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This World Cup is already proving to be different

Welcome, once again, to the world. Thirty-two countries, 64 games, and 35 joyous days of football. It’s not called soccer anywhere else but America, and since Team U.S.A. did not qualify, there’s no reason to call it anything but football. The beautiful game is a simple one, as Gary Lineker, the English former professional footballer and current sports broadcaster, once put it, in which 22 tattooed men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win.

Yes, but this World Cup is already proving to be different. We’re in murky Russia, after all, with Vladimir Putin — whose over-Botoxed face itself evokes the taut smoothness of a football — who appears to be able to bend every rule as skillfully as Beckham. Somehow, the host nation ended up in unquestionably the weakest group in the World Cup, alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uruguay, and viewers believe it can’t just be a coincidence. 

Nor could anyone fathom Russia’s 5-0 win over higher-ranked Saudi Arabia, prompting one clever football fan to tweet: “Revised opinion. Russia to win every game 6-0 and take the World Cup. Putin to lift the trophy in full kit.”

Putin, in response, has only smiled that contorted smile for the cameras and denied that any corruption has taken place. Well, he can be forgiven his smirk, because for him the tournament is not really about sport, it is about telling the world that Russia is back. Whichever nation lifts the trophy on July 15, one man’s victory looks secure.

In the first four days alone there were some opening-game stunners. Cristiano Ronaldo refused to allow Spain’s comeback story to overshadow his own. With a spectacular hat trick, the gimlet-eyed Portugal captain almost single-handedly denied Spain the victory it craved at the end of a torrid week that saw the dismissal of its manager. The action was nonstop and it kept coming back to Ronaldo, who produced one of the greatest performances of his international career. He is astonishing.

While flashy Brazil was held to a draw by Switzerland, the great Lionel Messi’s Argentina was stunned by an unlovely 1-1 draw against Iceland. Yes, Iceland, the country with a population the size of Tampa, Fla., and with absolutely no history of tournament football. No matter what happens next, Iceland has already established itself as the greatest story of the tournament. It was a true feather in the Viking helmet to be able to face Argentina in their World Cup debut and not blink. What heroes they were: brave, organized, superb.

The biggest hero was Hannes Thor Halldorsson, the 34-year-old goalkeeper, who, like every member of this Iceland squad, is only a part-time footballer. Halldorsson is a distinguished filmmaker. The team’s manager is a dentist.

Argentina certainly had the personnel to save itself, and Messi will regret his lackluster penalty as painfully as anybody. The stadium had just heard its first coordinated “Viking clap‚“ Iceland’s gift to football acoustics, when Argentina’s fans responded with song. They had the bigger numbers, the louder voice, and the arena had its first real taste of how a World Cup should sound. It was certainly an unforgettable day for Icelanders. All 300,000 of them.

Germany, always expected to be nothing less than super-efficient, faced utter humiliation losing to Mexico on Sunday. It was a horror show for the defending World Cup champions, who suffered a nightmare start after being defeated by a goal by Mexico’s Hirving Lozano, nicknamed Chucky after the character in the slasher movie “Child’s Play.” 

Even so, Mexico is no one’s favorite, as its fans directed a homophobic slur at Germany’s goalkeeper during the game. The International Federation of Football Association has repeatedly fined the Mexican football federation over this particular chant, and it was clearly audible at the stadium when the goalie prepared to take a kick.

And, ah yes, England. My home team. It hasn’t won an opening game since 2006, and on Monday, football’s most quietly tortured nation entered a World Cup arena with the burden of expectation close to zero. But through a plague of mosquitoes, a series of missed scoring opportunities, and a huge turnout by Tunisia’s supporters, the youthful England XI, with only 248 international wins and 25 goals in international competition among them, beat an obstinate, organized Tunisia. 

It was brilliant at times, it was brutal at times, but when England needed a matchwinner, up stepped Captain Kane. Two goals for Harry, three points for England. 

So, in less than a week, we have bowed at the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo, groaned with Lionel Messi, cheered Iceland’s pluck, witnessed the humbling of mighty Germany, and bubbled with optimism over England. The World Cup ruling bodies might be compromised by greed and corruption, but the beautiful game proves that it can still provide something unexpected — a connection to some enduringly distant corners of the world. And, so far in Russia, more kick than a shot of Stolichnaya.

Judy D’Mello is The Star’s education reporter.