Khalifa Stadium in Doha | AFP
Covid times have perhaps now receded to the background. Humanity has learnt to draw away from this dreaded phase of life. There is more freedom now to indulge in activities that had been curbed for over two years. Sporting activities definitely have indeed risen in intensity and content. The current year has witnessed and continues to witness mega-events. The Commonwealth Games have come and gone, and presently cricket fans and even those not initiated to the sport are enjoying the thrills of the World T20 championship in Australia. Such is the reach of this version of cricket! The event is reaching the final stages, and by this weekend, a new World champion would have emerged. As one of the favourites to bag the trophy, India is under focus, and there is a new hero every day after each win! This is a high-stakes programme that no Indian fan, anywhere in the world, would ever wish to miss, and nobody is.
The year’s sporting feast in any case is never complete without the biggest of them all that is to follow in Doha. The FIFA World cup is bound to be a clincher when it comes to the level of popularity and excitement. With followings in over 200 countries, football brings people together like no other sport. Every edition is a saga by itself, and surely this first one in the Gulf region will not be any less. Eight new stadiums, which some veterans in the field describe as five-star facilities, are all ready and yearning for action to begin, and so are the millions of football lovers the world over. Just days and hours remain, and then for a month from there on, no discussions in the world can overlook an action from Doha! So much for the standing of this most popular sport in the world.
Just the thought of a jam-packed stadium throbbing with excitement over the action in the arena itself can trigger thrills. And that is what football authorities in this Gulf country, Qatar, are wishing for after all the wonderful work they had done to make this edition a spectacle of a kind. As a spokesman from the organising machinery put it, considering that this was the first major footballing programme of this magnitude after the covid impasse, the expectations are high for people to shrug off the life of restrictions and flock to the stadiums in large numbers. Overall, sentiments point to impressive patronage for each match. And, the lookout is for a huge gathering from overseas.
Then again, as Jurgen Klinsmann, the famed German star, football manager and world cup winner was to tell FIFA news in an interview, what he had seen in Doha made him believe that for fans and participating teams it would be a new dimension of a World Cup, impressed as he was with the infrastructure laid out. Also, an event of this grade coming for the first time to the Middle East would add to the curiosity level, and that alone would attract and greet fans aplenty. Overall, he was optimistic that what was to unfold will not just be a high-quality tournament packed with good games but all in absolutely beautiful stadiums. What better advertisement would the organisers have asked for?
So, the 32 contestants, representing different continents, are then set for the final show-off. In a few days, the strength of each team will be known when the final list of 26 players will come out. Japan has already announced its team, perhaps because it is to be the first team set to arrive in Qatar and begin its acclimatisation. The rest will follow. There are bound to be surprises considering injury is an aspect no player can rule out, considering their busy schedules, with club commitments and the like. Already the defending champion France is set to lose the services of its superstar, midfielder Paul Pogba who is down with knee surgery and another, N’Golo Kante, a well-known midfielder, who is out with a hamstring injury while playing for Chelsea in the Premier League. England’s worries are Reece James (knee injury) and defender Kyle Walker (groin) while Argentina’s woes can be as things stand now, the likely absence of Paulo Dybala (thigh muscle injury) and a scare that Angel di Maria faces of a hamstring niggle. There is also news of South Korea’s star player Son Heung-min having suffered a facial fracture, playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Not an easy time for teams as they finalise the squad.
Yet for all this, once the business begins to flourish in the playing arena will hardly reflect any weak points, so to say, in any team’s approach. Quality can never be sacrificed, and nobody is a pushover. And so then what would be the ultimate surprise that will spring up in Doha? Again one has to leave it to Klinsmann to have the last word! The German would wish that his country grab its fifth title, but his personal favourite nonetheless is Brazil. Indeed, as a football force, it has been a long gap for Brazil. Not since 2002 has it emerged triumphant. Interestingly that title was won when the World Cup was held for the first time in Asia (Japan and Korea, joint hosts). Once again, it is in this region. Does that bit of history favour Brazil? Maybe yes, but the heart would go out for Argentina, just for Lionel Messi, his only goal in what has been a spectacular career, as Klinsmann would say. Whatever happens, Doha is set for a dramatic World Cup!'