World Cup 2018: Iceland, Mexico and Switzerland showcase the beauty of the competition
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
– Calvin Coolidge
Every time someone asks me why I am into football, I search my mind for an answer. It is not a bad question at all. In a world with poverty and sickness and scheming politicians and wars and corporate slavery, what is the point of watching men play glorified games? How is that anywhere near productive?
Frankly, it is not.
If we are to believe that somehow football is greater than finding a cure for cancer, we are fooling ourselves. If we even bring up the argument that Real Madrid winning a fourth successive CL trophy is greater than humanity setting up a colony on Mars, we are nothing but delusional.
Why then is this important? Why then, do people celebrate their nation's goal against the defending champions with such gusto that the seismographs pick it up as a minor earthquake? Why do 3000 people travel hundreds of miles with a drum set and their booming voices to transform a cold stadium into the menacing Valhalla?
Because it has been in our primal nature to celebrate the fighters. The Romans had their gladiators, and their sweat and blood was their entertainment. The Greeks had their mythic gods taken down by humans in a battle of wits. And now, we have split into a hundred different ways and arranged them for our own viewing pleasure.
Sport has always been the great equaliser. A modern day retelling of David vs Goliath has been the focus of every major tournament, albeit in different tones. Be it Uruguay beating Brazil at the Maracana, to Greece winning the Euros or Leicester City winning the PL, the story of the underdogs has always filled us with fascination.
(It is the hallmark of every sport, not just football. But I have chosen to romanticise this sport because this is what I know. Think of India beating the Windies in 1983, or the USA beating USSR in the Winter Olympics, and it is all the same.)
There is talent. There is genius. There is undeniable skill. But when a team of nobodies and never-weres and has-beens come together to hold their own against a team of literal superstars, it is hard not to be swayed.
All these underdogs have just one thing in common. They might come from different backgrounds and different races and religions, but there is one unifying trait that connects them all to the fabric of humanity - perseverance. While the more fancied side had the pressure of the limelight turned to them, these people toiled their way to success.
And the World Cup is the biggest stage of them all.
There are no second chances, no return legs for revenge. You play the teams put in front of you, and that is that. It is the simplest equation of all - Win 7 matches, and you take home the trophy. 630 minutes of football is all that is required of you. Nothing more, nothing less.
You have the freedom to approach this however you want. You can run around like headless chickens and attack in waves and numbers. You can choose to defend like your lives depend on it, and see what comes of that. Or, you can be smart and play to your strengths.
If you look at the teams that held the 3 former champions - Mexico who beat Germany, Switzerland who held Brazil and Iceland who held Argentina, that is exactly what they did. They did not try to play like Barcelona when they weren't Barcelona. They played like themselves.
Mexico were impressive against Germany and played the waiting game. They drew Germany in to attack, and as soon as they made a mistake they pounced on the ball and did what they could do.
Iceland stayed compact and retained their shape despite everything Argentina threw at them and refused to budge under the pressure. They could have tried to attack, but they knew that they did not have the pace to do that. And when the chance came, they took it and went back to the basics.
Switzerland knew that Brazil liked to attack, and made sure that their defence was up to the task. Unlike the other two, they weren't afraid of attacking, but the moment Brazil got hold of the ball, you could see the Swiss players moving on them like ants over sugar.
Sometimes, it is about who wants it more. Germany did not want it more than Mexico. Argentina did not want it more than Iceland. When Brazil said that they wanted it more, Switzerland simply said "No".
Every single one of these players worked harder than the players on the other teams. Man for man, they shouldn't even have been close games. But that is the beauty of the World Cup. When the whole world is watching, unlikely heroes reveal themselves.
By the time the trophy is finally lifted, there is not a lot of chance that these are the teams you might see with their hands on it. But that doesn't mean everything they fought for was meaningless. There are other underdogs who fought for 87 minutes, only to lose out to a moment of brilliance or fate or just a lack of concentration.
That does not mean what they did was pointless. At times, the fight is all there is.
No matter how campy and cheesy it might sound, there is something beautiful about watching someone who shouldn't be winning, winning. Of course, greatness is beautiful too, but there is a difference. Like the laws of nature have been reversed for the briefest of moments, and the gazelles go for the lion's throats.
The next time you decide to follow a tournament, watch out for these wildcards. Not because they need us, but because we need them. In a crumbling world that gets crazier by the day, they prove that the good fight is possible, and things might just be right.