsters like Joe Gomez, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, but will this be enough? Ditto for Portugal: yes, it won the 2016 European Championship, beating France in the final, a big upset. However, will Ronaldo get enough help from middle fielder Bernardo Silva and defense stalwart Pepe to advance far in the tournament?

Surprises? There is always one in each World Cup. Who forgot Cameroon in the U.S. in 1994, and its 42-years old star Roger Milla? And plucky Costa-Rica, reaching the quarterfinals in 2014, after eliminating both England and Italy in the group stage? In Russia, many will be cheering for Cinderella Iceland: Iceland has already enthralled Europe, reaching the quarterfinals of the Euro tournament in 2016. Led by the experienced and unpredictable Sigurdsson, its first game will be against Argentina, followed by matches against Nigeria and Croatia, a tough group! Croatia too could be a surprise: after all it has two of the world’s most creative middle fielders, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Colombia, with its lethal forwards James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao, just beat France 3×2 in Paris. It was a friendly game, but the Colombians came back from two goals down to score three of their own in the second half. There is also Egypt, with their incredibly talented Mohamed Salah – if he recovers in time from the nasty shoulder injury sustained in the Champions’ final. Otherwise, we have Switzerland, going like clockwork.

Four favorites; outsiders; and potential surprises, could I go to sixteen, or half the draw? Sure: Nigeria and its Super Eagles are full of great young players, led by Chelsea’s Victor Moses, and could potentially wreck havoc in the toughest group of the tournament – don’t cry for me Argentina! Poland has arguably Europe’s top striker of the last 5-6 years, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski. South Korea has had the top team in Asia for close to twenty years, and has a couple of excellent players, Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan. And Uruguay is a strong contender, with the formidable Luis Suarez (who has long teeth, sometimes literally), the mercurial Edinson Cavani and the reliable Diego Godin.

Invite friends at home, enjoy Irish bars, and follow the action in English, Spanish, and any other language! It is time for soccer nirvana, lasting four glorious weeks.

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