No national fervour?
Football fanatics from across the world have descended upon Russia to be a part of the greatest football spectacle, coming once in four years, that kicked off on Thursday. There are the Egyptians singing paeans to their iconic striker Mohamed Salah. Argentinean fans have a huge banner dedicated to Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi; the Peruvians sport their team's colours and the Brazilians, have a replica World Cup of their own. South Americans and Africans, in particular, have been displaying unbridled bouts of enthusiasm. But what about the hosts? Curiously, Russia, the host nation, seems somewhat subdued. You don't see the hosts unduly excited about the football carnival. While the atmosphere remains muted in the larger of the 11 host cities such as St. Petersburg, it is sure to intensify as an estimated one million fans from 32 participating nations pour into the country in the coming days for the extravaganza. President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address last week that he wanted the event, which has cost Russia $13 billion to host, to be "an unforgettable experience" for all those involved. "We want this event to be a celebration, filled with passion and emotions," he said. Aleksandr Kerzhakov, the most prolific goal scorer in Russian football with 233 goals, seems upbeat about the team's prospects. However, not everyone shares Kerzhakov's enthusiasm – and that is understandable. Stars like Lev Yashin, Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko were household names. However, things have gone downhill since then. Russia is ranked at a dismal 70 and kicked off their campaign on Thursday against Saudi Arabia, the second weakest team in the competition. They are without a win in the seven matches ahead of the opener, and given that they have never made it out of the group stage in the last three attempts, fears that they might become only the second host nation — joining South Africa in 2010 — to be eliminated in the group stage are not without basis. "This is not the time to see things negatively. We are just a day away from the World Cup. Let's get united. I cannot wait for the World Cup to kick off and I am sure our players will do their best," said Aleksandr Alaev, general secretary of the Russian Football Union. Russia has been drawn in possibly one of the weakest groups at the World Cup. Given that Uruguay will almost certainly top the group and Russia will probably get the better of Saudi Arabia, their chances will hinge on the all-important clash against Egypt. It's an encouraging draw but, understandably, not everyone is over the moon.