THE WORLD Cup kicks off today. Trinidad and Tobago will not be among the teams battling it out across Russia, but we will be watching the proceedings closely, starting with the opening ceremony at Luzhniki Stadium, at a time when the beautiful game is now more international than ever.
This is the first time the tournament is being held in Eastern Europe and that should be a cause for celebration. However, Russia’s treatment of its LGBTQ population, its serious problem of racism in its football, Vladimir Putin’s involvement in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, particularly following annexation of Crimea, as well as reports of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election have all cast a dark pall over the proceedings.
To make matters worse, British Prime Minister Theresa May in March announced a boycott by British ministers and members of the royal family in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Meanwhile, the world’s governing football body, FIFA, is still seeking to move on after a prolonged scandal. Reports of corruption, graft, and fraud — including in relation to bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments — have changed the face of the sport’s leaders, with our own Jack Warner being implicated in matters which are, to date, still in court. Sepp Blatter was eventually forced out as FIFA president, with a new president, Gianni Infantino, now in charge.
Yet, all of these matters are likely to be forgotten once the first goal is scored. There is a reason, it seems, why football remains the world’s most popular sport. This is a sport that is mesmeric and magnetic, it literally unites the world. A total of 64 matches will be played and when the final takes place in July it will be watched by billions.
For the first time, Iceland and Poland will be participating. While it remains difficult for small nations to make an impact, that has never stopped countries like TT from punching above our weight. In addition to qualifying for Germany in 2006, we also came close in 1989 but were beaten by the US. Ironically, TT eliminated the US from qualifying for this year’s tournament. World Cup 2018 will also have the unique feature of video assistant review to help referees get it right. How this impacts on the flow of the game is left to be seen, but it has been welcomed by the cricketing world and also international tennis.
Yesterday, FIFA awarded the 2026 tournament to North America. In an unprecedented development, three countries — Canada, Mexico and the US — will host. There will be much spectacle today and the next few weeks, but much more is in store in the years to come.