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Grand Kick-off

The footballing fever is back after four years, with an estimated worldwide TV viewership of 3 billion plus avidly following the action in 12 stadiums in 11 cities across Russia hosting World Cup 2018. The month-long tournament has 32 teams in the fray, divided into 8 groups with 64 games in all. After a gala opening at Moscow on Thursday, the games are to begin in earnest to separate the men from the boys. 2014 World Cup champion Germany, which has made it to the semis in the past 4 editions, have entered this edition too after a dominating qualifying campaign. Spain and France have much talent in their ranks, while Argentina talisman Lionel Messi gets another opportunity to vie for the ultimate glory with great rival Cristiano Ronaldo spearheading 2016 Euro Cup winner Portugal. Fans would expect Brazil to put behind the nightmare in the previous World Cup and rediscover its samba magic with a far mature Neymar up front. Erstwhile powerhouse Italy, United States and Chile will be missing in Russia, while Iceland and Panama will make their first appearance in this edition. Only the next 32 days will tell whether a dark horse will gatecrash into the footballing elites’ party. However, technology has made an entry in this edition, what with stakes so high. Referees will now be able to draw on the all-seeing video assistant referees to help decide on close calls involving off sides, penalties, fouls and goals. There was a time when India used to qualify for World Cup football, qualifying (though not playing) for the 1950 and 1954 editions, and its team ranked among the top 50. Presently hovering around FIFA ranking 100, the Indian team has had some decent performances to its credit lately. Its premier league featuring some marquee footballers has helped revive fan interest, which will be doubtless whetted by World Cup action. Having hosted the Under-17 World Cup last year, India is rightly aiming to popularise football among schoolchildren through the likes of Mission 11 Million covering 12,000 schools in 37 cities. Whether the football seed takes to Indian soil remains to be seen, but elsewhere, FIFA has grand plans to make football even more global. The 2026 World Cup edition will be a far bigger affair — 48 countries will participate and 80 matches will be played. Will India figure in this scheme of things? Football fans here will surely have their fingers (and toes) crossed with this fond hope as they settle down in front of their TV sets for now.

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