The draw for the group stage of arguably the biggest sporting event of the world — the FIFA World Cup, set to be held in Russia next year — took place on December 1 at Moscow’s State Kremlin Palace. As always, the ceremony itself was quite highly anticipated given that the draw is believed to be a major determinant of how a team’s performance in the tournament would be. However, those who anticipated fireworks, would likely have been left disappointed by the outcome this year.
For starters, it doesn’t help that certain historically important teams, such as four-time champions Italy, two-time Copa America champions Chile, winner of 2017 African Cup of Nations Cameroon, emerging force and commercial giant United States of America, and perpetual underdog and contender for the title Netherlands, all failed to qualify for the main event. Furthermore, recent regulars, African teams Ghana and Ivory Coast, who had of late carved out a special niche for themselves in the footballing world, would also be missing out on Russia — and vice versa. One would imagine that the presence of teams like defending champions Germany, European Champions Portugal, former world dominators Spain, and South American giants Argentina and Brazil would still ensure a glittering draw. Yet, in spite of their presence, something seems to be lacking in the lineups drawn on last Friday.
For one thing, there is no obvious “Group of Death”. While Group B, starring Portugal, Spain and Iran; Group F, starring Germany, Mexico and Sweden; and Group G, starring Belgium and England, are believed to host the most exciting fixtures; Groups A and H — consisting of Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal, respectively — are believed to be the toughest, but lacking in star power. Therefore, no single group is considered to be the ultimate black hole of the tournament. That’s half the excitement of the first half of the tournament gone.
Secondly, the tournament looks set to desperately miss the presence of the likes of Italy, Netherlands, Chile and the USA.
The Azzurri, as the Italian football team are colloquially called, would arguably be the most sorely missed, sporting big names like goalkeeper-captain Gianluigi Buffon, defender Giorgio Chiellini, and star midfielder Daniel De Rossi — all of whom declared retirement from international football after the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Indeed, the team’s failure to qualify for the illustrious event unraveled somewhat of an apocalypse among the Azzurri ranks with head coach, Gian Piero Ventura, being sacked, and president of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, resigning, immediately afterwards. Following the quarter-final loss to Germany in Euro 2016 — of which, Italy were one of the favourites to win — the 1-0 aggregate loss to Sweden — which spelled the end of their hunt for a place in the World Cup — must indeed have been a very painful blow, not only for the team, but for its fans the world over.
The other missing European team, the Netherlands, although a much-weakened side compared to yesteryears, has also grown to be recognized as a force to be reckoned with; the eternal dark horses, thanks to the “Golden Generation” of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The team managed to develop a cult over the past two decades, with players like Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, de Boers, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar, being associated with it. Of the Golden Generation, only Wesley Sneijder long past his sell-by date now remains — but that does not stop football fans from looking forward to watching the Oranje play.
The third important team to miss out on the tournament, United States of America, would arguably be missed solely within their own country, but that is no mean loss. With the MLS — Major League Soccer — taking off in popularity in recent years, managing to attract aging stars from Europe like David Beckham, Raul and Steven Gerrard, the absence of the team from the mega event would be a loss for the footballing world in general. Not to mention the revenue that the presence of the team would have generated, both via television and ticketing, for the tournament organizers.
Lastly, the absence of 2015 Copa America winners and 2017 Confederations Cup finalists, Chile, is also expected to leave a gaping hole in the draw. The firepower of star player Alexis Sanchez, fellow forward Eduardo Vargas, the commanding presence of goalkeeper-captain Claudio Bravo, as well as vice-captain Gary Medel — all of whom together set the base for a team that beat European Champions, Portugal, en route to the final of the Confederations Cup — is especially expected to be missed.
However, despite having a seemingly pallid lineup when compared to tournaments of the past, tickets for the mega event seem to be selling like hot cakes, with 1,318,109 — 1.3 million — tickets reported to have been requested within 24 hours on December 5 and 6. Of course, who could discount the colossal pull of the possibility of watching arguably the two best players ever to grace the football pitch — Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — playing in what is very possibly their last World Cup together? Or the possibility of watching one of the most perfectly balanced and well-managed German football teams in recent years? Or the eternal naïve optimism of the English football fan?
These forces, and more, if remaining constant, could help football fans rest assured that, come June 2018, they would most likely be in for a treat.