After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany is hoping to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15. And if the team manages to do so, Germany will become the first repeat champions in more than a half-century.
The football world is now gathered at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the Seleção 7-1 in the 2014 semi-finals, then left Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina, thanks to Mario Götze’s 113th-minute goal.
This year’s tournament in Russia, which kicked off Thursday, will be missing some familiar faces. Four-time champions Italy will be watching from home for the first time since 1958 – the country’s streak of 14 consecutive appearances ended by a shock play-off loss to Sweden. The Netherlands, which lost the 2010 final to Spain, missed out after slumping to third in its qualifying group. And Chile failed to qualify, even after winning consecutive Copa América titles. The United States too will be missing from football’s premier event after seven straight appearances.
Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutantes, Peru is back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt ends an absence dating back to 1990.
Germany, aiming to join Brazil as five-time winners of the World Cup, are among the favourites but there are lingering questions over their form. Joachim Löw’s side went five games without a win before labouring to a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up and first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has hardly played since September. But the Germans have made at least the semi-finals in each of the past four World Cups and have a habit of finding form when they need it most.
For most onlookers and football writers, Brazil are the other pre-tournament favourites, alongside Spain and France. Brazil was the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and scored memorable wins on the way, including a 3-0 success over Argentina in the same Mineirao stadium of the 2014 semifinal humiliation. It took the appointment of Tite in September 2016 to revive Brazil. Under his helm, there have been 13 wins, three draws and only one loss — in a friendly against Argentina.
The Seleção’s build-up has been dominated by their talisman Neymar, who suffered a serious injury earlier in the season. The 222-million-euro (IS$261 million) Paris Saint-Germain forward only made his first start on Sunday, against Austria, since undergoing surgery on a foot fracture at the start of March.
Next up in the running is France, a young and vibrant team packed with flair and eyecatching talent. Coach Didier Deschamps has urned France into a highly competitive team but has yet to deliver a trophy. Reaching the World Cup semi-finals is the minimum target for the 49-year-old Deschamps, a former midfielder who captained France to victory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
The French twice recently took the lead while playing at Germany and caused their opponents all sorts of problems with the movement and speed of its devastating counter-attacks. But the team is also prone to lapses in concentration, and that needs to be addressed if the team wants to win the trophy for the second time.
Les Bleus lost the 2006 World Cup final to Italy in a penalty shootout, lost to Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, and could not handle the pressure of being the favourites in the Euro 2016 final at home against Portugal.
Until Wednesday, Spain were mentioned as one of the frontrunners too, but the dramatic sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui – just two days before La Roja’s first match – may severely damage their chances. New coach Hierro will have faith in his players though – some of them already have World Cup winners’ medals in their trophy cabinets, after all.
Finally among the favourites – internationally, if not necessarily domestically speaking – we have Argentina, despite the Albiceleste’s chaotic qualifying campaign and controversial build-up to the finals.
The cancellation of last week’s friendly against Israel in Jerusalem brought bad publicity and also denied Jorge Sampaoli’s side further match practice. The build-up has been further hampered too by the loss to injury of Manuel Lanzini, while critics charge that Argentina are relying solely on Lionel Messi for success. Even if they manage to win a challenging group, Spain could lie in wait in the quarter-finals for the 2014 runners-up.
Elsewhere, Uruguay’s players this week shrugged off their tag as Group A favourites and dark horses, saying the South Americans would be a “humble” team in Russia despite the talents of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez. The Celeste have been tipped to top a relatively weak-looking group, which contains hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri opens against Germany with a likely second-round opponent of Brazil.
Other outsiders include reigning European champions Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo looking to win the only top-level title missing from his trophy cabinet, and Belgium, whose golden generation has long been tipped to mature on the world stage. However, their weak spot seems to be manager Roberto Martínez, who has criticised ahead of the tournament by multiple football writers. England, meanwhile, will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning its only major title on home soil in 1966 and their young, inexperienced squad looks to be less weighed down by expectations than in the past.
There also has been a generational change within FIFA. Many of its leaders have moved from penthouses to prisons following indictments by the US Department of Justice that detailed kickbacks to be as much a part of football as free kicks. World Cup onlookers may be treated to a special moment of controversy if ex-FIFA chief Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter attends. Despite serving a six-year ban from football-related activities, he has been invited as a personal guest by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, perhaps it’s better to expect controversy on a regular basis.
Following the drug-testing scandal that engulfed the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, FIFA’s medical committee chairman said no Russians will be involved in collection of urine and blood samples, which will be flown to Switzerland for analysis.
VAR is sure to be the acronym of the moment, with ‘video assistant referees’ set to be introduced for the first time at a World Cup and questions remaining over its impact and how it will be used.
Finally, as soon as the final whistle of the tournament is blown at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, attention will shift to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, moved to November 21 through December 18 because of summer desert heat and compressed to 28 days because it is in the middle of the European club season. Gianni Infantino, who succeeded the disgraced Blatter as FIFA president in 2016, has discussed increasing the World Cup field from 32 to 48 in 2022, four years ahead of schedule.