The 21st Fifa World Cup gets underway on Thursday when hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. This month-long feast of football will likely delight and frustrate in equal measure, as 32 nations and 736 players convene on 12 venues in 11 Russian cities with a view to being crowned world champions.
By John Portch
Even the casual observer need not Google too furiously to find stories explaining why for Russia-bound footballers playing in the World Cup, let alone winning the tournament, is their greatest aspiration. Some cite their loved ones, living or dead, some draw attention to their love of country, while others feel they have a point to prove on the pitch after heartbreak and frustration in previous competitions. The Leaders Performance Institute wades through the hopes, dreams and fears, to bring to you a few choice performance pointers ahead of the big kick-off.
The long shadow of VAR
Russia 2018 sees the debut of video assistant referees [VAR] at a major tournament. The denigrators say it will ruin the spectacle, Fifa say it will help reduce clear and obvious errors. The technology used to aid officials across world football remains in its infancy, but Pierluigi Collina, Chairman of the Fifa Referees Committee, and Roberto Rosetti, who heads up VAR for world football’s governing body, are among those who took time to explain how the system will be used across the tournament.
It’s a numbers game
What to know the average age of the teams, the largest associations of employment, or even the average height? The Football Observatory has done the research so you don’t have to. In addition, they have ascertained whose players had played the most minutes during the 2017/18 season.
Gracenote have also been crunching the numbers to see which team has the greatest chance of winning. Apparently we have a 47% chance of witnessing the crowning of a new world champion. How will your team fare?
And who will be the biggest game-changer in Russia? Before you shout the names of Lionel Messi, Neymar or any number of their peers, Omar Chaudhuri of the 21st Club asks you to reconsider how you evaluate performance and, consequently, how you assess talent.
For all the feats achieved over the next four weeks, few will come to match the Guardian’s accomplishment in profiling all 736 competing players.
Take a leaf out of the NFL’s book – sooner rather than later
With 64 matches in four weeks there is the ever-present fear that players will, in the manner of Germany’s Christoph Kramer in the 2014 final, suffer concussions. Those fears deepen when one considers the ill-informed attitude of many in football towards these elusive brain impact injuries. Perhaps world football now stands where NFL rugby stood five years ago and David Preece, a former professional goalkeeper, explains why players, teammates, coaches and officials would do well to be mindful over the course of the competition.
Not all injuries are physical, as England’s Danny Rose explains. The 27-year-old left-back deserves immense credit for detailing his recent experiences of depression. Kudos to Manager Gareth Southgate too for fostering an environment that breaks down the stigma around mental wellbeing.
Inca mummy’s the word
How many athletes facing a ban for a drugs violation have invoked Inca mummies in their defence? It’s probably just Peru captain Paolo Guerrero, who has received an 11th hour reprieve that enables him to represent his nation in Russia in spite of a still impending 14-month ban from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It was widely accepted that the forward committed no offence – and the captains of Los Incas’ Group C opponents all signed an open letter to Fifa pleading for leniency – but traces of cocaine were found in Guerrero’s system. In the global push for cleaner sporting competition things are not always without complexity.
More than just the ol’ ‘granny rule’?
As the finalised squad lists came in earlier this month, it emerged that 17 of Morocco’s 23-man roster was born outside the North African country. The Atlas Lions’ midfielder Sofyan Amrabat – one of five Dutch-born players in the squad – delivers an insight into the complex cultural reasons why athletes turn to the lands of their parents or grandparents and why the significance of these blood ties represents a genuine talent pipeline if properly tapped.
Other members of Morocco’s squad hail from Île-de-France, the region around Paris, and beyond. The same can also be said for players from Tunisia, Portugal and Senegal before we even get to the French squad. Yet what is it about the much-maligned banlieues of the greater Parisian area that creates talents such as Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté? For one thing, Paris and its environs have more scouts on the beat than anywhere else in the world this side of São Paulo.
Valid travel insurance
Colombia will be pretty chuffed with themselves that their Group H travels will accrue just 1,020 miles across the Russian steppes, which stands in stark contrast to the 7,428 miles Egypt face while negotiating Group A. Yet some may wish to spare a through for Australia, who covered over 250,000km – more than 155,300 miles – in qualifying for the competition. (They also played 22 qualifying matches, which is more than any other team in Russia). To combat the effects of such extensive travel, Socceroos Sport Scientist Dr Craig Duncan has been using wearables with the squad to help alleviate the effects and has enjoyed considerable success.
And out on the pitch, how will the burgeoning use of GPS technology affect the World Cup? More efficient training and fewer soft tissue injuries to start with.
Sticking with the Socceroos, if Tim Cahill nets in this tournament the 38-year-old will become only the fourth player to score in four consecutive World Cups. How does he keep going? The Australians have previous when it comes to adroitly extending the careers of their athletes, as this Leaders Performance Institute investigation demonstrates.
Vikings and dentists
When Nigeria face Iceland in Volgograd on 22nd June, they will be facing a nation 577 times smaller than their own. Iceland has a population of 348,000 – that’s more than 120,000 fewer than Staten Island alone – and is the smallest nation to ever qualify for Fifa’s quadrennial jamboree. They stunned England at Uefa Euro 2016 and they’re back to prove their exploits were no flash in the pan. Head Coach Heimir Hallgrímsson – a practising dentist when not sat in the dugout – is one of a series of people connected with the team to explain why Iceland continues to punch above its weight. The Leaders Performance Institute has also explored youth and coach development with Icelandic coach Siggi Eyjólfsson.
The making of Jesse Lingard
Jesse Lingard will be wearing the No7 shirt for Gareth Southgate’s England during the tournament, which will be his first international tournament. It has been a long and gradual path to the Manchester United first team and the World Cup for the 25-year-old, but his work ethic and the astute understanding of his youth coaches gave him the best possible opportunity.
Re-born in the USA?
And finally, from 32 teams on the world stage to one conspicuous by its absence: the US men’s national team. A significant body of people attribute their failure to qualify to mismanagement. So how do you solve a problem like the USMNT? Hear from the players, coaches, executives and commentators.