SINGAPORE: As soon as the curtains were raised in Russia, the lights cast and the stage set … something seemed unsettling.
The script for this grand play on football’s biggest stage was missing a couple of its elite protagonists that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years – the striking, swashbuckling Dutch and the meticulous artisans of Italy.
A World Cup without these two giants of world football?
Little did we know that their telling absence was but a prelude to the ensuing plot that would unfold in this year’s theatre of global football.
It was an ominous sign from the onset of the plight that was to befall some of the other so-called “giants" that have defined and dictated the beautiful game all these years.
As the opening whistle blew, the upheaval began.
HOW THE MIGHTY FELL
One by one, the unsuspecting traditional titans of the tournament succumbed to the rising army of football’s dark horses and crashed out of their campaigns early on.
Perhaps the most humiliating example comes in the form of defending champions Germany who were bundled out at the group stage after a shock defeat at the hands of a South Korea that had already packed its bags. Hopes for Die Mannschaft died.
Elsewhere in Russia, a legend was brought to tears on the stands, while another was brought to his knees on the pitch, as a clueless Argentina was put to shame by Icelandic heroism and Croatian artistry.
That marked the beginning of a harrowing World Cup campaign for the Messi-led La Albiceleste that ended in the second round against the advancing French.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards were just a pain to watch, lacking ideas against their industrious and unseeded hosts Russia as they were edged out on penalties at the second stage by a country ranked 70th in world football.
Portugal – reigning European champions - laboured against Iran and Morocco in the group stage and were eventually dispensed by Uruguay in the first knockout phase, despite the heroics of an inspired Ronaldo.
Brazil for all the hype, were shown the door by the Belgians in the quarters.
How the mighty fell ... humbled by minnows and nations deemed lesser on the pitch.
Cries of shame and chagrin from the unexpectedly vanquished reverberated across the globe, the surprised victors shed tears of joy and hope.
Perhaps it’s too early to envisage the break of a new dawn in the world of football. But the streaks of light emanating from the nations that were ones in the shadows cannot be ignored.
Asian nations, while failing to progress beyond the second round, did the continent proud with tenacious and fearless performances in their battles against the power houses.
The Japanese lit the World Cup by beating Colombia and ruffling a star-studded Belgian team in the second round before bowing out.
The South Koreans left a lasting impression on the Germans with a victory that was probably the only thing they would remember from this World Cup.
The Iranians made it an uphill task for the Portuguese, who were kept on the edge in the final group game only to be saved by the whistle.
Meanwhile, Iceland continued to baffle analysts and scientists alike, as the players from a land of 350,000 people were more than a match for the top seeds of their group.
And let’s not forget the hosts. Russia exceeded expectations by reaching the quarter-finals and knocking out one of the tournament’s favourites, Spain.
Memorable, respectable performances.
But here’s what deserves utmost attention – the simultaneous rise of Belgium and Croatia. Both semi-finalists who could define the conclusion to this football extravaganza.
NEW POWERS OF WORLD FOOTBALL
While the two European nations have been regulars of the World Cup over the years, they have never quite attained the status of top seeds or were seen as potential winners of the tournament.
Both, unlike their semi-final opponents, have never won the coveted trophy.
This year, the perennial underdogs, dark horses – call them what you may – are just a step away from an epic final.
Save for a blip of a performance against the Japanese, the Belgians, all along on the fringe of the world’s elite, started as one of the favourites to win. Gifted with the attacking flair and finishing of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – all plying their trade in England - Belgium have been brilliant.
But whether they are good enough to overcome a French team riding on good form and improving with every game remains to be seen.
The Croatians – led by midfield maestro Luka Modric - have most certainly shed the dark horse label and emerged as an equally strong contender as they prepare to battle England who have reached a semi-final after almost three decades.
You can safely shred the form book at this stage with little to tip the scale on either side for either match. Croatia and Belgium stand as much of a chance as one-time winners France and England.
Their progress and performances in this campaign strongly suggest the nations are now among the crème de la crème of world football.
So let’s embrace change, let’s hope for a new era.
This has been a World Cup of euphoria as much as it has been one of devastating upsets.
It’s a script that continues to keep its audience on tenterhooks with every twist and turn in terms of results, performance and sheer drama.
But all that suspense and all that emotion that has entertained us until now would evaporate in memory if there wasn’t a climax that would etch this extravaganza in the annals of history.
The world – other than the French, the English and those who have their money on both - needs a winner who has never won before.
A Belgian or Croatian triumph - that’s the finale this World Cup needs.