Goodbye Russia 18

World Cup is over. Russia 18 is touted by many as one of the best FIFA World Cup ever, if not the best among all the World Cups.

All the fears of hooligans, poor stadiums and doping were unfounded. Heck, even the Russians – who were considered the worst team in this world cup – captivated fans and neutrals by exceeding expectations.

But a World Cup without the traditional big-hitters like Italy and Netherlands felt strange. A slightly subdue tournament punctuated by the emergence of smaller countries like Iceland. And thrill us these emerging nations did. Croatia, who overcame three gruelling knock-out matches involving extra time, went all the way to the final and finished runners up.

In the final, they (unfairly) lost to France. They might have lost the game but in return, they won the hearts of the world. They are champion for their indomitable spirit, for they gave hope to people around the world. That if you combine talent with hard work and ambition, you can go far. Far further than anyone would imagine. They missed out on the trophy but it made people dream.

The scene of Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović hugging both sets of players as they received their medals will long stay in my memory. In the driving rain, she stood with pride in her Croatian jersey, smiling and embracing every one of them. It’s remarkable to witness such humanity. Her actions are an iconic showcase of soft-power at work, one that would propel her and Croatia to greater recognition in the global stage.

The kickoff times for this world cup were favourable to us Asians too. For the last world cup in Brazil, I remember the matches were screened in wee hours of the morning or just before daybreak. Waking up was a chore – almost a grind. I couldn’t wake up to watch and even when I did, I fell asleep during the game. And the following day, it was a struggle to stay awake in the office.

The timings in Russia were perfect. Even after finishing the last game, I could get some eye-shut before heading off to work. This year’s special too because it’s the first major tournament I’m watching in our new home. With our young son tucked in bed, my wife sometimes joined me to watch some of the games. She did an awesome job keeping me awake in dull games by sprouting funny stuffs – like (mis)pronouncing player’s name, questioning the VAR and celebrating goals. It’s different watching with her and I enjoy every bit of the experience.

See you in Qatar in 4 years time!