World Cup Fever Grips Putin’s Russia

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Sand image of 2002 World Cup winners Brazil on the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro

ONDRIVE with Sham Samaroo

In a week’s time, the world’s most popular sporting event will take centre stage in Putin country. Russia is quite an interesting place with a rich and storied history. Its people are kind and hospitable, and I formed many wonderful friendships there.

In the early 80s, I studied at the University of St. Petersburg, Russia’s first university, founded in 1724, by Peter The Great. St. Petersburg is the second largest and most beautiful city in Russia. The largest, of course, is the capital Moscow, which the Russians often referred to as a big village. During the socialist era, as the capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow was a shocking disappointment to visitors. When naïve, third-world socialists arrived in Moscow during the socialist era, they found a city that was poverty-stricken, filthy, ugly, and as the Russians themselves would say, “nee culturny” (uncultured), meaning uncivilized. The city of St. Petersburg, on the other hand, was named in honour of Peter, The Great, the King of Russia in the late 17th century. St. Petersburg was then, and still is today, seen as the “culture capital” of Russia.

Starting next Thursday, both St. Petersburg and Moscow are among 12 Russian cities that will play host to some of the biggest names in world soccer: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Iniesta, and Neuer, just to name a few. Among the top teams are the perennial favourites Germany, Brazil, and Argentina, but France and Spain are expected to spring a few surprises. Defending champions, Germany, are huge favourites to repeat. In 2014, Germany defeated host, Brazil, 7-1 in the semifinals, and took the Cup for the fourth time beating Argentina 1-0 in the finals at the famed Maracana stadium. Italy is also a four-time winner, but like the West Indies cricket team, failed to qualify for the World Cup. Brazil is the only nation to have won the Cup more times, five to be exact: Three times with Pele, in 1958, 1962, and again in 1972. After a 22-year hiatus, the team won its fourth title in the USA in 1994, and added a fifth in 2002 in South Korea.

The semifinal loss to Germany in 2014 was a devastating blow to Brazil. The fact that the team had to play the game without its two biggest names, captain Thiago Silva and talisman forward, Neymar, was little consolation to fans. In the aftermath of defeat, once again it was time for Brazilian soccer to face up to some stark realities of the modern game. As far back as 1982, when Brazil, tournament favourites by a country mile, failed to win the World Cup, the question was asked: Can “jugo bonito”, the possession-based style of Brazilian soccer, succeed in a soccer world based on physical fitness, defense first, and quick counter-attacks? For lovers of jugo bonito, including yours truly, the answer is a resounding yes. I mean, seriously, who wants to see a dull, boring, physically-dominated, defensive style of soccer?

The purpose of sports is to entertain, not to bore fans to a yawning death, and certainly not to maim opponents. Remember the 1982 World Cup semifinals when Germany’s goalkeeper, Schumacher, unleashed a WWA-style attack on the French player, Battiston? Coming off his goal line, Schumacher purposely ignored the ball and charged Battiston knocking him out cold. Teammate Michel Platini remembers that day: “He had no pulse, he looked so pale”. Platini was sure Battiston was dead. He watched in horror the lifeless body of his teammate taken from the field with one arm dangling limp over the side. Forever etched in the memory is the sight of Platini taking the hand, kissing it, and laying it gently across his teammate’s chest. Battiston survived, but the brutish attack knocked out two of his teeth, cracked three ribs, and damaged a vertebrae.

As a life-long soccer fan, I would rather that Brazil never wins another World Cup than to win in such an ugly and dishourable manner. This is not to say that Brazilian soccer must not change. But we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. Of course, there must be changes. After all, soccer is a fluid game. It is possible to modernize the Brazilian style without completely destroying the heart and soul of jugo bonito. The current Brazilian team, under coach Tite, is experimenting with just such a strategy. Will they succeed? It is much too early to say. This is their first rodeo and such a drastic change will take some time to perfect. In Brazil’s first warm up, international friendly last Sunday against Croatia, the team looked cautiously impressive. And the return of Neymar, who played the entire second half, is a big boast to the team’s chances of making the final four, perhaps even winning the whole thing. We shall see.

Footnote: Is Russia and the former Soviet Union one and the same country? Well, yes and no. I am not dodging the question. Let me explain. The Soviet Union, that ugly experiment in socialism, was made up of 15 republics (15 states if you will) of which Russia was the largest. In fact, in terms of land mass, Russia is the largest country in the world, larger than Canada or the USA.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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