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Road to Russia full of emotion, intrigue and drama

Road to Russia full of emotion, intrigue and drama

ROUGHLY 17,000 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean separate Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, and Lima, the capital of Peru. But this was a journey that took a full 979 days and a few hours to complete. At the beginning there were many, 210 to be precise. But then they began falling one after the other. As the giants sank, they generated seismic shocks. Others went unnoticed. No one expected them to go the distance anyways. Some defied the odds, generating euphoria and expectation in equal measure. Only 31 were left standing in the end.

Battered and bruised yet blissful at having made it, those 31 will now descend upon Russia in about seven months time to join the hosts in a quadrennial global festival of football, the significance of which is such that it’s even beamed live to the astronauts at the International Space Station. The last one standing there will be crowned world champion. Since 1930, only eight have been able to achieve that feat. One of them won’t even be in Russia next year.

When the long, winding road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup began with Timor-Leste hammering Mongolia 4-1 at home, probably no one would’ve envisaged that four-time champions Italy wouldn’t be amongst the elite 32 for the climax. The goal that put the Italians out of the running was the 2,436th since Quito fired Timor-Leste ahead in front of 9,000 home fans in the southeast Asian island on 12 March, 2015. The count ended at 2,469, the final goal coming from the right boot of Christian Ramos at the Estadio Nacional de Lima on Wednesday as Peru qualified for football’s big mass for the first time since 1982.

Italy will miss out for the first time since 1958. The tearful end of Gianluigi Buffon’s international career resonated around the world. His final moments in his national jersey were desperate, the goalkeeping marvel searching for a goal in Milan on Monday to haul his side back into their playoff tie against Sweden.

It never came and Buffon’s Italy became the second top European side to be thwarted by the Swedes, who earlier denied the Netherlands to make it to the playoffs. It meant Arjen Robben’s international career also came to an end. The Flying Dutchman, unlike Buffon, never tasted World Cup glory.

Lionel Messi’s magic in the decisive game means he still has a shot at that glory. So does his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo. There have been shocks aplenty and they would for now just be grateful at having made it, even if it meant they had to wait till the very end. It’s that wait till the very end, the suspense that it stirs and the outpouring of ecstasy at having made it that makes the World Cup qualification so special. It prompts scenes like the Viking thunderclap, crying commentators, packed street parties and even earthquake alerts.

Mohammad Salah scored a stoppage-time penalty to bring unbridled joy to his Egyptian compatriots. The Pharaohs will go to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Fellow North Africans Morocco, led by brilliant French coach Herve Renard, made it for the first time since 1998. Tunisia made sure they wouldn’t miss a third World Cup on the trot. So did Saudi Arabia who later sacked the man who took them there, Bert Van Maarwijk. And for only the first time four Arab nations will be at a World Cup, football providing some cheer in the strife-hit region.

There could’ve been five but the width of the post deprived Syria of an inter-continental playoff. The war-torn nation inspired so many, arguably being the story of qualifying. Omar Al Soma, returning to the Syrian team after a self-imposed exile due to his views on the civil war in the country, had Sydney’s ANZ Stadium in stunned silence when he stepped up to take a stoppage-time free-kick against Australia. His effort smacked off the upright, sending Australia in delirium and a two-legged tie against Honduras. A month later, on Wednesday, the ANZ Stadium erupted again when the hosts confirmed their spot in Russia.

That match was Australia’s 22nd on the road to Russia. They had marathon trips to South Asia, Central Asia, and even Central America. They played the most qualifiers and ensured that in a World Cup of some firsts, the Asian confederation will have five teams, all of them having been to the world’s biggest single sporting event before. But there were thrills and spills in a rip-roaring race. South Korea only just made it, Japan also wobbled. Qualification was more of a relief, though, than a celebration.

There was an eruption in Iceland though. But not the volcanic ones the tiny country is famous for. Inside the Laugardalsvollur, Iceland — with a population of 330,000 — celebrated becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup with a thunderclap, the sound of which travelled from the North Pole to the South. Panama also gate-crashed the World Cup party for the first time, Roman Torres’ late goal, after a controversial earlier goal, sending the country into raptures while also breaking American hearts on a dramatic night.

The United States crashed out on the same night as reigning South American champions Chile went out. The continental dominance counts for no privilege in this quest to be among the world’s elite. Ask Cameroon. The African champions also missed out. Yet Nigeria, who didn’t even qualify for the African Cup of Nations both in 2015 and 2017, cruised through qualifying and became the first side from the Dark Continent to punch their ticket to Russia.

It’s the unpredictability which makes this so fascinating even if the usual suspects had a trouble-free qualifying campaign. Germany went through with a perfect record, Brazil lost only once while Spain were unbeaten. They, along with Argentina, France and England, will now plot how to be the last one standing in Russia. Others will be proud to just be there, reveling at being part of the global football party, at being the centre of the world’s attention for a month after the tournament kicks off in Moscow on June 14.

The bright lights of the sprawling Luzhniki Stadium will be a far cry from Dili’s Municipal Stadium, where it all began. The journey has seen the ball roll from the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, about 3600m above sea level, to the nearly 100,000-capacity Azadi Stadium in Tehran. It’s been a journey of severe pain for some and immense joy for others. It is these emotions, the nerve-shredding level of intrigue, and the drama produced which makes the World Cup so special.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2017

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