Let the Beautiful Game Begin. World Cup Russia, 2018

This article was written by Melissa Muscat.

The excitement is real. Just days until the greatest sporting display on earth. The World Cup 2018. This time, the host is Russia. What a monumental event this is every four years. My only criticism is that it only occurs every four years. FIFA, make it every two please, that’s way too long between drinks. Nevertheless, it’s here, and Friday sees the host nation Russia kick off the main event against Saudi Arabia at 1am local time.

I am having a huge case of Fear of Missing Out right now and I’m sure I’m not alone. I am still hoping that one of the many competitions I have entered will call me this week telling me to pack my bags and get on a plane tomorrow as I’ll be heading to Russia. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t decide to go over. Well actually I do. I have had the privilege of attending a World Cup, in Germany 2006, and I’m hoping to visit Old Trafford in Manchester next year. A lifelong dream to see where my favourite football team, Manchester United, affectionately call ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. But for now, those of us remaining in Oz over the next month, it will have to be many late, sleepless nights, approved leave from work and much time spent cheering in front of the television.

This is a World Cup that promises to be different to what most of us have known. A couple of fan favourites are a notable no show this time around. Say what you like about them, but their absence will be felt worldwide. I’m still trying to grasp how a World Cup can proceed without Italy. Possibly the biggest football nation on earth. Four time World Cup winners, most recently and controversially in 2006, The Azzurri have failed to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958. This is a very big deal for a country so proud and with rich history in football. You can almost sense the nation will be grieving over the next month. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the biggest Italy fan after the events of 2006, when we played them in the final 16 stage and were knocked out by a very dubious penalty. I was praying they would lose every game after that but of course they went on to win the championship. I will say though, a tournament like this is better with them in it, for many reasons, on and off the field. Anyway, it’s a great opportunity now for our wonderful Italian ancestors to cheer on Australia. I even have my relatives in Malta saying their first team will now be Australia, due to the fact their European neighbours aren’t making an appearance.

The other prominent absence is The Netherlands. They have also been influential in World Cups of recent times. After Australia, Oranje as they are also known, are my favourite team at the World Cup. I have absolutely no allegiance to the Dutch, but as long as I can remember watching, I’ve just loved their style of play. They have had a couple of Manchester United legends in their national team and they have gone close to winning on a number of occasions. Now they won’t feature this year, I’ll have to place my bet on another nation to take it out. But I am struggling to make a decision. Maybe France. Something different from the outright favourites of Brazil, Germany and Spain. The other team I have a soft spot for are England. Admittedly because of the David Beckham and Manchester United factor.

The other X Factor in this years World Cup will be the much talked about VAR. The Video Assistant Referee has caused much controversy in the A League this year but it’s obvious it’s here to stay. And if I’m being honest, I’m for it. It has its pros and cons, one of them being it can take away from the atmosphere of the big moments of the game, but I think modern technology allows for accurate decisions which human error can often miss especially with the speed and intensity in important games. That is of course unless like in the recent A League Grand Final where technology failed the game in a big way and allowed Melbourne Victory to win with an offside goal. Hopefully a lesson was learnt from that incident and it will be used in a positive way to determine accurate decisions on the world stage. There were many instances last season in the A League where the VAR proved to be successful at critical moments.  

Which leads us to Australia. The Socceroos, kangaroos, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, G’day Mate. These were all things I was affectionately referred to when I was fortunate enough to attend the World Cup in Germany. What an experience. Everyone needs to get to a World Cup in their lifetime. I’m not sure if it was the fascination with our country being so far away geographically or because it was the first time our country had appeared in a World Cup in 32 years, but the Europeans were very excited to see us there and genuinely happy for our success that year. Everyone wanted a photo with the ‘kangaroos!’. Who doesn’t love an underdog? The image and sound of the crowd after the full time whistle at Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium, Stuttgart, still plays in my memory. We drew to Croatia courtesy of a Harry Kewell strike, and this saw us progress to the final 16 stage of the tournament. Our best record at a World Cup. The blaring of Men at Work’s, Down Under, with people singing, cheering and hugging each other randomly, was a moment that will be etched in my memory forever. See picture below, I have no idea who these people were, but everyone was mates for that moment. The streets of Stuttgart were mayhem in the hours after…Australia stamped their mark in Germany that night.

The green and gold face a mammoth first task in meeting France next Saturday night at 8.00pm local time but it is still exciting nonetheless. Playing such a respectful opponent with much football success, is a privilege to meet them at such a big sporting occasion. We have a few new faces, notably 19 year old Daniel Arzani, the youngest player who will appear at the World Cup in Russia this year. Local A League talent Andrew Nabbout, also making his World Cup debut. We also have a knowledgeable new coach, Dutch master Bert Van Marwijk, who led the Netherlands national team to the World Cup final in 2010. It was reported this week, he paid for eight assistant coaches to join the Socceroos over the next few weeks out of his own pocket. Now that is dedication. I wouldn’t have been opposed to seeing him signed long term. Just to add to the excitement furthermore, Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho has predicted Australia to finish second in their group, which will result in us progressing to the final 16 stage. Should that happen, it will be our equal most successful World Cup campaign along with 2006.

So let the ride begin. Be sure to get in as much sleep as you can before Friday, pile up on the midnight snacks and vodka to cheers the winners in Russia, and get the green and gold colours out ready to support our sporting legends at their finest. May the best team win and Go Aussies!