Why the World Cup Final is the biggest match in sport
Sitting by the fountain near the Bolshoi theatre in central Moscow, you can literally watch the world go by. A group of Uruguayan fans stroll past, singing a song about their country. They spot a couple of Colombian fans, high-fives are exchanged, and the lyrics are tweaked to incorporate Colombia.
At the FIFA Fan park, where the England vs. Belgium match is being screened, it's like a gathering of the United Nations. Flags and jerseys of all countries, and they tell their own tale. There is some France and Croatia, of course, but fans from so many other countries who thought their team would be here. A couple of Germany jerseys, some England fans who still can't believe their team is playing in St Petersburg on Saturday instead of Moscow on Sunday. And plenty of fans from - or maybe fans of - Brazil, who possibly buy a ticket for the final the moment bookings open, such is their faith.
There's David and Rodrigo from Rosario in Argentina; ask them why they are here, and David shrugs and says, "It's the World Cup final."
The World Cup Final. Without doubt, the biggest day in sport every four years. Nothing can match this for global appeal. The Olympics is not too hot in South America, or in south-east Asia; cricket's world cup has a reach limited to Commonwealth nations, and the Super Bowl is an American festival. A Grand Slam final? Not even when Roger Federer is on court. Possibly the only other single day of sport to match this would be during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; but that was a unique case, the Games being held in the world's most populous country.
There are many differentiators: Numbers, which we'll come to in a bit, but even more significant than all the numbers is how the world has come to Moscow. The Olympics is great television but the bums on seats are largely local. In Moscow, it seems the city has been taken over by foreigners (either that, or World Cup jerseys are being given away free). Not just countries participating, as mentioned above; there are fans from countries with no skin in the game: India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Italy, Norway. And China, of course, but China has plenty of skin in the tournament, as a look at the sponsor board will reveal.
Part of the reason could be location: Moscow is a relatively short flight from most European and West Asian capitals. But the world was in Rio too four years ago and in Johannesburg in 2010, on that freezing night for that most underwhelming of finals.
Part of it is the fact that there are teams and flags one can follow, as opposed to the very differently structured Olympic schedule, where it is actually easier - and logical, if counter-intuitive - to follow sporting disciplines rather than countries. It doesn't always work as intended. I met a group of Indians - expats and residents - who are in Moscow because of Croatia. Not because they are Croatia fans but because the ticketing system allows you to follow a team through the tournament and, if that team is eliminated, transfers your loyalty (and tickets) to the team that tops the group. They picked Iceland - highest probability of getting tickets for the knockouts - and on Sunday they will be at the Luzhniki.
What also makes the World Cup final unique is that both contesting teams have played around 20 matches, over two years, to get there. France played 10 qualifiers, Croatia 10 plus two knockout matches, and each has played six in Russia. And that's a long and fairly credible weeding-out process - I can't think of any other global (or any) tournament with such an exhaustive qualification procedure. If you think qualifying is a given in the 32-team tournament, ask Italy and the Dutch. If you think the format is loaded in favour of the big teams, ask Germany, ask Spain. Whichever team plays the World Cup final has pretty much earned its place there.
Finally, the numbers, beginning with this stunning fact: The most watched TV programme ever in the UK, news and entertainment included, is the 1966 World Cup final. More than the funeral of Princess Diana, more than the wedding of Lady Diana (or, years later, her sons), more even than any of the events during the 2012 Olympics in London. Around 32 million people watched that match - which, given the country's population was 42 million and given that Scotland were not playing, means that almost everyone in the country was in front of a TV set for those two hours. That helps us understand 1966 a bit better.
That was in the pre-television age, as in, before TV became the all-pervasive, omnipresent medium that it was till ceding ground to the web. Yet even four years ago, the World Cup final drew more than a billion people - with a significant percentage of that in Asia, despite the unfavourable time difference. India reported 16 million people watching the match, almost 50% more than the 2010 final, even though kickoff was way past midnight. The only event to top that: the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, at least a minute of which was watched by 1.5 billion people.
But forget the numbers, forget the stats and trivia. The World Cup final is this: It is the stage for the coronation of the greatest. It is where Pele became Pele, where Maradona became Maradona. It is what has left Messi one step below that place on the altar where he can be unquestionably, inarguably, called the best ever. The World Cup Final. The biggest match in sport.