Though the finals are yet to kick off, this tournament has already seen its share of drama.
Argentina, for one, likely wouldn’t be involved if not for the heroics of Lionel Messi. His hat trick in the final game of qualifying in Quito secured his team’s place on a day that started with the Argentinian health ministry issuing instructions on how to avoid heart attacks during the game.
But not every nation had Messi to act as fail safe, and several high-profile countries paid the ultimate price.
Back-to-back Copa America champions Chile failed to qualify for the first time since 2006. While Ghana and the Netherlands missed out for the first time since ’02. The United States will be absent for the first time since 1986 and Italy, four time World Champions, are gone for the first time since 1958.
In their places, the tiny nation of Iceland (population: 327,386) and Panama will make their tournament debuts. Morocco returns to the finals for the first time since 1998 and Egypt for the first time since 1990. Lastly, soccer-mad Peru graces the tournament for the first time since 1982.
Getting to the World Cup at all is half the battle. Getting there healthy and harmoniously is much of the other half.
Egypt saw their talisman, the brilliant Mohamed Salah, exit the Champions League final in tears after injuring his shoulder in a clash with Spain’s captain Sergio Ramos. He’ll be at the tournament, but the level of his participation is still a question mark.
Peru’s talisman, striker and captain Paolo Guerrero, will lead them at the tournament but only after his 14-month doping ban was lifted. He would have missed the finals but was cleared at the eleventh hour by a Swiss court.
Guerrero went into his final appeal with a letter signed by all of the captains of the three other teams in Peru’s group, France’s Hugo Lloris, and Denmark’s Simon Kjaer, and Australia’s Mile Jedinak.
It was a big gesture, and a nod – as were Salah’s and Dani Carvejal’s tears in Kiev – to the regard with which participation in the World Cup is held by those who play the game.
Guerrero thanked god after his reprieve was granted. Writing in a statement that “there are no impossible dreams now,” and then went out and scored a brace in Peru’s warm-up win over Saudi Arabia.
Such are the stakes, the highs and the lows, at the World Cup finals. There is no substitute for the pressure, and it’s pressure that, for several countries, has already told.
Four teams, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Serbia, parted ways with the managers who qualified them in the buildup to the tournament. Australia’s new coach, Bert van Marwijk, was previously in charge of the Saudis. Saudi Arabia’s new coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi, arrived after failing to get Chile to the finals.
Hosts Russia are a team that could have made a coaching change – they’re riding a miserable seven game winless streak into the finals – but haven’t.
They’ll struggle to avoid the ignominy of a group stage exit but were boosted by being drawn, coincidentally, into what is statistically the weakest World Cup group since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998.
Russia’s hosting the tournament at all is, questionable indeed. Apart even from the conduct of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic government, Russia’s history of racially abusing players, homophobic laws and supporter violence have led some fans and families to stay away.
Russia is of course eager to present well over the next month, but we’ll see what happens. On the field, at least, and in the spirit of the vast majority of supporters, there is no chance that the tournament will disappoint.
How Can I Watch The Games?
After their marvelous coverage in 2010 and 2014, ESPN is giving way to FOX Sports as the tournament’s American English-language broadcaster.
That’s deeply unfortunate news. FOX has always been American TV’s worst soccer broadcaster. In part because of the US’s failure to qualify, expect their coverage to be watered down.
While FOX has a ton of programming scheduled, four of FOX’s six announcing teams will call the tournament off TV monitors in a Los Angeles studio. The two crews in Russia, led by John Strong and JP Dellacamera, are nowhere near the quality that American viewers have become accustomed to at the World Cup.
If broadcasters calling games off of TV screens aren’t your thing, you can watch the games on the Spanish rights holder Telemundo (coverage led by legendary Andrés Cantor) or get a stream of the international feeds.
What Will Be The Best Stories To Follow?
Depends what you’re interested in. This is, in all likelihood, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup and last chance to win the game’s greatest prize.
Portugal did win a major tournament two summers ago in France, but Messi’s Argentina has lost three major tournament finals in the last four years and the psychological weight of those failures looms large.
Speaking of psychological weight, Brazil is looking for redemption after their implosion on home soil in 2014, and Mexico is hoping to reach a quarterfinal after falling in the Round of 16 in five straight tournaments.
Iceland were the darlings of Euro 2016, and for good reason, while a number of African sides, including 2002 quarterfinalists Senegal, could be poised to set the tournament alight.
Who Is Going To Win?
Colombia, Uruguay and Portugal could threaten, though likely neither are threats to win. Meanwhile, England – the tournament’s youngest team – simply look to not self implode.
There are a few outside threats, Argentina among them, but the consensus is that there are five major threats to win the tournament: Germany, Brazil, Spain, France, and Belgium.
The Germans are the defending champs, returning much of the spine of the squad that triumphed in Brazil, along with their indomitable manager Joachim Low.
Brazil, thrashed on home soil by the Germans four years ago, look rejuvenated under the leadership of Tite. It’s a similar story for Spain, who have gotten younger and are playing faster than they have in years under new boss Julen Lopetuigi.
France and Belgium are in a similar boat and, while carrying some of the world’s brightest talent, have the same expectations to win but for different reasons.
As always, it’s going to be an unforgettable month.