Come 14 July and the whole world will go football mad. The day will mark the inauguration of FIFA World Cup 2018, being hosted in Russia. Thirty-two national teams will be competing for top honours in the month-long tournament, and every game is likely to be watched by millions worldwide.

Can Germany maintain their dominance on the pitch? Will the old favourite Brazil emerge the winner this time round? Or would some unlikely victor take us all by surprise? There’s no telling which way the tide might turn. But football isn’t simply about winning and losing. There are other aspects of the beautiful game that are worth the attention. Here, for example, are five sub-narratives of the larger story of FIFA 2018 that every football fan will be following.

Mohammad Salah.

Mo Salah, the magician

Mohammad Salah has gained immense popularity in the past year, as the poster boy of Liverpool Football Club. His role in getting Egypt to qualify for the World Cup 2018 was instrumental as well. Salah is going to play a crucial role in this tournament, provided that he recovers from the shoulder injury he suffered in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid last month.

Salah is a very tactical player, with a deadly mix of accuracy, speed and control powering every move he makes on the pitch. Once he gets going, he can make life very difficult for the opponents. And it’s not just flair that he’s known for. Salah is a goal-scorer and match-winner. In the 2017/8 season, he scored 32 goals in 36 games for Liverpool. So one thing is for certain, if Egypt pulls a miracle in this tournament, it won’t be without the magic of Mo Salah.

(L-R) Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo v/s Messi 

The two biggest stars of world football, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, will take centre stage at World Cup 2018, as the longest running rivalry of the sport reaches what might well be its final chapter.

Messi, who some time ago had abruptly announced his retirement from the sport only to backtrack on his decision for the time being, will likely say goodbye international football after World Cup 2018. And Ronaldo won’t have a bête noire to compete against.

Both the players have a lot in common when it comes to awards and recognition (both have won the Ballon d’Or, for instance). But in terms of individual playing style, they are poles apart. Ronaldo is known for his dribbling prowess, and powerful shots at the goal from within or outside the penalty box. On the other hand, Messi has always taken the advantage of his height to tackle the ball more quickly in front of the net, and his control is superhuman.

Footballs fans not just in Portugal and Argentina but all over the world will be following this contest between the two all-time greats very closely. May the best man win.

Daniel Arzani, youngest player to participate in FIFA World Cup 2018.

Aussie wunderkind 

Australia’s footballing prodigy, Daniel Arzani, has already entered history books by becoming the youngest player to participate in FIFA World Cup 2018. Born in 1999, Arazani has represented Australia in several under-17, under-20, and under-23 tournaments, and was among the star performers in the Under-17 World Cup.

The 19-year-old plays his game fearlessly, and is capable of running rings around countless veterans. Arzani’s dribbling skills are exceptional and his ability to play behind the striker is equally noteworthy. But will he be able to handle the pressure?

Iceland Football Team.

Iceland surprise

On 16 June, Iceland will play their opening match against Argentina in FIFA World Cup 2018. So it’s straight to the big stage for the most promising underdog of the tournament.

Iceland surprised the world with their performance in UEFA European Championship 2016 by defeating Austria and England, and making it to the quarter finals. The football team representing one of the world’s smallest nations had emerged as a force to reckon with.

For World Cup 2018 will be a challenge for Iceland. For one thing, they have been allotted a tough—facing the might of Argentina and Croatia in the league stage. But Iceland have surprised us before, and there’s no reason they can’t surprise us again.

Robo referee

FIFA is in the habit of introducing controversial rules or some cutting-edge refereeing technology every four years of so. In the previous World Cup, it was the goal-line technology. Now, we have the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR, making its international debut.

VAR has been introduced in the interests of transparency and fair play. Basically, it’s just another pair of eyes for the on-field referee. At any point in the game, the referee can choose to take recourse to the VAR, powered by a team of video experts, hi-tech cameras and slo-mo technology.

The point of VAR is to help reduce the margin of error in refereeing. But many believe that such technological interventions interfere with the spirit of the game, and disrupt the flow of old-style football. What next? A robot referee?

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