Ravi Valluri

The stadium was filled with fans packed like sardines. Thousands of Argentineans in the soccer crazy nation and an equal number across the globe were glued to their seats with bated breaths. Lionel Messi, the Argentinean football sensation had placed the ball for a spot kick to be scored against Iceland. Hearts beat in dizzying anticipation across the South American nation and from Buenos Aeries to Bhimavaram too.

Hannes Haldorsson, the plucky goal keeper of this seemingly piffling nation displayed no emotion and stood rock like at the goal post. He was mentally bracing to face a swirling kick from the talismanic Messi. His team mates were egging him on to maintain tranquillity and poise. Several hearts had stopped beating across Reykjavik.

And then the impossible occurred! Hannes Haldorsson saved the parabola penalty kick. An uneasy calm seemed to sweep abruptly across continents. The following day, newspapers and tabloids screamed that feisty Iceland withstood the might of the iconic soccer genius from Argentina. During those few inestimable moments, supporters of Iceland were euphoric while an uneasy ataraxy spread across the South American nation and its maniacal supporters.

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Let me rewind to several years ago, when I appeared for the Civil Services Examination interview. Upon learning that I evinced interest in the game of football, the estimable interview board, pointedly asked me, “Mr Ravi Valluri, what is the difference between World Cup Finals and World Cup Final?”

It was a seemingly innocuous question that rattled me for a few moments. Regaining composure and in a rather animated manner, I had replied that the World Cup Finals encompasses the entire tournament while the World Cup Final decides which team would scale the summit and don the yellow metal. Just one letter,‘s’, distinguishes the two words.

Meanwhile the 2018 FIFA World Cup is currently underway in Russia, at 11 cities across 12 venues. The FIFA World Cup is a quadrennial international football tournament, contested by the men's national teams of the member associations of FIFA. And Baichung Bhutia and Dilip Chetri would swear by the sleeve of their outfits what it means to participate in a mega tournament such as this. Soccer remains the most celebrated sport in the world, outnumbering fans of any other sport. Even a cricket insane nation like India is riveted to watch the games being played. After all Dhoni too began his sporting journey playing football years ago.

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The tournament which began on the 14th of June will culminate with the final to be played on the 15th of July at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow ; the matches being played at a scorching pace. Who will win the coveted cup? It remains in the womb of future. The fabled ‘Hand of God’ panned out by the charmed Diego Maradonna still remains in the alcoves of our minds.

It is noteworthy to point out that this is the first time an East European nation has been awarded the sporting and hosting rights. Most of the matches are in the vicinity of European Russia to ensure the travel within manageable times. Few are aware that at an estimated cost of over $14.2 billion, this is the most extortionate World Cup ever. Russia is hoping for a windfall with thousands of soccer fans and tourists parading the streets of Moscow and the other bijou towns.

The final tournament involves 32 national teams, including 31 teams determined through qualifying competitions and the automatically qualified host team.

Of the 32 teams, 20 are making back-to-back appearances following the last tournament in 2014, which includes the defending champions Germany, while both Iceland and Panama make their first appearances at a FIFA World Cup. Delirious fans of the game will wait in tizzy anticipation to watch the final. The winners of the World Cup automatically qualify for the 2021 FIFA Confederation Cup.

Even as soccer fans across continents wake up bleary eyed, Indian fans rush back from their offices and grab their seats in front of TV screens. All other teleserial and soap operas can take a back seat for a month.

Will the cherished dream of Rahim Saab -as Syed Abdul Rahim was popularly known- and other barefoot maestros of his generation ever materialise? Will India ever make it to the World Cup finals?

Questions that proverbially raise more questions than answers!