At yesterday’s ceremony at the Kremlin, football legends came together to oversee the definition of the groups. Spain and Portugal, the last two European champions, were drawn to meet each other in the first round of the World Cup, one day after Russia opens the tournament in one of the easiest groups of the competition.
The Russians will play their first match in Moscow on June 14 against Saudi Arabia – the only team ranked lower than the hosts. Defending champions Germany will open against Mexico in its quest to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil in 1962. England face Belgium in Group G. Iceland said they were in dreamland after being drawn against Lionel Messi’s Argentina in their first appearance at a World Cup.
“It’s just romantic and fun. They are connected to the romance of the World Cup,” Heimir Hallgrimsson, the coach of the smallest of the 32 nations at the marquee June 14-July 15 competition, said.
With just 330,000 people, Iceland is the smallest country ever at the World Cup. The city of Moscow alone outnumbers Iceland’s entire population 40 times over, but this is a team of giant-killers. Last year’s run to the Euro 2016 quarter- finals, knocking out England on a memorable night in Nice, showed talent and determination.
Qualifying for the World Cup ahead of Croatia and Ukraine proved last year wasn’t a one-off. Expecting more success in Russia might be optimistic, but with Iceland’s passionate fans and their “thunderclap” chant, nothing can be ruled out. Not many teams are coached by a dentist either, but Iceland isn’t most teams. Heimir Hallgrimsson took sole charge after co-coach Lars Lagerbäck left last year.
Croatia had to squeeze through the play-offs for the second straight World Cup despite having at its disposal a generation of players capable of making the difference.
Led by playmaker Luka Modric alongside Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, Croatia is on paper a tough team to beat. It needs the players to replicate their club form on the international stage at a major tournament. Zlatko Dalic is coach. He took charge of a critical situation with one game remaining in the qualifying.
The first team from Africa to qualify, and convincingly. Won a group that contained current African champion Cameroon, former champion Zambia, and Algeria. A 4-0 victory over Cameroon 4-0 emphasised when they get it right the Super Eagles can be a handful for any side. Argentina found that out in November when Nigeria won their friendly game in Russia 4-2. Nigeria has qualified for five of the last six World Cups. Coach Gernot Rohras is a calming influence.
– Saturday, June 16 – Argentina vs. Iceland, Moscow (Spartak).
– Thursday, June 21 – Argentina vs. Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod.
– Tuesday, June 26 – Nigeria vs. Argentina, St. Petersburg.
THE GROUPS FOR RUSSIA 2018
Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia.
Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco.
France, Peru, Denmark, Australia.
Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria.
Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia.
Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea.
Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama.
Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan.