The World Cup logo in front of Lenin Monument in Moscow, Russia, 10 June 2018 (EPA-EFE/Yuri Kochetkov)

By John Mehaffey

Soccer, the world’s leading football sport that stages its 21st World Cup in Russia over the next month, owes its global dominance to an essential simplicity.

As in basketball, a flat surface plus a ball are the only requirements.

The game initially flourished in Britain’s northern industrial cities during the 19th century and spread throughout the world. Europe and Latin America became the heartlands of the sport, and the four-yearly World Cup is second in worldwide popularity only to the summer Olympics.

The 32-team tournament opens on Thursday in Moscow where the hosts play Saudi Arabia, and it will conclude with the final in the Russian capital on July 15. Sixty-four games will be played in 12 stadiums across 11 cities.

Brazil, who have won a record five World Cups, are again favorites, with their confidence boosted on Sunday when the world’s most expensive player, Neymar, scored a goal in a 3-0 win over Austria in his first start since he was injured in a French league match in February.

Coach Tite is credited with restoring self-belief and discipline to a team who were humiliated 7-1 in the semi-finals by eventual champion Germany on home soil at the 2014 World Cup. He advised the Olympic team, who won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics two years later when Neymar scored the winning goal in a penalty shootout in the final against Germany.

The background to this year’s tournament has been unsavory.

At their best, Brazil in their distinctive gold strip bring an unmatched exuberance and panache to the sport. Pele, who played in three World Cup winning teams (although he missed the 1962 final through injury) is commonly regarded as the finest player ever to have taken the field.

Politics have often threatened to obscure both the Olympics and the soccer World Cup, and the background to this year’s tournament has been particularly unsavory.

An investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found evidence of widespread corruption, bribery and money laundering in the world soccer governing body FIFA, which resulted in the resignation of former president Sepp Blatter.

Meanwhile, the last major event staged in Russia, the 2014 Winter Olympics, was irrevocably tarnished after revelations of state-organized doping by the host nation.

Of more immediate concern is the possibility of fan violence. Russian thugs attacked English supporters in Marseille at the 2016 European championships, while racist abuse was directed at black French players during an international in St Petersburg in March.

On paper, three players stand above the others.

That said, as with the Olympics, once the first whistle blows starting the tournament, pre-event controversies tend to recede into the background.

There was considerable local unrest before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 tournament in Brazil due to the disconnect between the opulence of the event and the surrounding domestic poverty and squalor.

But the former is now remembered for the achievements of a splendid Spanish side, while the latter supplied a feast of attacking football, with worthy winners in a skilled and stylish German team.

Neymar is one of three outstanding individuals at the tournament fit to rank with any who have taken part since Uruguay hosted and won the initial World Cup in 1930.

Lionel Messi, 30, is at the peak of his powers as he demonstrated in scoring all three goals in Argentina’s qualifying win over Ecuador. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, three years Messi’s senior, scored in 10 consecutive European Champions League games for Real Madrid this season.

As always, underdogs will attract popular support. This year Iceland seem the obvious candidates.

With a population of 334,000, Iceland are the smallest country to take part in a World Cup. Their goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, is a former filmmaker who directed Iceland’s entry for the 2012 Eurovison Song Contest, where “Never Forget” by Greta Salome and Jonsi finished 20th out of 26.

John MehaffeyJohn Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.

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