COMMENT: Inside the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour [Dawn]

COMMENT: Inside the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour [Dawn]

by Umaid Wasim

MONTHS before FIFA holds the biggest single sporting event in the world, its top-tier sponsor Coca Cola organises a round-the-globe journey for what the world’s football governing body calls its ‘icon’. That ‘icon’ is the most coveted piece of silverware in the sporting universe: the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Like the World Cup itself, the Trophy Tour is a massive operation. It travels to more countries than the Olympic Torch does during its relay in the lead up to the Games. And as a prelude to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Trophy Tour began its expansive trek across 51 territories on Jan 22.

This time around, it was set to come to Pakistan for the first time. Lahore was a stop on the Trophy Tour on Feb 3. As part of the delegation bringing the Trophy to the country from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, Dawn had more than a sneak peek into how it all is planned.

“There’s huge logistics involved,” Felipe Chevita, a Trophy Tour official from Brazil, told Dawn. “Once it begins, we’re always on the go.”

Chevita and the rest of the crew, including the 1998 World Cup winner Christian Karembeu, had all come to Chiang Mai from Papua New Guinea’s capital city Port Moresby, where the Trophy was put on display on Feb 1. They barely had 15 hours to rest and recover before the plans were in motion to depart for Lahore.

The sun hadn’t risen by the time they left for the Chiang Mai International Airport. There was little light by the time the crew got to the airport. Everything is impeccably planned. “It comes down to the minutest of details,” Chevita informed.

“Every minute is taken into account.”

The 6.1kg Trophy made of solid gold also travels first-class. A chartered plane embellished in the colours and logos of the soft drinks manufacturing company that sponsors the Trophy Tour transports it from one destination to another.

On the tarmac to welcome the Pakistan delegation that amongst others included Pakistan cricket legend Younis Khan, Pakistan women’s football team captain Hajra Khan, singers Quratulain Baloch and Momina Mustehsan and actress Maya Ali was a smiling Karembeu.

Displaying the athleticism and the energy that made him such an effective box-to-box midfielder during his playing days, he moved from one side to the other, taking selfies, making everyone pose together before they entered the aircraft. Here was a World Cup winner trying to make everyone feel at home.

“It’s a great feeling,” Karembeu said told Dawn later in the aircraft. “The World Cup is such a huge tournament and I love to instill the passion and the enthusiasm for it among the people during the Trophy Tour.”

Inside, the aircraft is divided into three sections, of course each with heavy branding. The first gives the impression of the pitch with the walls on both sides having the names of all the countries the Trophy Tour goes to for the 2018 World Cup. The other third one is for the FIFA staff with the one in the centre having seats for the delegations from each Trophy Tour stop.

It was in the first section where the Trophy was first shown upon landing in Lahore at 11:00am before a carpet was laid on the tarmac for the first public viewing for a limited audience. It was the second invite-only viewing at a plush hotel at 3:00pm that left the Trophy Tour officials amazed. “This is like everyday for me,” Chevita said. “But the turnout here is something we certainly haven’t seen so far.”

His job is also to see that the over-zealous crowd doesn’t get too close to the trophy — only past World Cup winners, the heads of state and the current FIFA president can touch it. They also had the minor task of rescuing Karembeu from a scrum of reporters that had surrounded the former Real Madrid man after he unveiled the Trophy amid confetti and fireworks.

The Trophy Tour has a strict timetable. Only 90 minutes had been given for the hundreds of fans gathered at the event to get their pictures taken with the trophy. At times, the officials had to intervene, threatening to take away the Trophy if the fans tried to get too close to the glass case it is put in.

The Trophy’s final stop in Lahore was at a food festival where it was put for public display. A crowd of 25,000 had swelled up the venue, anticipating the Trophy’s arrival. And it left the strategic division of the Trophy Tour with a decision to make. They would put it on public display but the fans could only take photos from afar.

Once again Karembeu came to the stage. Once again there was the confetti and the fireworks. Till of course it was time to go. The next stop was Almaty in Kazakhstan with the Trophy Tour snaking through Central Asia and Eastern Europe for the next week.

“It’s still two weeks before I get home,” Chevita informed before saying goodbye. “But the best part of my job is that I bring smiles to the faces of so many people around the world.”

Smiles it did bring — and lots of them. And it is hoped that the Trophy’s arrival in Pakistan has a similar effect as it had in Bhutan, where it came for the first time in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour. The following year, Bhutan — then the world’s lowest-ranked football nation — won its first ever FIFA World Cup qualifier.

Pakistan also has the unenviable record of never having won a World Cup qualifier in its history. It’s a tall order to change that given the current situation of the football in the country. But then again no one imagined the World Cup Trophy would come to the country at a time when the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) had been banned by FIFA.

“It’s like a dream for me to see this Trophy here in Pakistan,” Pakistan football team captain Kaleemullah told Dawn. “I hope this becomes a turning point for the game in the country and leads to the betterment of football.”

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2018