As the final round of qualifying matches for the World Cup draws to a close, we can finally begin piecing together a picture of what to expect at Russia 2018. While some teams have already earned their place on the sporting world’s biggest stage, several still face the lottery of the play-offs while some will miss out altogether. Here are some of the things we can expect to see at the tournament, along with a few things we definitely won’t.
David v Goliath
By beating Kosovo 2-0, Iceland became the smallest nation, by population, to reach the World Cup finals. While China have failed to qualify for Russia 2018, ruling out a clash against the world’s most populist nation, there are several tantalising possible match-ups that would see the David and Goliath comparisons flow.
If Iceland are drawn against hosts Russia they will be up against the world’s largest nation by area. A tie with Brazil would see them taking on the world’s largest country by population after China, India and the USA (all three have failed have failed to qualify). Whoever they face, their opponents would do well not to take them lightly, Iceland comfortably knocked out England in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, their first appearance at a European Championship.
Of the teams to have already secured qualification for Russia 2018, seven can lay claim to having previously won the tournament – Germany, Spain, Brazil, France, Argentina, Uruguay, and England. It’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to expect one of those seven to win it again, although in the case of England that may be stretching it.
Boycotts of major sporting events have become less common since Cold War tensions led the USA and Russia to pull out of Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively. But with hosts Russia currently involved in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and facing growing protests domestically over alleged corruption, the likelihood of protesters taking advantage of one of the world’s biggest stages to highlight their cause remains. Player protest is also possible, and participating athletes may take inspiration from America’s #TakeTheKnee movement to draw attention to their causes.
Ronaldo’s World Cup swansong
Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 saw Ronaldo add European Championship winner to his list of honours, leaving him needing only a World Cup winners medal to complete football’s most illustrious set. Russia 2018 will almost certainly be Ronaldo’s last World Cup, he’ll be 33 by the time the tournament kicks off, but fireworks and fancy footwork are all but guaranteed with football’s ultimate prize at stake.
A World Cup first, geographically speaking
Given the host country’s huge landmass, Russia 2018 is technically the first World Cup to take place across two continents, Europe and Asia. While most of the 12 stadiums that will host the tournament’s games are in the west of the country, Central Stadium is located in Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains on the border of Europe and Asia.
The process for buying tickets for the finals is already underway, but if you’re purchasing from outside of Russia, the challenge is enormous. Applications for tickets must be made through Fifa’s official website – that’s the easy part. What follows is a series of random draws to decide successful applicants, with four sales phases, four categories of tickets and a further four price categories. Even the most tenacious fan may have to accept that they have as much chance of making the World Cup finals as Arjen Robben.
An African team winning the tournament
Nigeria and Egypt have become the first African countries to qualify for Russia 2018. While the Super Eagles can be expected to provide some opponents with a tough tie, only three African teams have ever reached the last eight at a World Cup tournament, Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Senegal remain in the hunt for the continent’s final three World Cup spots, but based on current form, a first World Cup triumph for Africa still seems some way off.
Syria’s World Cup debut
The country has been gripped by civil war, but Syria defied expectations throughout qualifying and came very close to their first ever appearance at a World Cup tournament. The team went into the second leg of their play-off with Australia with the tie delicately balanced at 1-1, only to see an extra time winner from Tim Cahill finally end their dreams.