CONTRARY to popular perception, sport and geopolitics are perfect bedfellows, a romance forged in steel. Forget that whole thing about 'don't mix politics in sport', because that is nonsense. You can even trace the overarching influence of government and politics in the context of the men's football World Cup. This much is evident right from 1934 when Italy hosted it. Leader Benito Mussolini saw the event as a perfect vehicle to promote his regime. Mussolini got what he wanted as Italy won the competition.
The Maracana, built for the express purpose for the World Cup in 1950, was meant to portray a more modern Brazil. Argentina in 1978 was played under the totalitarian regime of Jorge Videla. Historians have described how people were routinely tortured at the infamous Naval School in Buenos Aires, a stone's throw away from Estadio Monumental, the stadium that hosted the 1978 World Cup final. Videla, according to historic accounts, even hired an American PR firm to spread propaganda (activists wanted teams to boycott the event and a few players ended up not going).
West Germany's triumph in the final at Italia 1990 was dressed up as a win for a more forward-looking Germany less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the last three decades, globalisation had a big role as the World Cup moved from North America to Asia to Africa. It's no coincidence that Russia hosted it in 2018.
The event's latest pitstop is Qatar, another example of politics' outsized influence in sport. Considering what has happened since Qatar won the bid in 2010, a lot of people are planning to not watch it. Others have adopted the head in the sand attitude while a few feel conflicted about the whole event. The event itself is a giant leap into the unknown, incomparable to any of the previous World Cups. A winter World Cup. Coaches not having a month to work with the players, to drill them into formations they want. No chance for a period of rest for aching limbs. A tournament that will largely be played in temperatures exceeding 30*c, with humidity over 60% (players in the past have faced these conditions but they will have seldom faced this on a daily basis for a month). There are two positives. No big travel involved and players will perhaps face no problems with respect to conditioning as they have been playing highly competitive games till last weekend but they have to budget for the additional sweat they will lose thanks to the heat and humidity.
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With the caveat of the unknown, the competition could see a South American winner for the first time since 2002. Apart from the full-backs, Brazil have brought a stacked squad to Qatar. They haven't lost in a while and the players are familiar with the system coach Tite employs. What really works for them is the marriage of quality with quantity in the forward line.
In 2022, their aggregate score is 27-3 and they have scored three or more goals six times in eight games. With five of their starting front six likely to be Neymar, Richarlison, Vini Jr, Raphinha and Lucas Pacqueta, they will not be short of goals or in creating chances. You can also see why they are the favourites to reclaim the title.
The one chink in their armour is nobody knows if they can replicate this success against elite European opposition. They have faced one European nation (Czech Republic is not really elite) in the last four years. That's not great preparation if you have been eliminated by as many European nations (France in 2006, Netherlands in 2010, Germany in 2014 and Belgium in 2018). They have the experience and nous to put an end to this hex. In this context, their two group-stage games against two middle-tier European countries (a repeat of 2018 clashes against vastly improved Switzerland and Serbia) is of added importance. If they enjoy convincing wins...
The second favourite to win the World Cup in many people's eyes, Argentina, don't have a European problem. Their last game against European opposition was versus current champions Italy and Argentina stomped over them 3-0 in the Finalissima. They haven't lost since 2019 and the vibe around the side is hard to miss. That Copa America win in 2021 has lifted all the tension from Lionel Messi & Co. It has given them a new lease of life and it's showing in the way they are playing.
Earlier, they were playing on emotion, these days there is a joie de vivre. Messi, perhaps enjoying some of his best football in the last few years, is orchestrating proceedings in a deeper role. The emergence of Lautaro Martinez in the front and Emi Martinez as goalkeeper has made them a more sturdy outfit. They have multiple avenues to score and the team is a perfect blend of youth and experience. Like their neighbours, though, the one possible weakness is in the full-back area.
Argentina's conquerors in 2018, France, are the European nation most primed to win again. To be honest, if you have Kylian Mbappe on your side, you tend to win more than you lose. However, they have had a troubled build-up. Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante are out while both Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema are nursing niggles. The midfield will likely be marshalled by youngsters, who might find the pressure nauseating.
With France, there is also the question of team unity and managing and massaging egos. It could go pear-shaped like in 2002 or 2010 or the last Euros when on-field tension was matched by bizarre off-field stories. There is also the feeling that coach Didier Deschamps is cautious and sets his teams up to not lose. A friendly group, though, allows the team to grow into the tournament.
Two other European teams who will look to do the same are Germany and Spain. Both of them are drawn in the same group. They possess some of the best young players and play in a very modern way, high-pressing, full-backs acting as auxiliary midfielders and forwards who link up the play. Both of them, though, suffer from a common problem. The absence of a reliable, goal-scoring No. 9.
Portugal have one of those in Cristiano Ronaldo but will he remain effective? A squad brimming with talent, the 2016 Euro champions have more than an outside chance of winning a first World gong but much of it depends on if there is an appetite to bench Ronaldo, who comes into the Cup on the back of an legacy-tearing interview. He has burned his bridges with Manchester United and it could have immediate repercussions with the likes of teammate Bruno Fernandes too. Coach Fernando Santos will start him but chances are, he could hinder their chances. Speaking of Ronaldo, the final could see Argentina face Portugal in a match that could complete the legacies of the two players who have defined the game for the last 15 years or so.
Before that game against Portugal, Argentina could also run into Brazil in the last four.
It's what makes the football World Cup that bit special. It's what Qatar have allegedly bought (the authorities have continuously denied all suggestions and a FIFA-sponsored investigation didn't find enough evidence to take the event from Qatar); to nation-build using a mass vehicle.
It's why politics and sport freely mingle.