By: Andrew Wood
In less than 48 hours, the first ball will drop for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, as the host nation Russia will take on Saudi Arabia, who is making it’s first trip back to the World’s Biggest Stage for the first time since 2006. That game kicks off 10 a.m. CST in Moscow.
Many fans will see this as a tournament exempt of the United States (along with a few other World Cup mainstays), and it will be addressed further on in this post. I’ll be doing a Medal Zone-first, a Q&A. Gabriel Martinez is a former journalist and writer for Playing for 90, a Web site devoted to all-things soccer.
There’s also another international tournament happening in Spain. I’ll have more on that later in this article.
But, first… Ten Burning Questions for the 2018 FIFA World Cup!
- What can we expect going into Russia 2018?
“When you look at the 2018 World Cup, it has all the intrigue you’d ever want. However, I think there are more compelling stories to watch for that in past tournaments. You have the blue bloods of the sport, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and others who are clear front-runners to lift the trophy.
My interest lies in how newcomers like Iceland and Panama perform. Will they bow out quickly or will we see a run for the ages?
A few other stories will surround Egypt and if Mohamed Salah can play after his injury in the Champions League Final and Peru, after a lengthy hiatus, will they pass expectations and make a run?”
- How do you feel about the absence of so many notable countries (Chile, Italy, Netherlands, USA)?
“It’s really incredible isn’t it? Before qualifiers even started you could have very well penciled in those four countries into the World Cup and now they’ll be watching it.
Plain and simple they cratered when it mattered most and now we’ll see what they can do for 2022. The USA, in particular, has to be the most disappointing of the bunch. Chile, Italy, and Holland all have incredibly tough confederations to compete in.
As for the U.S., they should have never been in this position, very disappointing and it has led to an all-out clean sweep of looking into the future and following Christian Pulisic back to the World Cup.”
- With the Americans out, I’ll be pulling for Australia instead. What is the outlook for the Socceroos?
“Australia is an interesting bunch. Over the last three World Cups they have seemed like a team that could make a run but always falls short. They’ll certainly be looking for redemption in 2018 after a terrible tournament in Brazil in 2014.
At 38-years-old Tim Cahill returns to the Socceroos what is seemingly his last World Cup, but it will be interesting to see how the youngsters will perform in this tournament- in particular, Aaron Mooy who played in the Premier League for the first time with Huddersfield Town.
Can he take that momentum to Russia?”
- While the clock is ticking for Lionel Messi, what can he do for this to be his year?
“All I can say is enjoy it! In the NBA we’re witnessing greatness with LeBron James. In the World Cup we’ll witness greatness again with Messi taking the field for Argentina.”
NOTE: This was also answered days before the NBA Finals, so that’s not on him.
- England is once again turning to a younger talent pool. Can the Three Lions shake off 52 years of frustration?
“England is a strange team, they have all the pieces to make a run, yet fall short in big moments. This has to be their year, the stars align with the group they’ve drawn and if they can get through that, Group H with Poland, Colombia, Japan, and Senegal certainly looks appealing.
I’ll say this, England is likely to end up in second place behind Belgium in Group G, but if they can show they are for real against the Belgians, then defeating anyone from Group H and moving into the quarterfinals is very possible. “
- Any surprise teams or players we should watch out for?
“It’s hard to know which players will stand out over the course of a World Cup, but I’ll give you a few teams to keep an eye on. Egypt is the first that comes to mind. With Mohamed Salah coming off a historic season for Liverpool, all eyes will be on him to carry the Egyptians who haven’t been to the World Cup in 28 years.
I’m also intrigued by Peru. They snuck into the World Cup after holding off Chile and advancing to the playoff round knocking off New Zealand. With Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan scoring goals, there’s no telling what they could do in this tournament.
Finally, the Euros-darling Iceland. Can they regain the magic from the 2016 Euros? That will be an incredible story, but unfortunately for them they’ve drawn a group that could see them crash out early with Argentina, Nigeria, and Croatia.”
- Germany seems to be even more loaded than they were when they won four years ago. What will it take for other teams to dethrone them?
“What will it take to dethrone Germany….. prayer.
