With the arrival of sunshine and blue skies in June came the pinnacle of football – the FIFA World Cup. Likely to be one of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chances to claim the top prize, the spotlight will no doubt be shining on them. Other superteams will hog the rest of the attention: France, stocked with players like teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé, flashy midfield maestro Paul Pogba and Barcelona wonderboy Ousmane Dembele; Brazil, led by the world’s most expensive player, Neymar, as well as creative artists like Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus; and Germany, the reigning champions stocked with efficiency, ruthlessness and subtle flair from top to bottom.
For these star-studded countries, it’s not a matter of whether they qualify for the World Cup or not. Rather, they have their eyes set on winning it all. However, the true beauty of El Copa Mundial lies in the smaller, forgotten nations that have toiled endlessly to earn the right to participate in this competition in the first place.
Imagine a freezing, barren nation with a population just over 300,000, known more for its vikings than its sports teams. Now imagine that team participating on football’s biggest stage and you get the fairytale story of the Icelandic national team. Coming off the back of a stellar EURO 2016 campaign – defeating teams like England and Austria – and led by a part-time dentist as coach, Iceland managed to finish first in their qualifying group. In the process, they booked their tickets to Russia this summer, becoming the smallest ever nation to do so. The players elegantly celebrated this historic moment by marching down to Ingolfstorg Square, dancing and performing the “viking” chant in front of 5,000 cheering fans. 66,000 Icelanders – 20% of the entire population – have applied for World Cup tickets; Iceland’s opening match was against Lionel Messi’s Argentina and was one of the two matches to have sold out, taking this honor along the final itself.
At the other end of the thermal spectrum, Hector Cuper was the man tasked with bringing Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990 – a job so stressful that he admitted to taking hypertension medicine. Egypt needed a win against Congo to secure their participation in the World Cup, and things seemed to be proceeding just fine when star player Mohamed Salah scored the opener in front of an uproarious 80,000-strong crowd. However, hopes and dreams were crushed with just minutes left when Congo hushed the spectators with a goal of their own.
Time was ticking; precious seconds were peeling off the clock. Egypt’s dreams seemed to have been crushed once more when suddenly, they were awarded a penalty kick in the final minute. Mohamed Salah stepped up once again, and with ice in his veins, sent the ball into the net once more to send tens of thousands of exuberant Egyptians out on the streets, lighting flares and proudly waving the red, white, and black of their flag.
While the World Cup is just one of countless sporting events for bigger nations, “the beautiful game” lives up to its name through the heartwarming, inspiring success stories of these smaller, disregarded countries; football unites nations embroiled in civil war and nations that didn’t even know they had a soccer team. While they may not
fmake much noise in the overall competition, these young countries will surely inspire thousands of young children, send passion coursing through the nation, and captivate the hearts of millions while releasing them from the pressures of their daily lives – the infamous “World Cup Fever”.
Brian Siwoo Ham, Grade 9
Seoul International School