It is axiomatic that when played well, soccer is a magnificient dance with the ball. Today on, the world is going to witness the festival of that dance. With 32 participating teams from five continents, 12 stadia, 64 matches, and featuring 736 players, Russia is all set for the 21st Ffifa World Cup is, even amidst rotten tales of corruption and occupation. With the kick-off whistle in Moscow's Luzhniki stadium for the inaugural Russia-Saudi match on Thursday at 8.30 pm Indian Standard Time, the month-long sports gala will begin. Spectacles of fans having started their celebration are already visible even in Kerala's countryside.
The world is not shrinking to a football, instead football is getting as big as the globe as a game and otherwise, through this celebration. That soccer is a game of luck and misfoill-luck is vouched for by its own history. Many are the tragic heroes who had to leave a stadium in tears through the roaring applause of the gallery. Football has also turned many times into a playfield for statesmanship and war. It is not mere folklore but hard historical fact, that war was triggered by football, as much as it was used as a means for restoring peace. The stage is set for the world's contest for the covetable crown when such and other dimensions of the game, far beyond the mere athletic battle, come to the fore. Hence the event being so passionately hailed.
It was Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruijff who made that statement, " Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is". This philosophy is as much applicable for the politics of football. It was when the politics of Russia was extremely turbulent that President Putin grabbed the World Cup venue contest. And it has been an allegation ever since that time eight years ago that he clinched the deal capitalising on friendship with the then Fifa President Sepp Blatter and pushing England and Spain behind. Although Putin was able to overcome that allegation through his international influence, the Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria did invite huge outcry. What Putin did in eastern Ukraine was annex the region of Crimea. It was around the same time that he suffered international condemnation for siding with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad who killed over five lac countrymen. Further, he ruthlessly suppressed even the faintest protests in his country. After Stalin, Putin is the one who steered the wheels of power for the longest period.
Stalin is a ruler who out of sheer anger dismissed his country's most meritorious socer team when the team lost to Yugoslavia. He treated that defeat as political defeat against Yugoslavia. History is repeating in another manner in Moscow. Putin is evolving new lessons of soccer diplomacy to maintain his invincibility at the global level. But when new stories of racism and hooliganism are heard loud from Moscow, probably Putin is likely to face tough times. Sentiments against Putin's annexationist politics are strong both within Russia and outside. It would not be a surprise if that protest is reflected in the gallery too. For, the culture of soccer has such a dimension too.
Even as it is, the very choice of Chechyan playgrounds for training by the Egyptian football team is part of such symbolic protests. Earlier, international stars like Yaya Toure were victim to racial opprobrium. It is feared that in World Cup too that will be repeated. Fifa has put in place several mechanisms to rein in racists. It is incumbent on a body that upholds the broad heritage of humanity and granted membership to Palestine and Tibet, countries that are denied a place in the map of even the UN. But it remains to be seen how much of that will be practicable in the peculiar circumstances of Russua.
In this context, the sad state of India which is destined to be still a spectator in this soccer gala that began in 1930, is also worthy of discussion. Even when small nations that suffered huge disasters caused by occupation and internal strife have qualified for the World Cup, why would it be that we are still lagging behind? Although there is ahuge section of population in the country that loves football, the reason why we cannot mould a world class team is basically nothing but our lopsided attitude. Of course some of the recent trends cannot be lost sight of. The Indian Super League (ISL) that started in 2014 has kindled new hopes for Indian football. Thanks to ISL, India's soccer tradition, once confined to Kolkatta, Kerala and Goa has started to expand to northeastern states and elsewhere. And through all that, the national team also has made significant headway. India's improvement in Fifa's ranking to below hundred and our winning the Intercontinental cup are glimmers of hope. What the country demands is systematic and scientic continuation of this thrust.