In all seriousness, Germany has an incredible balance of size and speed and that’s a tough match-up for anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if teams look to maximize their own wing play and try to frustrate Germany with a more ball-dominant possession scheme which would not allow Germany to do what they do best. “
- What is your prediction for the final?
“After mapping it out my prediction is Brazil vs. Germany in the Final, a rematch of the 2002 World Cup final and yes a rematch and moment of redemption for the Brazilians after that horrid performance against the Germans in 2014.
However, I see the Germans lifting the trophy once again.”
- Will we see the United States in Qatar 2022?
“Yes, the U.S. will be back in the World Cup in 2022 and led by Pulisic. I think the U.S. has learned incredible lessons this qualifying campaign. They’ll be back and stronger than ever.”
- Finally, anything else?
“Enjoy this World Cup as it will be the last we see of this format and when it’s played. The 2022 Cup is to be played in December and then in 2026 FIFA will expand to 48 teams. 32 teams is a perfect number and do not want to see this tournament watered down, but it’s where we are headed.
It’s going to be a great month of football, enjoy!“
Russia–Saudi Arabia Preview
This year’s Cup kicks off with the two lowest-ranked teams (Russia at 70, Saudi Arabia at 67). Even though I don’t have a stat sheet from the 1930’s-50’s. It’s likely the first time this has happened.
Back in 2012, the Russian National Team opened the Euros with a 4-1 blowout over the Czech Republic. It appeared the team was about to emerge as a soccer power along with the others on their continent. Russia had a strong showing in the 2008 Euros and was not happy about missing the 2010 World Cup. However, that ended-up being their only win of the tournament. They were upset by Greece, and the Czechs advanced to the knockout stage.
Fast-forward to 2018, the team hasn’t been the same. The No. 70 Russians have some of the older players on the pitch. Stanislav Cherchesov is currently the team’s coach, following what has been a dramatic coaching carousel in recent years. Russia has been injury prone as well.
The No. 67 Green Falcons also have a new coach at the helm.
Juan Antonio Pizzi coached Chile to a historic run throughout the middle part of this decade. He led the Chileans to a championship in the 2016 Copa América Centenario, which included a 7-0 demolishing of Mexico and a penalty-kick win against Argentina. He resigned a year-and-a-half later after failing to qualify Chile for the World Cup.
This will be Saudi Arabia‘s first appearance since 2006. They have lost their last three international friendlies, but would still want nothing more than to crash the party on opening day.
Either team can use an early win to build off of. Fyodor Smolov is expected to contribute defensively. As many challenges as well can see from Egypt and Uruguay, a playoff run is well-within reach for either team. To my understanding, Russian president Vladimir Putin will be in attendance as well. Again, the game kicks off 10 a.m. CST in Moscow.
The (Other) Major Tournament
More than 4,000 miles west of Moscow is the 2018 IBSA Blind Football World Championships, taking place in Madrid.
The tournament consists of 16 teams. Just like in the World Cup, Mexico and Costa Rica represent the North American continent, while the United States does not.
In the Paralympics, blind soccer is better known as 5-a-side football. The soccer balls are usually played with two bells inside to help the players hear where the ball is heading. In order to make sure nobody has a visual-advantage, athletes enter the game blindfolded- with the exception of the goalkeepers, who have full eyesight.
It’s also worth-noting the fields are 40m long and 20m wide. The games are played at 25-minute halves.
The quarterfinals have already been set:
- Spain vs. Russia
- Argentina vs. England
- China vs. Morocco
- Brazil vs. Colombia
Quarterfinals begin 2 a.m. Wednesday with the host-nation Spain taking on Russia. The finals will take place Monday.
Much-like traditional soccer, the Brazilians are huge favorites. In pool play, the Canarinho has scored 23 goals, thus accumulating a 21-goal difference.
The lead-scorers for Brazil in Madrid have been Ricardo ‘Ricardinho’ Steinmetz and Gledson da Paixao. Ricardinho wears number 10, which is the most coveted number in all soccer.
IBSA stands for International Blind Sports Federation. Many of its events can also serve as Paralympic-qualifiers in various sports.