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IT’S been eight years but the debate still rages on. It’s intensity increased again over the last few months but maybe once what has caused it kicks off, the focus will shift. In all probability, back to the action again.

It’s what the FIFA World Cup does. It gives so much drama, so much intrigue and so many compelling stories. And inevitably, with moments like Diego Maradona’s hand of god, Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss, Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt and Luis Suarez’s bite, all the furore, all the controversy in the lead up to it is forgotten. There are new narratives to be written.

Only problem with the Russia World Cup is that it has been dogged by controversy since the longest time. That might also work in its favour. But that will ask for world football’s showpiece tournament to deliver a spectacular story — from start to finish.

The draw for the group stage means Russia can deliver some captivating storylines.

How about Neymar’s Brazil ousting Germany to avenge that humiliation in Belo Horizonte four years ago? Brazil and Germany could end up facing each other as early as the round-of-16.

Or Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo facing off in a duel to put an end to that longstanding ‘who’s better’ debate and one of them going on to win the title? Argentina v Portugal is a potential quarter-final but both Messi and Ronaldo will need to rely on their team-mates to really step up for World Cup glory.

Or England, full of youthful promise but lacking experience, going all they way and lifting the trophy at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15? That would be sweet revenge for the English after they were beaten by Russia, who were termed as the riskiest option, in that infamous 2010 World Cup hosting vote that paved the way for an overhaul of FIFA.

None of the 24 men who voted then remain in world’s football governing body yet Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin stand on the cusp of projecting themselves, and their power, to the world.

Russia’s World Cup has survived a massive doping storm, allegations of corruption during their World Cup bid and of enslaving migrant workers for the construction of their state-of-the art stadia. They’ve held on to the World Cup despite widespread concerns over hooliganism and racism in the country.

There have been questions over how they will sustain the numerous stadiums they’ve built for the tournament. Similar questions were asked of Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup. But that was Brazil — a football nation. This is Russia — predominantly an ice hockey nation.

Their bid to host football’s big mass was driven by Putin’s desire. And they will open themselves to the world in all glory when their team takes on Saudi Arabia in the opening match on Thursday. For Russia to overcome all the negativity that has shrouded the buildup to the World Cup and the focus to return to the action, they need not only their team to perform but also all the top stars and teams to turn up the style.

It was hard on Russia that, in the biggest event they are hosting since the breakup of the Soviet Union, teams like Italy, the Netherlands and Chile have missed out.

Riveting knockouts

The World Cup therefore could see a mundane group stage, low on quality but high on goals, before a riveting knockout stage with all the big-hitters capable of going all the way.

Brazil go in as favourites with star striker Neymar getting back among the goals after his return from injury while defending champions Germany have so much strength in depth that coach Joachim Loew decided not to make England’s young player of the year Leroy Sane a part of the travelling team.

Germany tasted glory in Russia just 12 months ago at the Confederations Cup but no team that has won the World Cup dress rehearsal has gone on to win the big one.

Spain and France could face off in a tantalising final clash and while the 2010 winners are an exciting mix of youth and experience — this will be Andres Iniesta’s last tournament before he retires from international duty, the 1998 winners have a squad boasting mercurial talents like Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe.

“We’re coming to the World Cup not in top form,” France coach Didier Deschamps, the captain of the 1998 team, said at a news conference in the Istra district near Moscow on Monday. “We’re focusing on our speed and explosiveness.”

Speed, at this stage of football evolution, will be key during the World Cup. Even Spain, the masters of possession-based Tiki-Taka that took them to the 2010 crown, have adopted more elements to their game. A test of Spain’s efficacy will come during their opening game against Portugal — the standout fixture of the group stage — on Friday.

“It’s a very important game due to the opponent and because it’s the first game, it is always best to start on the right foot,” Spain striker Rodrigo said at a news conference in Krasnodar on Sunday.

That game will also reveal more about Portugal and how well equipped the European champions are for an assault on the world crown. And just like when they were last in Russia, for the Confederations Cup, Portugal’s performances will be overshadowed by questions over Ronaldo’s future after the Real Madrid star stated he might be leaving the club following their Champions League triumph in May.

Argentina’s campaign shouldn’t be affected by talks over Messi’s club future. Amore pressing concern for Jorge Sampaoli would be over how to make Argentina play like Barcelona so to extract the best out of the totemic forward.

This World Cup could potentially define Messi’s legacy with Argentina. But it remains to be seen what legacy it will leave for the host nation.

For now, it seems there will only be white elephants. But after hosting a World Cup with so many controversies in its buildup and seemingly the world against it, don’t expect Putin not to do anything about it.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2018