Period, we come to the business end of the games, it’s really the ‘Hunger Games’ now. The Brazilian samba has stopped and so has the Argentinian tango. European imperialism is back sans Germany, her hegemony of four years now over. The fate of the world waits to be decided amongst three erstwhile colonial powers (France, England and Belgium), baited by a resurgent south Slavic kingdom (Croatia) from the badlands of east Europe.
The stage is set for a monumental showdown, but not before we applaud the courage and ferocity of the Russian onslaught, Admiral Kuznetsov strikes valiantly at the heart of the Spanish armada, chaos reigns supreme and throws the enemy in complete disarray. Finally, armistice is signed and victorious Russia advances into the quarter finals, the first time as a post-Soviet nation, a historic moment indeed. Moscow parties as never before; in the Red square and the Kremlin, in the Bolshoi Theatre and in Soviet-style apartment blocks, shouts of ‘Ros-Si-Ya’ reverberate, bringing to life the Bolsheviks’ revolution, this time marching against the old tsars of football. Karl Marx looks on, Vodka bottle in hand, draped in the Russian tricolor, strangely perplexed at the juxtaposition of Das Kapital, with capitalist Chinese sponsorship deals at the current World Cup.
However, miracles are not to be in the Kalyug, as Russian might is hemmed in by their Slavic cousins, Croatia. In the quarter final, Russian striker Denis Cheryshev draws first blood, scoring with pinpoint accuracy against Croatia from outside the penalty box, against the run of play. But the sweet symphony of Luka Modric, Real Madrid playmaker and Champions League winner, flows through the Croatian team, conducting an orchestra and setting up the equalisers as perfect as a Rachmaninoff concert on a sunny Moscow Philharmonic afternoon. Game goes to extra time and then to penalties, but at this inflexion point, Rakitic from Barcelona, Madzucic from Juventus and Kovacic from Real Madrid, join the Vatreni melody and it’s suddenly curtains for Russia. Croatia wins on penalties 4-3. History repeats itself, they say, and we remember the golden generation of Croatian football, the debutante team with their talismanic striker Davor Suker, reaching the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup.
Belgium’s doughty goalie, Courtois, quelled most Brazilian attempts
Belgium is my aphrodisiac, and the red devils have really strutted their stuff in this World Cup.
The team’s unbridled flair, creativity and immeasurable skill have been on display each time they have played at this competition, winning every game from group stages to quarter-finals. Mostly cherry-picked from the best clubs of English football, the team carries the tell-tale signature of a harmonious Michelin Star cooking blend, strong aromas of diverse spices coming together in a perfectly balanced Indian curry. We start our recipe with Courtois, the complete goalkeeper, adding in Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany to create the true heart of Belgian defence. Kevin De Bruyne, a fascinating dash of talent and a creative midfielder par excellence, brings up their midfield and controls the team’s offensive play. He is our vital ingredient, creating visionary opportunities and combining elegantly with the aerial skills of Marouane Fellaini and speed of winger Mousa Dembele, lending volume, flavour and style to the Carbonnades Flamandes. Finally, the true essence of the meal is brought home to the taste buds by the strikers Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, left and right foot working in perfect unison to unleash shooting power and finesse unparalleled, leaving that subtle hint of love on your tongue, and making the experience and the memory of the gastronomy unforgettable. Bon Appetit!
As the Belgian repast comes to a close, I also have this vision of fantasy, Georges Remi, better known by his pen name ‘Herge’, working feverishly out of his studio in Brussels, for a Le Petit Vingtieme cover of June 2018, depicting an ever-effervescent Captain Haddock hurling his choicest curses at opposition fans in Luznikhi, as a Belgian Tintin neatly tucks away a bicycle kick goal against African or Asian opposition, Snowy looks on to the FIFA fair-play board in the background, displaying no to racism et al.
France’s Raphael Varane celebrates his goal against Uruguay
Sports is a strange leveller, and amidst all this talk of a European final, the French team is really a story of colonial ambition, ethnic diversity and an insight into integration of minorities and migrants, through football of course. Samuel Umtiti from Cameroon, Rapahel Varane with origins from the West Indies, Nebil Fekir from Algeria, Adil Rami from Morocco, Paul Pogba from Guinea and Ousmane Dembele from Senegal/Mauritus all hail from colonial precincts of the French empire and today form the foundations of their national football team. The lure and fame of football overrides cultural, religious and racial idiosyncrasies giving us hope, that someday, maybe social integration through football can be a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding amongst peoples. Football speaks a universal language, a sign system which surpasses the spoken word and brings society together. But let us leave these heady issues; we are football fans with our focus on the 18-carat gold prize designed by Italian artist Silvio Gazaniga. Make no mistake, the Les Bleus are not just about racial integration, their pitch is speed and versatility, with the prodigious Kylin Mbappe of Paris Saint Germain announcing his arrival on the global stage, tearing through the Argentine defence and combining with Antoine Greizmann, scoring a brace of goals in the match, which literally knocks the stuffing out of the Albiceleste. It’s 1998 again and Zizou, we are back again….
What can I possibly say about the Three Lions (which has not been formerly said in the media)? Before the start of the tournament in Russia, most of England was waxing eloquent on the use of a new performance enhancing steroid in football called Novichok (correctly read: deadly nerve agent from Russian authorities in Salisbury). Now, suddenly, with their football team continuing to make history by reaching the semi-finals in 28 years (after Italia 1990), the focus is back again on English football and an all-out hero worship of Gareth Southgate (is his waistcoat really a lucky charm against opposition football offensive?). Nonetheless, England are at the cusp of destiny, having won the World Cup once in 1966 under the great Bobby Moore and the hat-trick hero of the final, Sir Geoff Hurst. Now, finally, they have a team which combines the confidence of youth, the variety of attack and defence and in their captain Harry Kane, a striker who combines the precision of Ronaldo with the vision of Messi; it is time for the Lions to roar again.
England’s talismanic Harry Kane
Simon Kuper, famous British football author, says “It seems that soccer tournaments create those relationships: people gathered together in pubs and living rooms, a whole country suddenly caring about the same event. A World Cup is the sort of common project that otherwise barely exists in modern societies.” The World Cup this year has been such a story, a project from Russia with love. Fans from all footballing nations, irrespective of colour, creed, race, religion and orientation, have been welcomed with open arms into the bosom of mother Russia. Tourists, coaches, journalists and players have found smiling faces of citizens from Sochi to Samara, with ever helpful volunteers guiding them through small adversities. From English language signs on Moscow street boards to English language commentary in the city’s famous underground, Russia has shown the international community the true nature of its warmth and hospitality.
Across this month in Russia, relationships have been built, hearts have been broken and a lifetime of friendships forged, but amidst all this passion and revelry one thing raises itself as the ethos of these games: the qualities of faith and trust, in a country unknown before as a footballing nation. As night gathers around me in Gorky Park, I raise my glass of polugar as a toast to Football and Russia, inseparable friends in separable times. Familiar nostalgia rushes up my head: “With the mind alone, Russia cannot be understood. No ordinary measure spans her greatness. She stands alone, unique. In Russia you simply must have faith.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky.
(The writer specialises in industrial infrastructure across emerging markets and is a football enthusiast)
Sourav Hazra in Moscow, St Petersberg, Sochi and Kazan