Ronaldo's replays, Messi's return, Chandeliers...

For years I have been banging a drum to everyone that the Football World Cup is 'The Greatest Show on Earth', the pinnacle of sport, the event that truly engages a global audience, regardless of colour, creed or economic status.  3 billion of them.  Past controversies involving FIFA cannot change that.  International football and the joy it evokes within ordinary people via the journey of hope, dreams, connectivity and unpredictability retains a purity in this world.  I am not religious, but I am saying a daily prayer for the privilege of being in Russia. 

We know that ourselves in the Republic of Ireland after the impact our three qualifications had on the nation.  Italia 90 changed everything first of all, contributing to our confidence and making us feel good about ourselves as we emerged from a bleak decade.  USA 94 and the Giants Stadium was a beautiful moment in a city where many of our ancestors started a new life.  Saipan in 2002 was arguably the biggest split in the country since the Civil War, albeit far less serious, as Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane's breakdown in relations halted our attention on anything else.  So it matters, which is why there was such a sense of temporary depression following last November's 5-1 defeat to Denmark.  It's the people you meet in these foreign fields, the craic you have, the stories which are secure for retelling which constitute the chain of experiences that make up a person's life. 

So after making my contribution to World Cup Daily on 'Off the Ball' yesterday, I wandered around the Red Square area and applied my mental sponge to the surroundings.  Peruvians chanted, horns blaring.  Colombians and Panamanians danced.  A group of lads from Uzbekistan made the most noise, one of them on another's shoulders as they paraded their national flag.  It made me laugh.  Their team isn't at the World Cup, but they didn't care.  They were having fun.  Maybe some of us should have got the credit union loan after all. 

Then it was off to the Spartak Stadium, at which a low profile Lionel Messi did not appear at the Argentina pre-match press conference for their opening game against Iceland.  I was going to write 'best player in the world', but that title probably belongs to Cristiano Ronaldo right now after his sublime hat trick in the 3-3 draw between Portugal and Spain down in Sochi, a game for the ages. 

I watched the match commentary feed, which had no analysis, actually a refreshing departure in this day and age.  After a game like that, all you want to do is marvel at what you have seen and gather your thoughts in your own sense of wonderment.  You don't need the noise of contrived pundits (only some of them mind) playing a 'Pied Piper' tune for the sake of ratings.

At times during the match I was gasping for air at what I was seeing.  Ronaldo dominant, Spain great on the ball, Diego Costa at his brutish best, Nacho's shot that span into the corner like a scientific experiment.  At the media centre after the game, they replayed on a loop the 88th minute free kick which gave Ronaldo his 51st career hat trick, also the 51st hat trick at a World Cup Finals.  They must have shown 10 camera angles, some of them in slow motion and I was like a goldfish watching every one.  When Ronaldo hits it in real time it is very fast and it looks simple.  When you view from different angles, the dip and the pace underneath the crossbar is incredible. Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea is left motionless and he knows the moment the ball is struck that it is in.

So this is why we call football 'The Beautiful Game'.  To witness these moments when even the actors themselves don't know the outcome.  When I speak about cultures, I think of those Iranians that will be rapturous after their 90th minute winning victory over Morocco, their first win at a World Cup since 1998.  In this instance, watching poor Aziz Bouhaddouz (below) head the ball into his own net in a continuous replay loop was painful. 

It was also tortuous seeing Mo Salah absolutely gutted on his birthday, sitting on the bench as his brave Egypt team succumbed to Jose Gimenez's 89th minute header, as Uruguay edged their tie 1-0.  The agony and the ecstasy 'Gods' don't have favourites.

Today it's all about Lionel Messi, who has been given a nice introduction by Ronaldo's opening gambit.  Messi approaches to the poker table turning 31, knowing this is the possibly the last chance to win the trophy which eludes him, the one he wants the most.  After the opening two days, the World Cup has sucked us in again, its aura and relentless power making us dazed and confused.  We are willingly compliant as we prepare for La Albiceleste against debutants Iceland, France v Australia, Peru v Denmark and Nigeria v Croatia.  To paraphrase Ewan McGregor, you need a big television and provisions for the next month.  If you are yet to be convinced, Lionel Messi might just do so. 

On my way back to my hotel last night, I gazed at the chandeliers on the Moscow Metro, which I have become enamoured with.  In times during my life I might have wanted to hang from such chandeliers in moments of madness, but not this month.  By the way, the Moscow Metro has no newsagents folks, it's functional and fast, although on some of them, they were showing the matches, which was cool.  Also in Moscow, the pedestrian crossings in places are diagonal. Yes, I know...