Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
It has been 1,461 days —1,461 days since the world witnessed the greatest football (soccer) spectacle that has ever existed. With numbers exceeding that of 3 billion viewers for the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, it is no exaggeration that the world is deeply, unapologetically, in love with a sport that is so simple and yet so complex. Simply put, there is no sport as exhilarating, engrossing, emotional, or soul-breaking as football (at least to some of TOL’s readers).
This year’s World Cup is being presented in a completely different location and social environment than its predecessors. While this tournament does not represent the first time that the sport of football and politics have been joined together, it does present a nation, Russia, that has been at the very forefront of political drama.
Every four years writers and commentators both attempt to rebrand a particular year’s World Cup as a new, fresh, and innovative event steeped in brilliance, intrigue, and the pride of entire nations. With the host country this time providing various headlines, there is an almost palpable apprehension among arriving fans, with certain groups even fearing for their safety. The question remains of how Russia will fare in its bid to host a successful World Cup despite being the antagonist on political, social, and economic terms with so many different countries during an increasingly volatile era. As ESPN reports, there have been many controversies since Russia won its bid to host the event back in December 2010, including but not limited to: concerns of violent hooliganism, alleged workers’ rights, continued racism during domestic football matches, outrage over cyberattacks and meddling in foreign countries’ elections, and widespread corruption including state-organized doping schemes (which led to 47 Russian athletes and coaches being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics).
With the tournament already kicking off with a Russian victory yesterday, let’s look into what the prospects are for the countries competing from TOL’s coverage region: Poland, Russia, Serbia, and Croatia.
After a 12-year absence, the Central European country topped its qualifying group to participate in the world cup. Poland is not one of the favorites such as Germany, Brazil, or Spain, but it would be unwise to count the team out of the tournament’s latter stages. The squad has shown incredible resilience, outrunning a previous FIFA ranking of 69 to become the 10th best-ranked team following a quarterfinal run at the 2016 European Championship to qualify for Russia (in which it won every home match).
It must be Robert Lewandowski, who is quite easily the superstar of the Polish national team, and for good reason—the striker alone provided more than half of the team’s goals during the qualifying stages. Boasting tremendous charisma and skill, the Bayern Munich star is the nucleus of the team, and all attacking play will go through Lewandowski. Poland needs a fresh and firing Lewandowski to forge a successful path to the latter stages.
Poland is capable of reaching the quarterfinals. The squad is well-balanced in its experience, skill, and work ethic. Many members of the team play for top-class European clubs and are accustomed to the pressures of big matches, and this will serve the country well if they are to progress to the final stages of the Cup.
Finishing second in their qualifying group, Croatia is competing in its second consecutive World Cup finals. To qualify, the country had to face Greece in a playoff match, another instance of history repeating itself four years after the last World Cup. There is hope that the coach, Zlatko Dalic, will be successful in harnessing the talent of the squad as the country aims to impress in Russia, thanks to talents such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic. The team will need stability to overcome its difficult group placement, with matches to be played against Nigeria, Argentina, and Iceland.
Croatia’s captain and leader, Luka Modric, will be crucial to his county’s hopes of a respectable run in the tournament. Modric is world-renowned for his clever dribbling, close ball control, and ability to unlock even the most defensive-minded teams. The Real Madrid star is a genius in midfield and when he is ticking, good things originate from his work in the center of the pitch.
Croatia is capable of progressing to the round of 16. The Balkan country has talent at its disposal, but it remains to be seen if it can utilize this through an effective tactical system. Croatia’s group is one of the more difficult ones, so the country may find it difficult to progress past the group stage, let alone through other stages.
Finishing as the leader of its qualifying group, Serbia is poised to use the big game experience of its senior players to represent their country in Russia. The squad is defensively sound, following a disciplined routine that requires defensive structure, and transitioning quickly into a counter-attack. Grouped with Brazil, Costa Rica, and Switzerland, Serbia faces a daunting challenge to secure its place past the group stage.
Nemanja Matic will be integral to Serbia maintaining its defensive shape throughout the World Cup. Matic is coming off a strong, albeit long and tiring, debut season with Manchester United, where he was deployed as a defensive midfielder in charge of breaking up the opponent’s attacking play. Matic is a very experienced player, knowing what it takes to win big matches through his time with Chelsea.
Serbia will find it difficult to escape the clutches of Brazil, and the task to defeat Costa Rica and Switzerland itself may prove too great a challenge. Serbia will be happy to progress past its group stage considering the abilities and resources of its opponents. A spot into the round of 16 would act as a good showing for Serbia and is not entirely out of the team’s reach since the squad possesses experienced and skilled players.
Despite the fact that Russia is hosting its first ever World Cup, the team had not registered a win over its last seven matches before yesterday’s win over Saudi Arabia, becoming FIFA’S lowest-ranked team in the entire tournament. The squad is viewed as largely inexperienced and one of the most uninspiring teams that the Russian Football Federation has fielded during its history.
A player who was once one of Europe’s top emerging talents, Alan Dzagoev is capable of producing moments of quality. His inconsistency and lack of experience in leagues with top-level play have, however, been a hindrance to his progress. Although the talent remains, the midfielder suffered an injury to his left hamstring during the opening match. Russian supporters will be eager to learn as soon as possible if Dzagoev will be fit for the upcoming game. Now aged 27, with plenty of experience after making 230 appearances for Russian football club CSKA Moscow, the central midfielder will perhaps provide Russia with the spark that they so desperately need.
You will be hard-pressed to find many spectators who seriously believe that Russia will advance past its group, even among Russia’s most passionate supporters. Perhaps Russia will be able to string together a decent run into the Cup after its surprisingly easy crushing of Saudi Arabia. The next match is against Egypt, and Russia may be helped out by the injury of Egypt’s star Mohamed Salah, but the odds are still very slim. Finally, Russia is scheduled to take on Uruguay, which features FC Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin.
But the beautiful aspect of football is that quite literally anything can happen, so let’s sit back and enjoy what comes only once every four years.
Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region.
Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes.
It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.