Ebo Quansah in Accra
Russia, leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of old, was known to the world more as the nerve centre of the cold war with heavy war machines and its space programme until Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his idea of reforms in the 1990s, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and major reforms in Eastern Europe.
The reformation in the cold politics of the Russian Federation reaches its peak late this afternoon, when Russia opens its doors to the rest of the world as they kick-start the 2018 World Cup with a date with the Arabian Knights of the desert heat from the Middle East.
Thirty two countries are competing for the right to take the magnificent trophy home for the next four years. Out of this figure, 20 make their return after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Expect the usual suspects of Germany, Brazil, Spain, France and Argetina to play the front-line role.
Of course, a world cup without England is devoid of the excitement from the stand. The English fans will be there in their numbers, but it would take a brave man to throw his hat in the ring for the Three Lions.
The opening match, scheduled at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Russian capital is the teaser for the championship, which brings the best in the global game on parade. It would take a brave person to forecast a World Cup triumph for the host nation or any of the three other contenders in Group A – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay, given the wealth of talent in the other groups.
But home advantage has its own way of giving the host a shout, which is why this evening’s encounter has its own thrills.
Tomorrow, Egypt and Uruguay will square up at the same venue to complete the opening fixtures for the group. Not many in the world are looking up to any of the Group A combatants to go all the way.
Russia have not had a smooth ride in global football since making their intention clear to host the world game. In 2008, Russia reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, providing the tonic for a bid to have a bite at the World Cup hosting cherry.
Since then, football in Russia has taken a nose-dive, as they prepare to outdoor the 2018 World Cup with a date against Saudi Arabia, which is the lowest ranked team to arrive in Russia.
Statistics do not lie. For a nation that has failed to go beyond the preliminaries of any tournament since 2008, the Russian national team would struggle to pop out of group A.
There are reports of on-field problems, as well with rumours of a rift between the playing body and national manager Stanislav Cerchesov, which does not auger well for the host nation. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow brings his enormous experience from the European Champions League on parade, but he would need more than a brave heart to take his Russian team into the knock-out stage.
There is very little hope for Saudi Arabia either. Two coaches were fired on the road to Russia. Edgardo Bauza was dismissed nine days before the draw that brought Saudi Arabia into Group A.
The Saudi’s would line-up with Juan Antonio Pizzi, named only last week in the dug-out. It is unlikely that Pizzi will conjure any magic to keep Saudi Arabia, competing in the championship for the sixth time, in the competition beyond the group stages.
When Egypt line up against Uruguay tomorrow, the main interest would be whether or not Mohammed Sallah, Footballer of the Year in the English Premier League, would be fit to feature. The Egyptians would be in with a loud shout if Sallah is able to play. As it is, the prognosis for him to feature does not look that good and so are the chances of Egypt, if Sallah fails the medicals ahead of the game.
Egyptians are reported to be unhappy with the conservative approach to their matches adopted by Hector Cuper, their Argentine coach and unless there is unity in the dressing room, Egypt might be on the early plane home.