• From Russia with love

    Every four years something monumental happens in sport, forcing the world to come to a standstill – divided, yet so united. By Marshall Gouts
    From Russia with love

    One of the world’s biggest sporting events, the FIFA World Cup garners more than three billion television viewers, roughly equivalent to the viewership of the Olympic Games, but amassing more than the Rugby World Cup and Tour de France. The 21st edition of the World Cup will take place in Russia, where fans from all over the world will flock to follow the world’s greatest players and teams in their bid to be crowned the champions. All 64 matches, barring one, will take place in European Russia in 12 stadiums across 11 cities. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah will battle it out in 10 new stadiums that have either been newly built or refurbished within the past five years for the purpose of the spectacle.

    Although this will be the first World Cup to be hosted in Europe since Germany 2006, fans should savour it, as it will be the last in its current format. Effective from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, amid much controversy, FIFA will abandon its traditional status quo of hosting the tournament in the European summer owing to concerns over the extreme climatic heat in the Arab country. Thereafter, representation in the World Cup will be expanded from 2026. The number of participants will be increased from 32 to 48 nations. The hosts for the 2026 FIFA World Cup  will be confirmed in June, but there are only two bidders: Morocco and a joint bid by Canada, the US and Mexico.

    So, who are the favourites and who came to make up the numbers?

    Debutants/Minnows

    Iceland and Panama will make their debuts at the FIFA World Cup, but not much will be expected from the two low-ranking nations at the tournament, along with expected whipping boys, Australia, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    Despite making it through qualification, these teams have been grouped alongside footballing giants, so the chances of progression to the knockout stage are extremely slim.

    Dark horses

    Uruguay With two of the world’s deadliest strikers, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, on the team, they could improve on their fourth-place finish at the 2010 edition and add to their two World Cup trophies won in 1930 and 1950 respectively.

    Colombia With world-class players at the core of their squad (Davinson Sánchez, James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao) and an experienced manager, José Pékerman, they could again surprise many like they did in 2014 when they secured their best-ever finish by reaching the quarter-finals.

    Egypt Led by the on-form Salah, Egypt qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years. The Pharaohs will be hoping that Salah’s excellent goalscoring form does not come to an end, with the Liverpool man having had a hand in the five goals and two assists that secured their ticket to Russia.

    Poland They qualified top of their group with Robert Lewandowski scoring a European high of 16 goals. It could prove to be the last shot at a World Cup for the more senior players, so expect big performances from the likes of Lewandowksi and Łukasz Piszczek.

    Favourites

    Argentina The 2014 FIFA World Cup finalists will be looking for redemption in Russia as they aim to do one better this time. Led by Lionel Messi, they have a number of star players who fancy this World Cup as their last chance for a shot at glory.

    Brazil They were the first team to book their ticket to Russia and have come a long way since that 7–1 loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup. Under the helm of coach Adenor Tite Bacchi, Brazil’s footballing philosophy and squad have been transformed with a new era of young talented players.

    France Les Bleus boast one of the best teams on the
    basis of depth and quality. With Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé in attack, and Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté in midfield, France can certainly go on to beat anyone they may face.

    Germany Having already clinched the 2017 Confederations Cup title in preparation for the World Cup, Die Mannschaft are arguably outright favourites to defend their crown. They cruised through qualification with 10 wins in as many games, while scoring a joint European record of 43 goals with Belgium.

    Spain They performed well under par at the last World Cup, but expect a rejuvenated Spain outfit under coach Julen Lopetegui. La Roja have the same backbone of players who bagged the 2010 World Cup. Added to the mix are: David de Gea, Thiago Alcantara and Francisco ‘Isco’ Alarcón Suárez – all players from the 2013 UEFA Euro Under-21 Championship winning squad, under the very same Lopetegui.

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