Four years ago, I was writing an overly long World Cup preview on this site. And I included this passage:
If you want to enjoy the World Cup and still acknowledge the problems that Brazil is facing, you should set your cognitive dissonance meter to high.
Now, the World Cup is in Russia. And you really need to recalibrate the cognitive dissonance meter. Because since 2014, soccer's governing body, FIFA, has seen multiple executives indicted in U.S. courts. (Ken Bensinger's new book, Red Card, details all the misdeeds.) And it's in Russia. It has issues. A lot of them. I could go on, but my guess is that you already know about them. Just a hunch.
For a little over a month, Russia will do its best to show the world that it's not homophobic, it's not racist, and its fans are not hooligans. And Russia also will hope that its own soccer team won't flame out early in the tournament.
It's much more likely that Russia will be on its best behavior, (not everybody is so confident) but the Russian team won't give the local fans much to cheer about. Because it is the host country, Russia was given a #1 seed in a group despite having a world ranking of 65. Russia will open the tournament on Thursday, June 14 in a match starting at 8 am PT against Saudi Arabia, one of the teams in the tournament that is likely worse than Russia. The other two teams in Russia's group are South American power Uruguay (featuring Barcelona's Luis Suarez) and a strong team from Egypt, who are hoping that Liverpool star Mo Salah will have recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in the Champions League final against Real Madrid. The rest of the groups (there are eight 4-team groups with the top two advancing to knockout play) can be found here.
The tournament favorites are the usual suspects: Germany, because they won the last one in 2014; Brazil, because they're Brazil; Argentina, because they have Lionel Messi; Spain, because they have a lot of star power; and France, because they have about the same amount of talent as Spain. (France looked fairly lackluster though in a 1-1 draw in a recent exhibition against the USA.)
There are some dark horses, like Belgium, who have a lot of great players, (Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku to name a few), but never seem to put things together at the World Cup.; Portugal, who have one of the world's best players in Cristiano Ronaldo and did win the European Championship in 2016; England, who always look good in qualifying and usually disappoint once the tournament starts, strengthening the United Kingdom's strong "What's wrong with English football?" sector of the economy; and Croatia, who has one of the world's best midfielders in Luka Modric, but he's been indicted for perjury in Croatia. Regardless, the Croatian team will look resplendent in their checkerboard kits (above).
The tournament has a good underdog story in Iceland, which became the smallest nation (by population) to qualify for the World Cup. Iceland has about as many people as the entire city of Santa Ana. If it were a city, it would be tenth in population in California. If Iceland were a state, it would be in 51st place, behind Wyoming. By 200,000 people. Did you know Iceland is small?
Before Iceland qualified, the smallest nation to make the World Cup was Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. And T&T had over one million people at that time.
Speaking of Trinidad and Tobago, it didn't make the World Cup, but they did win their final qualifying match in the North American group (officially known as Concacaf, formely CONCACAF, but they rebranded) Which happened to be against the USA. And that loss by the American team kept them out of the tournament. The USA is in good company sitting out this tournament. Four-time champion Italy, three-time runnerup Netherlands, South American champion, Chile, and African champion, Cameroon, all failed to qualify as well.
North America ended up with three representatives: Mexico, who will be the local favorite here presumably; Costa Rica, who made it to the quarter finals in 2014; and Panama, who will probably be lucky to not lose all three of its group play matches. Panama, along with Iceland, are the two nations making their first appearance in the World Cup.
Mexico was drawn into a group with Germany, Sweden, and South Korea, so it will be tough for El Tri to make it into the knockout rounds. But, if Mexico does do that, it will want to avoid what has become a longstanding tradition of losing its match in the second round. After a win in the second round in 1986 at home, Mexico has lost in that same round in each World Cup they've played in, staring with 1994. They lost to Bulgaria in 1994, Germany in 1998, the USA in 2002, Argentina in 2006 and 2010, and Netherlands in 2014. Mexico's most likely opponent in the Round of 16 would be Brazil.
Most of the matches will start as Angelenos are waking up. The earliest kickoffs will usually be at 5 am (there is one 3 am kickoff if you are intent on watching France play Australia on Saturday, June 16) and most days there will be an 11 am kickoff that you can use to waste time at work or take a long lunch.
The first round matches I'm looking forward to are:
- Portugal vs Spain in Sochi on June 15 at 11 am: the Battle for Iberia will be fought by the Black Sea.
- Argentina vs Iceland in Moscow on June 16 at 6 am: Is Iceland for real or just a nice story?
- Germany vs Mexico in Moscow on June 17 at 8 am: Can Mexico keep up with the world's best team?
- France vs Peru in Ekaterinburg on June 21 at 8 am: Peru's best player, Paolo Guerrero, got his drug suspension shortened so he should be able to make this an intriguing matchup between two strong sides. It's Peru's first trip to the World Cup since 1982.
- Japan vs Senegal in Ekaterinburg on June 24 at 8 am: This is one of those random matchups of two countries that makes the World Cup fascinating to me. My guess is that this match will feature a lot of empty seats in the very oddly shaped Ekaterinburg Arena.
Fox and Fox Sports 1 are handling the English brodcasts (with many of the matches being called off of monitors in Los Angeles) and Telemundo and NBC Universo are handling the Spanish language broadcasts.
The final is scheduled for 8 am PT on Sunday, July 15 in Moscow.