It’s that time again. The greatest sporting event in the world is here as the biggest footballing nations go to war in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The numbers are simply mindboggling. 3.2 billion people tuned in to the last World Cup four years ago, 1 billion watched the final, and we’re expecting even more people this time around. The group stages kick off on June 14, and the final takes place in Moscow on July 15th.
We get to watch the best 32 teams in the world fight it out. We get to see a collision of styles and national identities, with a carnival atmosphere as a backdrop. New stars are born at every World Cup, we get to see moments of genius from the world’s best players, and there’s always an underdog that unites casual fans around the world.
So, who should we watch out for in the 2018 World Cup?
On an individual level, we can simply watch in awe when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo get on the ball. They are the best players and fierce rivals in La Liga, where they are effectively the talismans of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Now they carry the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders.
Messi leads Argentina, Ronaldo is the star for Portugal. So, can these great players carry their teams to victory? It’s possible; Argentina lost by the narrowest margin in the last final and are desperate to go one better. But that’s the magic of the World Cup; nobody really knows until the teams hit the field.
We’re waiting to see how Brazil bounces back from a humiliating 7-1 defeat in the last World Cup on home soil. The Brazilian people are fanatical about football and the world has fallen in love with the team’s flamboyant style and stunning record over the years. The likes of Pele, Zico and Romario are legends of the game, and the South American team has five World Cups to its name.
Last time was painful for this proud nation. It is down to Neymar and Philip Coutinho to restore pride, but Neymar is the star and he has battled back from serious injury to make the squad. It’s not the ideal preparation.
Watch out for the likes of Mo Salah, too, who has stunned the Premier League this season with a vast haul of goals for Liverpool. His Egyptian side is a massive underdog, but don’t bet against the brilliant Salah creating a highlight reel-moment or two before his team exits stage left.
The World Cup will also bring us moments of precocious genius from a corner of the globe, too. In the last World Cup, James Rodriguez became an overnight sensation and, later, a Real Madrid player. In Russia, all the young players from South America, Africa and Asia have the eyes of the world upon them. Some will crumble, but the special few will shine.
Watch out for Germany’s Leon Goretzka, Portugal’s Goncalo Guedes, Poland’s Karol Linetty, Morocco’s Amin Harit and Switzerland’s Denis Zakaria. They all have the chance to make a name for themselves.
Individual stars never win the World Cup, though, you need a brilliant team. Defending champions Germany won the title last time thanks to teamwork, rather than star power. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who might not make the finals due to an ongoing injury, Toni Kroos and Marco Reus are standout talents in their own way, but Germany is all about the team effort. It helped them take the crown last time and the team goes into the finals as the favourite.
France also has the team to win the tournament, but does it have the pedigree? France has just one World Cup title to its name and tends to feel the heat in the latter stages. Can the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud live up to this team’s blistering potential? There are more questions than answers, but we’ll know the truth in the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup.
Spain are always in the mix and we can look forward to Real Madrid’s Isco and Sergio Ramos leading them into battle. The Spanish once dominated world football, but this team will need to come up with something new if it is to challenge for honours in Russia. Belgium has the mercurial talent of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, too, who could both stroll into any club team in the world. If those two link up perfectly, then they could have a serious impact on the World Cup.
An influx of megastars has raised the game’s profile and the standard in China, but the likes of Japan can spring a surprise on their day. Don’t expect them to go all the way, but prepare to be surprised by their spirit.
The armchair pundits are already picking their own personal winners and losers, but we don’t have long to wait before the talking stops, the whistle blows and the 2018 World Cup kicks off. It’s a summer of the beautiful game and if you’re like us, you can’t wait.