France’s defender Samuel Umtiti celebrates scoring the opening goal
France’s defender Samuel Umtiti celebrates scoring the opening goal

As World Cup 2018 climaxes today, Nichola Pais catches the thrills

When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Smart little Alia Bhatt has the wisdom to not try and compete with her rumoured beau’s numero uno passion – football. Alia, who was as clueless about football as she was about the President of India on ‘Koffee With Karan’, has developed a newfound interest in the sport. She even goes over religiously to boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor’s house to watch the matches. Maybe it’s just an excuse to spend we-time together. Or then maybe she actually is discovering the magic of the beautiful game!

India Watches
Millions of Indians are doing just that – discovering the beautiful game – going by the figures shared by BARC India. Sharing data for the first 48 matches that were telecast between 14 June to 29 June 2018 on Sony Ten 2, Sony Ten 3, Sony ESPN, and DD Sports (which aired the first match), total viewership was at a whopping 139.3 million impressions. And now for a few surprises… While 58% viewership came from urban markets, rural contributed a whopping 42% viewership. What’s more, male-female contribution stood at 56% and 44% respectively – clearly increasing numbers of women like Alia are also struck by World Cup fever.

The numbers, which have been hitting it way out of the park since, ought to have official broadcaster Sony celebrating. Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) had been looking at a reach of over 100 million viewers and had set itself a target of at least Rs.250 crore in ad revenue from the tourney. With matches aired during prime time for Indian viewers, expectations have been resoundingly met.
Ditto, for the numbers who are in Russia, catching the action live. In figures released by FIFA, India ranked among the top 10 countries in ticket sales for the 2018 World Cup (by April 3, Indians had bought 4,509 tickets). This, despite the fact that India’s last win in a major tournament came at the 1962 Asian Games. A lack of national glory in football clearly hasn’t stopped a good chunk of the population from following the sport with avid interest.

Rhea Malhotra with friends
Rhea Malhotra with friends

D-day Arrives
Full credit must go to the game itself, which Bill Shankly aptly described as being “a matter of life and death; except more important”! The ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup, which culminates today, July 15, has brought 32 national teams to compete for the honours. Blood, sweat, tears have gone into the sudden wins and heart-breaking losses during the course of the 64 matches played at 12 venues located in 11 cities.

Ramesh Narayan with son
Ramesh Narayan with son

The first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe, FIFA World Cup 2018 has an estimated cost of over $14.2 billion, marking it as the most expensive World Cup ever. The madness will peak today at the Luzhniki Stadium, where its 80,000 seats will be filled with fans, cheering for their respective countries and many more thousands simply cheering for the beautiful game itself. A historic ground which has undergone extensive renovation, a giant statue of Lenin outside Russia’s biggest stadium will stare at the winners; some who will go home marginally more jubilant than the others. We would like to think there will be no losers. Everyone only wins in the beautiful game!

Raving over Russia
The fact that India has never qualified for the World Cup is the last thing on fans’ minds as they are deluged by the thrill of this sporting event which has evolved into a global extravaganza. “It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in words honestly. Pre- and post-match was always fun but the atmosphere in the stadium on match day is something unexplainable. You had to be there to experience it,” enthuses Rhea Malhotra, who was in Russia with friends catching all the excitement. “I was lucky enough to attend the Spain vs Russia match in Moscow and after Russia’s win, the streets were filled with fans – not only Russians – flags and people chanting ‘Rus-si-aa…’ on and on, probably throughout the night,” she beams.

Vaishnavi Easwaran, who is mixing work with play in Russia, cannot stop gushing about the “amazing place” and the “unique World Cup fever”. She recounts, “Every hour of the day is a party, be it the loss or win of any team! The people are cheerful and the various FIFA activities taking place locally in every city centre is definitely an addition to your FIFA experience. The crowds cheering, the fan fest, the various parties – that’s what screams magic and makes the game even more beautiful!”

Ramesh Narayan, President of the Indian Chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA), is in awe of the flawless arrangements, calling World Cup 2018 “a showpiece of how to organise a world class event.” Accompanied by his son, they attended the Russia vs Croatia quarter finals at the Black Sea beach resort Sochi, famous for its beach homes of the rich and the famous. He shares, “Many of us were brought up on a diet of novels and films about Cold War and Gulags and KGB. What you see is something completely different. It’s a very large, modern and free society with A-class infrastructure, a vibrant nightlife and it is made to look and feel very safe for you. What more does a visitor want?”

Croatia’s defender Sime Vrsaljko
Croatia’s defender Sime Vrsaljko

…All that and some stunning sporting spirit too. Ramesh tells it as he saw it… “The state-of-the-art stadium was filled with 45,000 people. Russia was playing in the quarter finals for the first time ever. The atmosphere was nothing short of electric. In my stand there were around 10,000 Russian fans and just three Croatians. Each time Croatia scored, these three fans jumped up and down and screamed, waving their Croatian flags. This, when they were surrounded by Russians all around. I thought they would be hammered there! At the end of a long and challenging match, it was heartbreak for most of the thousands of spectators there and for the whole of Russia. But so many of those heart-broken Russian fans went up to the three Croatians and warmly congratulated them, patting their backs on their way out. That moment summed up World Cup 2018 for me.”

To paraphrase the Russian team’s slogan, ‘Play with an open heart,’ come Sunday, millions will be watching with open hearts – and mouths!

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