14 June 2018

Nigeria: Let the Games Begin

Photo: Screenshot
Psychic pig Mystic Marcus sniffs out the World Cup winner.

The 2018 World Cup begins today in Russia with an opening match between the host country and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Before kick-off at Moscow's refurbished Luzhniki Stadium, football fans from across the world will be treated to music by an array of stars led by Millennium man, Robbie Williams, who will be accompanied by other artistes and football icons, including Russian star, Aida Garifullina, and two-time World Cup winner, Ronaldo de Lima of Brazil.

Opera singer Placido Domingo, who famously soundtracked Italia '90 as one of the Three Tenors alongside Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, will also be performing. He will be joined by Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez.

The curtain will be raised by 3:30 p.m., just 30 minutes before the opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia. At the city's famous Red Square, FIFA and the local organising committee will hold a concert, which will run concurrently with the opening ceremony.

About 500 dancers, gymnasts and trampolinists will perform in an opening extravaganza at the stadium, paying homage to all things Russian.

FIFA said unlike previous World Cup editions, the opening ceremony would take a slightly different form, placing emphasis on musical acts.

The official song, 'Live It Up', will feature Will Smith, Nicky Jam and Kosovar Albanian singer, Era Istrefi. The song is usually performed ahead of the tournament's opening match.

Looking forward to a memorable performance, former Take That star, Williams, told FIFA media: "I'm so happy and excited to be going back to Russia for such a unique performance. I've done a lot in my career, and opening the FIFA World Cup to 80,000 football fans in the stadium and many millions all over the world is a boyhood dream. We'd like to invite football and music fans to party with us in Russia, in the stadium, or to tune in their TVs a little earlier for an unforgettable show."

This year's competition, like previous ones, has already started generating controversies. Already, it has recorded its first casualty, with Spain's Julen Lopetegui hugging the headlines for being the first manager to be sacked, even before his team's first game of the Coupe du Mundo. Lopetegui lost his job because Real Madrid appointed him their manager. Former Spain captain, Fernando Hierro, has replaced him.

Also in the news is the World Cup Oracle Cat, named Achilles, which has predicted that the hosts would win their opening game against Saudi Arabia. Achilles the cat lives at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.

It made the prediction at St. Petersburg's World Cup press centre by selecting a plate with food marked with the Russian national flag. The congenitally deaf snow-white animal had predicted match winners during the 2017 Confederations Cup and was picked for being the most stress-resistant and human-oriented of about 50 cats at the Hermitage.

This World Cup, which will hold in 12 stadiums and in 11 Russian cities, will see the debut of the Video Assistant Referees (VAR), which FIFA believes will curb controversies associated with officiating.

While there have already been multiple "confusing" moments during VAR use over the past few months, FIFA seems to believe it has come pretty close to perfecting issues.

The system will support the referee's decision-making process in four situations: goals and offences leading up to a goal; penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty; direct red card incidents; and mistaken identity."

There have been debates over which is the best-prepared side to lift the trophy. Many analysts believe the usual names: Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Argentina, as well as star-studded Belgium. This is based on the quality of players available to the teams and their pedigree in the competition.

Nobody reckons with Nigeria, besides the excitement caused by the team's flamboyant travelling attire. Notwithstanding, the Super Eagles have vowed the world is about to witness a surprise performance.

While it's hard to predict what could happen in a World Cup, pundits say there is little chance any major team will suffer the type of humiliating 7-1 defeat Germany inflicted on Brazil in 2014 or the embarrassment then defending champion, Spain, suffered at the hands of Holland.

The Dutch and Spain are the two most notable absentees in the World Cup this year.

The Super Eagles, who are flying into their fifth World Cup, arrived in Russia on Monday and began the final phase of their preparation on Tuesday, ahead of their meeting with Croatia in Kaliningrad, Saturday.

The team will not be part of today's opening ceremony, although the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) is expected to send a delegation to represent the country.

The Eagles will move to Kaliningrad today after their morning training session at their Sanatorium Istochnik Hotel, Essentuki team base camp.

Although Nigeria is the least ranked among the four teams in Group D, Coach Gernot Rohr and Skipper Mikel Obi are sure the team will qualify for the second round. The other teams in Group D are Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.

"We are okay with the garb of the underdog. But the defeats in recent international friendlies have done something for us; we have our heads firmly on our shoulders and we are focused. Together, we have reviewed the matches and learnt so many lessons. We will approach the World Cup matches differently," said Rohr.

The coach has only lost one competitive game since taking over the Super Eagles two years ago, and the former German international defender says his wards know how to get their spring back when the whistle goes for kick-off in Kaliningrad.

"We will take it one match at a time. I love this group, because we know how to rise to the occasion together. Nigeria will be ready for Croatia," he said.

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