Brace yourselves as that time of the year (that comes around every four years) is just around the corner. From June 14 to July 15, for 32 days, the biggest stars of the biggest sport on planet Earth will take centre stage in Russia. Here’s a quick guide to the World Cup, played for the first time across two continents – Europe and Asia.
10 unmissable games from the group phase
Mark these dates in your diaries for the hottest games of the group phase (Central European Time):
- Friday 15 June, 20.00: Portugal - Spain
Saturday 16 June, 15.00: Argentina - Iceland
Sunday 17 June, 20.00: Brazil - Switzerland
Monday 18 June, 20.00: Tunisia - England
Thursday 21 June, 17.00: France - Peru
Thursday 21 June, 20.00: Argentina - Croatia
Saturday 23 June, 20.00: Germany - Sweden
Sunday 24 June, 20.00: Poland - Colombia
Tuesday 26 June, 16.00: Denmark - France
Thursday 28 June, 20.00: England - Belgium
Who holds the broadcasting rights?
Here you can find a useful page with a list of media rights licensees for each country. In Russia, rights have been granted to the 2SPORT2 consortium representing Channel One, RTR, and Match TV.
VAR (Video Assistant Referees) make their World Cup debut
Following rugby’s lead, VAR will be used in search for more fairness in the game for the first time in the history of the FIFA World Cup. Developed with the International Football Association Board (the body responsible for writing the rules of football), this technology has been undergone trials in top European leagues like Serie A, Bundesliga and the Primeira Liga. VAR has not been used in the Premier League this season and it won’t be seen on English pitches next year either.
With this system in place in 2010, the disallowed goal scored by England midfielder Frank Lampard in the last-16 clash against Germany could have been validated. The decision prompted the adoption of VAR's predessor, goal-line technology, introduced at the World Cup in Brazil four years later.
Telstar 18, the World Cup ball
There was no official ball for the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, leading Argentina and Uruguay to argue over who had to supply the ball before the final (they settled for one half each). In Russia 2018 all teams will use Adidas’ Telstar 18.
It may sound like an asteroid and, just like an asteroid it’s hard to get your hands on - at least that’s the early excuse from goalkeepers. Germany’s Marc-André ter Stegen, and Spanish shot-stoppers David de Gea and Pepe Reina have voiced concerns about the “strange” ball, “covered in a plastic film that makes it difficult to grip”.
Priced around 150€ in the Adidas store (replicas are for sale from 35€), it’s a black-and-white re-imagination of the first Adidas ball ever used at a World Cup, the classic 1970 Telstar. It is made of just six panels and, of course, features the golden, iconic Adidas logo.
Which teams won’t you see
Italy are the biggest absentees this year. A goalless draw with Sweden that condemned the Azzurri plunged the whole country into shock. The four-times winners of the World Cup failed to secure a ticket for the tournament for only the second time in their history (the last time was in 1958, although in 1930 the Italian Federation chose to skip the competition). Legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon left the pitch in tears, failing to end his career on an international high and to play a record-breaking sixth straight World Cup.
The Netherlands, home of “total football”, is the other major no-show at Russia 2018 having finished a disastrous qualification campaign third, behind Sweden.
Chile, winner of the last two Copa Americas, are out of the World Cup too - and for a mix of unbelievable reasons: a miscalculated appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport that ended up favouring their direct rivals, Peru, and a touch by Colombia’s own goalkeeper that validated a goal stuck from an indirect free kick during a match against the Peruvians.
Fans in Cameroon and Ivory Coast won’t have a team to cheer for at Russia 2018 either. The latter have been an ever-present since Germany 2006, while the first had qualified for six of the last seven World Cup tournaments since reaching the quarter-finals in 1990.
The absence of the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, does not come as a surprise: China’s only cameo was in 2002 while India qualified only in 1950, after gaining independence in 1947, but refused to attend the Brazilian edition.
There will be no “soccer” at the 2018 World Cup, either. The United States men’s national team will not compete for the first time in more than three decades. “Of course, American fans could always look to the women’s national team, which has three World Cup titles under its belt, for inspiration”, writes Time magazine.
First-timers on the big stage
This is the first-ever World Cup qualification for Panama who owe a lot to the unexpected defeat of the US by Trinidad and Tobago in the qualifiers.
The news took everyone by surprise in the small Central American republic: President Varela promptly declared a national holiday on the day after the decisive game against Costa Rica.
Midway through the campaign, one of the team’s player, Amilcar “Mickey” Henriquez, was shot dead. There is still no explanation to his murder and the qualification is dedicated to Henriquez’ memory.
Iceland, population 330,000, became the smallest nation ever to qualify for World Cup finals, sealing their place for the last act of the tournament for the first time in their history.
The surprise team of the Euros in France 2016 are now a well-established reality of football, ranking 22nd worldwide, thanks to its state-sponsored top-notch facilities, zealous coaching and guerrilla tactics, as The Economist puts it.
To Russia with Love, wrote former PM Bjarni Benediktsson on Twitter.
Who are the bookmakers favourites?
Brazil, Germany, Spain, France and Argentina are the bookies’ favourites for this edition while Panama’s and Saudi Arabia are put at 1000/1.
According to US website FiveThirtyEight, Russia’s group is the easiest one in modern World Cup history, featuring Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, no group cracks the top 10 most difficult since 1986: the campaign of the big favourites is thus expected to be smooth at least until the knockout stage. Nate Silver’s website, however, predicted Brazil as 2014 World Cup winner but the cup was eventually lifted by Germany. Brace yourselves for surprises.
Zabivaka™ takes the baton from Goleo VI (2006), Zakumi (2010) and Fuleco (2014) as official Mascot for the next World Cup. It’s a wolf, whose name means “the one who scores” in Russian and it can be followed on its Facebook page. It was chosen by more than one million Russians on Fifa.com and its name revealed during a live show on national television.
The first ever World Cup Mascot was Willie, the lion synonymous with Britain and the English national side at the 1966 tournament.
World Cup Venues
The World Championship will be held in 11 cities (here a summary of who will play where): Moscow, Kaliningrad, Saint Petersburg, Volgograd, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Sochi and Ekaterinburg. The latter venue, east of the Ural mountains, is the farthest away location: matches will be played 3 hours ahead of Central European Summer Time.
The opening and final matches are scheduled at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, with a capacity of 81,000 seats. It has already hosted a UEFA Cup final (1999) and the Champions League final of 2008 but had to undergo a major redevelopment to for this year’s occasion.
Human rights controversies
A 44-page guide published by Human Rights Watch, summarises some concerns associated with Russia’s preparations and hosting of the event. The organisation condemns the crackdown on freedom of expression, assembly, Russia’s role in Syria, the human rights crisis in Chechnya and failure to provide adequate labour rights. In addition, media reports have highlighted the roles of tens of thousands of North Korean workers who were employed to build infrastructure and facilities, often in “slave-like conditions”.
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