Our story begins in Argentina. In Rosario, a port town on the banks of the Parana River, where 30 years ago, Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini had people fussing around him for the very first time. It would not be the last either.
Three years and some months earlier, across the Atlantic, Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro had announced his arrival in the Portuguese parish of Funchal. The youngest of four siblings, in time he too would be fretted and fussed over as much as the Argentine.
And finally, in June of 1992, it was the turn of one Mohamed Salah Ghaly, to turn heads in Nagrig village near the town of Basyoun in Egypt, where he still strolls about today, oblivious to the fact that like his Portuguese and Argentine counterparts, millions will be following his fortunes when the Fifa World Cup finally kicks off in a few days.
Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah are the three brightest stars in the sparkling constellation of talent the football World Cup gathers about itself from around the planet every four years. The champions’ title will probably elude all three — the ever-efficient Germans and the ebullient Brazilians among several others who may have the last laugh — but there is little doubt that as long as the three remain in the fray, the 21st edition of the tournament will largely be about them.
After all, it is possession of the World Cup winner’s medal that separates the legends from the merely great. A footballer may be the brightest star of his time but until he has survived the harsh scrutiny and relentless pressure that is unique to the tournament and come out a champion, there is a hole in his biography, a brick missing in the construct of his story. Look at the list of the all-timers, and this becomes almost self-evident.
Even today, the debate rages about whether Pele or Maradona is the greatest of all time. There are two reasons for this. One, they won the World Cup — Pele thrice, and Maradona once (which could have been twice but for defeat to Germany in the 1990 final in Italy). And two, they were both finishers of great skill and ability.
There is something about goal-poachers that ensures the most attention is constantly on them than colleagues further down the field. In that sense, the analogy with cricket is striking. No matter how hard bowlers toil and and the number of wickets they take, the focus always remains on the blokes with the bat. So it is the Peles, the Maradonas, Mullers, Rossis and now the Leos, Mos and Rons who will bask in the sun while the others slave away in the dusk.
For all their success at Barcelona and Real Madrid, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo still need to seal their status as amongst the truly great. Both have scored prolifically for club, if not always for country, garnered honours by the bagful and become pivotal figures for whichever teams they play for. They have scored hundreds of goals, won the Champions League multiple times and monolpolised the Ballon d'Or trophy. Cristiano Ronaldo has the additional honour of having captained Portugal to the 2016 European Championship title.
They are by far the best players on the planet. But now in the thirties, time is running out for both. Ronaldo is a 33-year-old father of four children. Messi — a father of three — will have his 31st birthday in Russia during the group stage.
The World Cup though, remains unfinished business for the two, whose career score of world's best player trophies is locked at 5-5. At the 2006 World Cup, Portugal lost to France in the semifinal. It was Ronaldo’s first shot at glory. In 2014, they finished third in a group from where Germany and the United States advanced.
Messi’s three forays to the World Cup so far have seen Argentina fall short each time — twice in the quarter-finals, and most heart-breakingly, in the 2014 final. In each case, Germany proved to be the bug-bear.
This time in Russia, both are in tricky groups. Portugal have drawn Spain, Morocco and Iran, while Argentina have Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. From the preliminary stage, two teams in each group go through to the round of 16, which is where the eliminations begin.
For Mohammad Salah, it is a somewhat different story. The current season has been a breakout one for the 25-year-old Egyptian and his two goals against the Republic of Congo at Alexandria in October last year helped the Pharaohs return to the World Cup after a break of 30 years. Unlike Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he has only now begun to make a mark in club football and success — however limited — at the World Cup will cap an outstanding year that includes a record 44 goals in all competitions for Liverpool.
Huge uncertainty however, surrounded his actual appearance at the Russia finals after he was brutally pulled down in the Kiev Champions Trophy final by Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos. Egypt literally lived on tenterhooks for the next two weeks, closely following every update from the Liverpool and national team doctors, until it was confirmed that Mo Salah would actually start at the World Cup come June 14.
Egypt are drawn in Group A along with hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and former champions Uruguay. With only the top two teams going into the second round, the Pharaohs should make it with some comfort alongside Uruguay, particularly with the Russians having a terrible run-up to their home tournament and the Saudis unlikely to really extend the others. However, upsets and the World Cup go hand in hand, and literally anything is possible come kick-off time.
Stage for hitmen
And by no means will the spotlight be confined to just these three superstars. Hitmen tend to make the World Cup their own stage and there are a host of forwards who will be jostling for the ball — and honours — in a few days time. Goalkeepers with butter fingers — or safe hands — will find mention in dispatches, as will sturdy defences and creative midfields. But it is the sharp end of the stick that will really matter.
Five-time winners Brazil will be led — and spearheaded — by the inspirational Neymar, who too has been in the news for the uncertainty around his World Cup participation. Three months after a cracked bone and subsequent foot surgery at home had raised fears about his comeback in time for Russia, Neymar took the field at Anfield for a friendly against Croatia as a sub last week, and calmed nerves back home with a superlative display.
Reported the UK’s Telegraph, “The £200 million PSG forward, introduced immediately after the interval for Fernandinho, needed 24 minutes to answer concerns and questions about his fitness in the most emphatic fashion.
“Taking a pass from Philippe Coutinho on the edge of the Croatia area, Neymar darted towards goal in the characteristic fashion that has become such a familiar and devastating sight in his career.
“One Croatia defender was quickly put out of the game, Sime Vrsaljko and Duje Caleta-Car were beaten with a peerless display of close-quarters dribbling before Neymar switched the ball seamlessly from left to right foot.
“There still appeared a degree of difficulty left with the finish but Neymar made it look effortless as he rammed the ball into the roof of the Croatia goal, via the crossbar, from the edge of the six-yard area."
