When it was first announced that Russia was going to host the F.I.F.A. World Cup in 2018 I was less than impressed. At the time Russian nationalism, its participation in football hooliganism and an intolerance of homosexuals and foreigners was on display. Then F.I.F.A.’s boss Sepp Blatter was made to step down because of damning allegations against him which further tarnished the games international image.
But in the last few months one could see growing excitement as a new World Cup approached. People stopped talking about the political ruckus going on around the football pitch. People started talking about who would win, which stars would be there and how their favourite teams would go. It began to become interesting and not another political football.
Yesterday that excitement around the world reached fever point. After amazing pool play that saw all manner of surprises, and some shock finals, Russia hosted France and Croatia as they played for the crowning glory of the 2018 F.I.F.A. World Cup.
Congratulations France. Commisserations Croatia.
Whether one likes football or not – I didn’t watch a single match from end to end, though I saw the highlights for all of the finals – one has to admire the extent to which 22 players booting a round leather ball for 90 minutes can captivate millions of people across the globe, putting aside poverty and war; refugee camps and Brexit politics. Just for 90 minutes something other than the daily struggles of live become more important, more exciting. Something worth riding the thrills and spills of. In that context F.I.F.A. 2018 has provided plenty.
Whether you are from a nation that did not get there to or being French or Croatian, whether you liked football or not, you have probably had a conversation that involved the word football in a F.I.F.A. 2018 context. Whether you simply watched the highlights myself, or went to the bar to watch it, or were one of the lucky thousands to have secured tickets to a match football has probably crossed your mind in the last six weeks.
Football is a beautifully simple game if one can see past the theatrics of players like Neymar. It is a game that unites the world in a way no other sport can – rugby, cricket and others make an honest go of it, but none of them have the truly international breadth of football. We are talking about a sport that is played with gusto on every continent except Antarctica, though I am sure it has been talked about down there. We are talking about a sport that has – if I read correctly – 4 billion people watching the World Cup Final around the world.
Football gives hope in the most unusual ways – from Palestinian militants stopping briefly to celebrate a David Beckham goal, to kids in refugee camps around the world kicking footballs across muddy ground; from girls trying to Bend it like Beckham to relative minnow nations like New Zealand (ranked 89th in the world) when we toppled the then no. 15, Serbia in 2010 just a few weeks before the F.I.F.A. World Cup that year.
Now as we start to look forward to it being in Qatar in 2022, an event currently being marred by human rights abuses building the stadiums, I am trying to keep an open mind following the success of a tournament that was far better than I thought it would be. Hopefully Qatar will rise to the occasion and put on something to match or better F.I.F.A. 2022.
Thanks very much for proving me and many many others wrong Russia.