The World Cup is like the marker we measure our football-supporting lives with. We tend to never be the same person we were four years ago, and there would have been events that go a long way in shaping our thoughts and us as people. Similarly, the 2018 World Cup will be one of the most important events in the lives of the competing footballers. However, for some, it will mean a lot more than others. Some will try to bury the past, some will be a beacon of positivity for their fractious country, and some who are out for the last time to establish themselves as the world’s best.
On 10 June, Neymar scored in a 3-0 win against Austria in signature style – he received a lob from Willian at the left corner of the box, took it on his left foot, made a defender sit out of just sheer fear and anticipation with a feint, and nutmegged the keeper to score Brazil’s second.
This has signalled his return to form after another injury. The two other goals scored by Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho highlighted the collective quality of Tite’s side. This is a World Cup for legacy building for Neymar, but like El Phenomenon, Ronaldo Luis before him, he arrives not as a spindly sensation, but a more bulked up, mature footballer, and with a cast and crew around him. The team that won the 2002 World Cup against Germany – Brazil’s last – had Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Gilberto Silva, Lucio as the spine that allowed Ronaldo to wreak havoc without constantly looking of his shoulder. Neymar will be afforded that luxury by Jesus, Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Marcelo, Casemiro, and Thiago Silva – and some could argue that he’s better equipped than Ronaldo was.
Not everyone gets second chances. Fred Guedes, Oscar, Bernard, Hulk, Luiz Gustavo, Dante, David Luiz, Julio Cesar, Maicon didn’t. Out of that team which that started vs Germany and lost 1-7 in 2014 World Cup, only Marcelo remains. Marcelo and the entirety of Brazil will be looking to Neymar who was denied his first crack at glory with a back injury, for a chance at redemption and re-establishment of the Brazilian way of futebol.
Mohamed Salah, Egypt
Football is a powerful political tool for propaganda and subversion. In Egypt, after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, the ‘government’ used to quell feelings of dissent by manufacturing a riot between the anti-military coup supporters of Al-Ahly football club and Al-Masry SC. It was this Port Said disaster and the suspension of the Egyptian league that was the primer for a young Mohamed Salah to escape into Basel from club El Mokawloon.
The fact that Salah did not play for Zamalek or Al-Ahly, the two major politically opposing football clubs in Egypt before his breakthrough in Europe, made it easier for himself to be seen as a uniting figure. Salah’s winning penalty that took Egypt to the World Cup since 1990, made him the most influential man in Kemet. It’s good then that mild-mannered Salah speaks little and understands his role of an apolitical entertainer.
There is perhaps no current footballer with more national significance than Salah, and this World Cup would be the stage for him to give his people who have suffered so much and so frequently, a little joy. Expect him to play like he’s the vessel of Egyptian optimism.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
The mention of Cristiano Ronaldo’s name as the very best still causes sneers from the purists of the game. They would say, he does not have the repertoire of skill of Diego Maradona, and the unanimous global appeal of Pele. But one thing they cannot disagree on is the drive that makes Ronaldo the absolute perfect specimen of the modern footballer.
Who was once seen as a skinny one-trick pony has now mental resoluteness and built of a Mustang. The first half of his legacy has been solidified with Portugal winning their first-ever major trophy with him as the captain in Euro 2014. Like the other two to come in the list, this will most likely be his last World Cup, and the last chance to leapfrog Messi, Pele, Maradona, as the most effective footballer to ever play the game.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
It’s hard enough for Lionel Messi to contend with Ronaldo, and then to contend with the legacy of the maverick Maradona, is a task that would make Sisyphus throw his towel in. If Messi was to not win the World Cup, he’s most likely to throw his in and take a lengthy sabbatical from international football. Few could argue that he’s the world’s best, and posing with goats in a photo shoot to highlight the point, according to him was just a light-hearted gag, but he’d know better than that. Him not winning the grandest prize of all would leave a lasting smudge on his legacy.
Having cancelled their match against Israel as a protest to the nation’s treatment of Palestine, Messi and Argentina will be starting their World Cup campaign against Iceland on the 16 June with the goodwill of the global footballing fraternity behind him. He’d need all that good karma for a disjointed Argentina to win.
Andres Iniesta, Spain
What do you do when you’ve won it all? You enjoy, of course. That’s what Andres Iniesta playing in his last World Cup will do.
Leading up to the World Cup he confessed to the gathered journalists that he may sometimes not have been adventurous enough and took the more practical option – when it came to setting up his team-mate or taking a punt from 20 yards out, he’d often choose the former. Which is perhaps why his 2010 World Cup-winning goal against the high-kicking Netherlands brought such joy to neutrals and fans alike. Iniesta finally turned the spotlight to himself in the most dramatic way possible.
In that game, Iniesta and Spain where kicked black and blue and into the corner. This Spain team are equally if not more talented than the 2010 team – and they and us will enjoy seeing Iniesta play with freedom of a man who’s hitting into the sunset.
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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 13:10:46 IST