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Almost four years have passed since one of the greatest World Cups in recent memory took place. The world moves from the sandy beaches of Rio to the frigid template of Russia. Amid a sea of controversies with regards to state sponsored doping, the Russians will host the return of the World Cup to European shores. Holders Germany have come out unscathed through the qualifying stages. Teams like France have strengthened beyond measure and look to be a sure bet, come the later rounds. Lionel Messi, having undergone an arduous qualifying campaign with Argentina, will hope that they can go one better than 2014’s painful final loss. England…Well, England will be there!
In fact, so will Iceland – a team that is most famous for knocking the Three Lions out of Euro 2016. The tiny island nation will make their World Cup debut and are one of the three teams to qualify without using the services of a single domestic-based player. Joining them as the debutants for the World Cup will be Panama. The Central American country disrupted all of FIFA’s advertising plans when they knocked out regulars USA for a spot in Russia. Panama also hold the distinction for having the oldest squad in the tournament, with an average age of 29.4.
The World Cup, in recent years, has not been kind to its champions. Italy, 2006 winners, were knocked out in the first round. Spain, 2010’s powerhouse, were reduced to bits in 2014 and had to endure an embarrassing exit. Will the Germans fall to appease the footballing gods? Or will Die Mannschaft’s machinery chug out yet another indomitable campaign in the grandest stage of them all? All will be answered as the referee’s whistle blows at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow on June 14.
A major headache most teams will face in Russia will be the vastness of the country. For example, the Colombian national team will only have to cover 760-odd kilometers. They start off at Saransk, travel to Kazan for their second game and then play their final group stage match at Samara. Swedish fans, on the other hand, will have to travel 4660-odd kilometers during the group stages – with trips to Nizhni Novogrod, Sochi and finally eastern-most host city, Yekaterinberg. England too will face some hardships as their base is closer to St. Petersburg but all of their games will see them travelling upwards of 800 kilometers to each of their group stage match locations.
“What is being touted as an amicable separation has every chance of turning into an ugly divorce.” Come 2018, Indian football will be at yet another crossroad – this time with the direction of the I-League, India’s premier football domestic league since 2007 – and the Indian Super League, the latest entrant into the football arena in the country.
While 2017 has seen both leagues carry a parallel path, the fate of the I-League – and along with it, teams like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC – will be decided by the All India Football Federation this year. And with the ISL being awarded an AFC Champions Cup qualifier spot this season, all signs indicate that the I-league will be converted into India’s second division. Chances will be given to India’s legacy clubs to join the ISL, vis-avis Bengaluru FC. But as things stand, it is clear that the ISL is set to be India’s premier footballing league in 2018.
The national team, on the other hand, has risen over the past year, and its 105th rank at the end of 2017 is less of an achievement and more of a marker. Now is the time to push on and ensure that consistency and continuity is maintained. India rank 15th among Asian countries currently and the bid would be to slowly match the likes of Japan, Iran, Iraq and South Korea in order to become a force in the continent.
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