Mbidi rubs shoulders with stars

The NFA president has urged Namibians to rally behind the five African teams at the global spectacle: Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia.

14 June 2018 | Sports

Namibia Football Association (NFA) president Frans Mbidi is among the global football administrators who will witness the opening ceremony of the 2018 Russia World Cup today, while mingling with some of the famous footballing faces of today and yesteryear.

“I have met so many important people here in Russia and now they are aware that a country like Namibia does exist,” Mbidi said.

He attended a Fifa congress yesterday where North America was awarded the right to host the 2026 World Cup, as delegates voted in favour of the joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the United States.

“Meeting with several football officials from all over the world serves us well, because we exchange ideas and gain knowledge on how to expand our football,” Mbidi said

The global football showpiece kicks off in Russia today and the NFA president has called on all Namibians to rally behind the African teams in the competition.

Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia are all vying to make it to the semifinals, which will be the first time an African team accomplishes this feat.

No African country has ever gone past the quarterfinal stages before.

“We have to support Africa because it is our continent. All these five nations that are taking part in the World Cup need our moral support.

“I remember in 2010, everyone stood behind Ghana when they were the only African country left in the competition.

“The African support really motivated the team to reach the quarterfinal stages and they also almost went on to the semifinals,” Mbidi said.

Putin welcomes the world

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Gianni Infantino have praised each other's work in preparing for the World Cup.

Putin had a warm relationship with Sepp Blatter, who led Fifa when Russia was awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010. Blatter was ousted and banned in the fallout following corruption scandals.

Putin says Infantino “stood at the helm of Fifa in very complicated times, but he is very good as our frontman, as a true fighter”.

The Fifa president has “always had positive sentiment toward our country”, Putin added.

With hundreds of thousands of fans expected to travel to the World Cup, Putin says visitors should “feel the hospitality and welcoming nature” of Russia.

Infantino praised Putin for “making us feel part of the same team” and thanked him “from our hearts”.

The opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia will set the tone for a month-long festival of football, even if in this case it brings together the two lowest-ranked teams in the competition.

Hosts Russia will walk out onto the pitch at the 80 000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium ranked a lowly 70th in the world, three spots below Group A rivals Saudi Arabia, and without a victory in eight months.

However, Russia has spent more than US$13 billion on preparations for the big event, and Putin will be eager for the hosts to get off to the best possible start.

In contrast, a defeat against minnows Saudi Arabia would heighten the prospect of Russia becoming just the second host nation to be eliminated in the group stages, after South Africa eight years ago.

The standout fixture in the first round is the Iberian derby in Sochi, as Spain look to make an early statement of intent when they take on Cristiano Ronaldo and his reigning European champions, Portugal, in Group B.

It is the fourth meeting of the two countries at a major tournament in the past 14 years, with the last coming at Euro 2012, when Spain won on penalties in the semifinals en route to winning the title.

Extra spice has been added tomorrow's game after Tuesday's announcement that Julen Lopetegui will leave the Spain job to become Ronaldo's coach at Real Madrid.

Salah in race against time

Mohamed Salah has been in the headlines over the past few days thanks to the photograph of him posing with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov at the Egyptian team's base in Grozny.

However, Egyptians will be more concerned about Salah's fitness, with the Liverpool forward in a race against time to be ready for their Group A opener against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg tomorrow.

The 25-year-old is recovering from the shoulder injury suffered in a challenge by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, when he was forced off the pitch in tears.

Egypt are pinning their hopes on Salah after his prolific season in England, as the Pharaohs prepare for their first appearance at the World Cup since 1990.

The very last group game will be played in the exclave of Kaliningrad on 28 June, and it will be worth the wait, as these sides are expected to be competing for top spot in Group G.

The Belgians are ranked third in the world, and Roberto Martinez's squad contains some of the best players in the Premier League, so there will be no surprises for Gareth Southgate's England.

The English have a talented young squad, and for once expectations at home are not over the top. It will be fascinating to see how they fare against Belgium's golden generation, led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

Video assistant referees

The introduction of video assistant referees (VARs) has also raised questions about whether they will cause World Cup chaos or prove to be a welcome addition to the competition.

VARs have been used to varying degrees of success in Serie A and the German Bundesliga, while Fifa used the system at the Confederations Cup in Russia last year and is confident they will help officials on the field.

Fifa director of referees Massimo Busacca admits the system has been rushed in for the tournament, but said: “We are ready, we know we must be ready as there can be no experiments here.”

Controversial incidents will be replayed on big screens inside grounds so fans can see why decisions were reached. And, curiously, VAR officials in the Moscow control room will watch games in full kit.

“VAR officials sweat with the stress, believe me,” said Pierluigi Collina, chairman of Fifa's referees committee.

-Additional by reporting/Nampa/AP/AFP

Jesse Jackson Kauraisa

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