Midway through 2017, there was real concern whether Brazil would even qualify for the Russia finals. The 7-1 demolition at the hands of Germany four years ago in the Belo Horizonte semi-final had been soul-destroying for the Selecao and they were in serious strife under the heavily-criticised Dunga, till new coach Tite took over late last year. It was a different story thereafter and Brazil ended up topping the South American qualifiers — and have already set their sights on Germany and a chance to avenge Belo Horizonte.
For their part, Argentina will not only have Leo Messi running at opposition defences, but will have at least two other world class forwards, if not more alongside. There are the Juventus duo of Gonzalo Higuain and Paolo Dybala and Sergio Aguero of Manchester City. In fact, if team coach Jorge Sampaoli wanted to, he could field a team comprising one goaltender and 10 others capable of converging on the opposition’s goal, such are the attacking riches available to him.
Sadly, football doesn’t work that way and the Albiceleste are in danger of going into the tournament without a settled line-up. Little wonder, therefore, that Messi insists they cannot be counted as being amongst the favourites, though he knows well that his countrymen will settle for nothing less than the World Cup in the hands of their hero.
A few other teams — all from Europe — are also in the mix for top honours.
New-look England go into the tournament with Tottenham Hotspur marksman Harry Kane as team and attack leader. The Spurs totem was earlier this week rated by the CIES Football Observatory as the most expensive player on the planet — ahead of Paris Saint Germain’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappe — at 201 million euros. It only underlined how far the inspirational forward has come this past year, with a mind-boggling 53 goals for club and country.
England manager Gareth Southgate has in many ways broken the mould in picking his World Cup-bound squad, who average under 20 international caps per player. This accent on youth means they will carry little baggage of past disappointments at the European and world level.
England are presently Fifa World Cup world champions at all junior levels — U-17 which they won in India, U-19 and U-21 — and the Russia-bound unit can be expected to play the Southgate way, plenty of possession and at real pace. Also, those in the squad have the benefit of playing their club football alongside top quality professionals under some of the world’s best coaches in the Premiership.
No one really expects England to go all the way at this World Cup. Even the Football Association has said its sights were on the 2022 tournament in Qatar, but such is the clarity of thought behind former junior manager Southgate’s selection that they may well upend a few fancied names along the way.
Watch out for them
At least three other teams — Spain, France and Belgium — will have some hot money riding on them in Russia. Belgium are currently ranked number three in the world standings behind Germany and Brazil, while France and Spain are seventh and eighth. More than the numbers, it is the shape and balance of the three sides that suggest they have the wherewithal to go a long way in the tournament.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has so much of attacking talent that he could afford to omit Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke from his final squad of 23. Little wonder, for he can call on the likes of Manchester City playmaker Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard of Chelsea in his half line besides Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi, West Brom’s Nacer Chadli and Manchester United finisher Romelu Lukaku to get amongst the goals.
For many, France are the real threat at this World Cup. Les Bleus lost in the quarters of the 2014 event and were beaten finalists to Portugal at Euro 2016 and travel to Russia as — at least on paper — possibly the best-balanced team in the competition. And between midfield and attack, few teams have the overflow of talent coach Didier Deschamps can call on — he led France as a player to the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later.
From between Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi of Juventus and Man United star Paul Pogba in midfield to an attack that boasts Barca’s Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir of Lyon, Olivier Giroud of Chelsea, Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe of PSG and Florian Thauvin of Marseille, Deschamps is spoilt for choice.
Most of all France, like England, have tended to play their best football under an inspirational leader. Michel Platini got them to the World Cup semi-finals in 1982 and 1986, and victory at Euro 1984. Zinedine Zidane orchestrated the French charge to victory in 1998 and fell just short in 2006. This time they have someone to fill those boots in the form of the brilliant, if somewhat erratic Paul Pogba.
Says former France international and Arsenal star Robert Pires, “It is Paul Pogba's turn to be in charge. He says he is ready to take the role and the responsibility. This is his time. He wants to be the boss. He is mature enough now, strong enough to do it. For France to win this World Cup, they need Pogba at his best.
“He will have to guide this team, the likes of Mbappe and Dembele, to the next level. Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Matuidi and Antoine Griezmann are all senior figures in this squad as well. But Pogba has to be the main man. He was named best young player at the last World Cup. He has to be aiming to be named best player of this tournament, full stop.”
Meanwhile, Spain have an odd problem. There is massive talent available between goal and midfield, but not a great deal when it comes to the finishing touch. Manager Julen Lopetegui has great hands in goal with Napoli’s Pepe Reina, David de Gea of Manchester United and Kepa Arrizabalaga of Athletic Bilbao to call on. In front of them is probably the best defence in the tournament manned by the likes of Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba of Barcelona, Nacho Monreal of Arsenal and Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea.
Running the mid-field will be the peerless Andres Iniesta of Barcelona. Then, there are Sergio Busquets and Koke of Atletico Madrid, Isco and Marco Asensio of Real Madrid and Manchester City’s David Silva. Beyond them, in the final third is where Lopetegui’s problem lies, for he has Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo, Rodrigo of Valencia, Diego Costa of Atletico Madrid and Lucas Vazquez of Real Madrid to choose from. Not one of them really turns heads, but then with such a brilliant half line to bank on he may not have serious reason to worry.
One last name in this long list of finishers that cannot be left out is that of Poland and Bayern Munich hitman Robert Lewandowski. The Poles have quietly made their way up to tenth place in the Fifa ranking just ahead of the World Cup and if the lethal Lewandowski can get the sort of support he normally finds at Bayern, they could be one of the serious dark horses of the tournament.