To Russia with football mania


Eleanor McKenzie

As the 2018 World Cup looms closer, as the same time as diplomatic tensions between host country Russia and the USA, the UK and others reach new heights, will the 2018 tournament, which showcases the finest foot ball has to offer, turn into a bloodbath rather than a goalfest?

It starts on 14th June, so there is not long to go now. However, the normal excitement that surrounds the world-famous tournament has been marred by growing fears for fan safety, with Russia's hooligans preparing for violence. And that is not all. There has been a “will they, won’t they” attitude to attendance at the tournament, and many wondering if certain countries will boycott the games. At the time of writing there don’t seem to be any concrete candidates for a boycott, but anything could happen between now and the opening ceremony that might provoke a Twitter-storm and a consequent decision to stay away. If the U.S. did decide to keep its team at home, would the UK follow? Some might say that would be a good thing in many ways; there would be no chance of an embarrassing performance and England fans could stay out of trouble with the Russian Ultras.

Indeed, the Russian Ultras are a force to be feared and they are apparently quite keen to take on the English fans, who clearly have a “reputation”. FIFA has called on all fans travelling to Russia to do their utmost to stay safe, but the Russian Ultras have thrown down the gauntlet and have pledged to take the fight to English fans and “warned they should prepare for blood,” says the Daily Express.

Remember Euro 2016 in France? We saw the Russian Ultras in action there and it was their violence that got the Russian team a suspended disqualification after 150 Ultras got stuck into English supporters in Marseille. Both Russians and English were arrested, but you get the idea that given there were many more teams at Euro 2016, the Russians have got it in for the England contingent. 

Ultras go into training in special boot camps before unleashing their brand of football hooliganism. It’s on a completely other level to the violence you might have once seen at a Millwall game in the 70s, or anything from the Chelsea Firm, whose only preparation for a pre or post match fight was several pints of lager and packet of crisps.

No, the Russian Ultras are the SAS of hooliganism; they train bare-chested in woods, in sub zero temperatures, and have a special wall formation that they use to charge their rivals.

No wonder that Deputy chief constable Mark Roberts of the National Police Chiefs' Council has told England fans: “The behaviour of Russian fans needs to be a factor in deciding whether to go there or not.” It is probably also an idea to consider the anti-British sentiment following the expulsion of Russian diplomats after the Sergei Skripal poisoning and the Syria bombing as other things that may make a trip to Russia less warm and fuzzy at the moment.

Never mind the violence, who’s going to win?

But, for those of us watching from the safety and comfort of home, the big question is: who is likely to be the winner?

The big money is on Germany. This is entirely predictable, because just as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II knows how to host a State banquet, the Germans know how to do a World Cup tournament, (apart from in 1966!). Brazil is also a top favourite, even though Neymar’s fitness has been questioned, and France is another good bet, even though it is 10 years since they won the trophy.

Didier Deschamps has an impressive pool of talent to draw on for Les Bleus, including Paul Pogba, currently wowing the Manchester United fans, and Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid. Unfortunately, Didier won’t have the services of Arsenal defender, and French team vice-captain, Laurent Koscielny, as he managed to damage his ankle at the recent Europa League semi-final. Koscielny planned to retire from playing for Les Bleus after Russia, but six months out after surgery means he won’t even make it onto a pitch anywhere until December at the earliest.

Spain’s team is not at the peak it enjoyed a few years ago, but they are still a force to be reckoned with thanks to players like Sergio Ramos, Isco and Andres Iniesta on the side.

Dark horses and underdogs

Dark horses for 2018 are reckoned to be Argentina, who are hoping for some Messi magic, Portugal, who still have the lethal weapon that is Cristiano Ronaldo to unleash, and Belgium is another side that could surprise us all with players like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku in the team.

Unfortunately, England is among the underdogs this year. Gareth Southgate’s squad has been finalised and includes Harry Kane (Tottenham) Raheem Sterling (Man City) and Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal).. But as any football fan in the UK will tell you; football in the UK is more about the Premier League than the national team.

All squads have to be finalised by 4th June, and most of them had announced their decisions by the end of May. We will look forward to seeing Iceland again, not just for the team, but also for their supporters Viking war chant that took many spectators by surprise at Euro 2016 and helped make the team a great favourite with the crowds.

As always, there is bound to be plenty of surprise results and some upsets, but then that is what makes the World Cup such a glorious event for football fans; although we think we know what the likely outcome is at the end, the journey to the final is always an exciting one.

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