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Ready for kickoff

While we’re watching two teams compete in their first ever Stanley Cup Finals, determining whether Ovechkin can finally expel his championship demons, and wondering what JR Smith will forget next, the rest of the world is gearing up for the World Cup kickoff in Russia. There are notable absences. Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States all missed out on qualifying. Replacing each of them are teams who aren’t necessarily the most sexy or exciting to watch. But that’s what is going to make this World Cup one of the more interesting competitions in a long time.

Of course, that’s not the only thing giving us an interesting view into the World Cup this year. With all the political turmoil surrounding Russia, there will be stories of all sorts that emerge. If you’re unsure what I mean, Russia *allegedly* interfered in the US Presidential election. They poisoned one of their own spies and his daughter on UK soil with a terrifying nerve toxin. Their fans constantly are getting caught doing racist chants against opposing, and sometimes their own, players. How did they get awarded the World Cup, again? Oh yeah, FIFA is still a corrupt joke.

Russian fan behavior is scary

Racism

Sky Sports

The most recent racist issues arose during the national team’s friendly with France. Fans were caught on video making monkey sounds in the direction of French midfielder Paul Pogba. Yet they were only fined 30,000 CHF. Sure, there was a small number of fans involved, but the fact that anyone was involved should garnish a strict penalty. Thankfully, Pogba didn’t let this abhorrent behavior affect him, and he scored a beautiful free kick to lead the Frenchmen to victory.

Russian club teams have been fined and had fans banned for matches due to racist behavior. In 2014, CSKA Moscow played multiple matches in an empty stadium as punishment. Former Lokomotiv Moscow player and Nigerian international Peter Odemwingie was taunted with a banana flag in 2010. At the time, FIFA and UEFA claimed there was nothing that could be done.

To be honest, it boggles my mind how any player who would not be considered white would want to play there. It’s scary. That said, some African fans who live in Russia don’t seem to be as worried as I am. Granted, this happens in a lot of places, some worse than others. I’m looking at you, Italy. But with the rise of far-right wing rhetoric throughout the world, this is a serious problem that doesn’t look to be going away any time soon.

Hooliganism

The National

Much has been written as of late not just of racist behavior, but Neo-Nazi-esque hooliganism by Russian fans. ESPN The Magazine writer Sam Borden published an in-depth look into what soccer gang culture looks like in Russia today. Honestly, it’s a wild read and raises serious concerns about fan and player safety. Do yourself a favor and take a look. Violence, setting off flares, and destroying property are all large risks the hosts are going to need to face.

There have been some pretty insane incidents on the international level as well. One simply needs to look back at the clashes in Marseille during the 2016 Euros to see some of the worst of it. That said, I can’t point strictly at Russians here. England fans were absolutely out of their mind during those fights as well. There could be serious issues in the coming weeks, and FIFA better be prepared to crack down immediately. If they aren’t, we’re never going to see this behavior dissipate. Combine this with the UK’s strong words against Russia after the poison attack, and their contemplation of pulling out involvement altogether, and we could have the, unfortunately, reality of a repeat of the horror from Marseille.

If it comes down to kickoff with no fans in the stadium, so be it. We need to be rid of such negativity and violence. I feel the same way about the racist crap I mentioned above. Crack down. We’re all watching, FIFA. Fan and player safety needs to be of the utmost importance.

Let’s change gears

Now that I’ve thrown some of the worst out of what we can see out there, let’s take a look at some of the feel-good stuff. Here’s hoping I can end this on a high note.

Speaking of notes, Will Smith led a talented group of artists in the making of this year’s World Cup song. Leading up to kickoff, and during big games, this new anthem will be prominent. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. These tournament anthems come and go and tend to be forgotten. I’ll let you decide for yourself, though.

Sneak Peaks

I mentioned a few teams who didn’t make the cut. But there are two who are going to experience their first World Cup kickoff. Iceland and Panama are making their debuts, and both are at the expense of the United States, Netherlands, and Italy.

Iceland

The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland has been an exciting team to watch since the 2016 Euros. They went much further than anyone expected and captured the hearts of anyone who likes the underdog. Their story kicked off after sneaking into the knockout stages with draws against Portugal and Hungary while beating Austria. They then continued England’s international woes by knocking them out in the Round of 16. It wasn’t until they faced a seasoned French team in the Quarterfinals that they saw their exit.

The minnows then had Gylfi Sigurðsson lead them through World Cup Qualifying, scoring 4 goals en route to winning Group I. They went punch for punch with Croatia and Finland, while knocking Turkey, Ukraine, and Kosova down twice each. Iceland are certainly one of the biggest underdogs in this tournament. Their style on the pitch isn’t anything to write home about, but their fan celebrations are awesome. So awesome in fact that FIFA 18 World Cup mode has added their famous “Viking Clap”.

We’ll see if their Cinderella story can continue. I’m still going back and forth as to whether I think they’ll somehow leapfrog Croatia, Nigeria, or Argentina. Either way, it’s going to be a tough task for them. I wish them all the best.

Panama

CBS Sports

Panama qualified through virtue of good fortune. They beat a tough Costa Rica team. However, they needed some help from Trinidad and Tobago in order to qualify. And they got it. They’ve overcome tough odds on and off the pitch. Amilcar Henriquez, a player who had a high likelihood of making the squad, was killed in a drive-by shooting last year. The club has rallied and pushed on, sneaking their way into Russia.

They are unlikely to make it through their group, though. The one way they will is if England continues their streak of less than stellar performances in international tournaments. Belgium is best set up to win the group, and Tunisia doesn’t have a chance.

The excitement mounting in Panama is infectious. I’m a bit bitter that they’re going to be in Russia instead of the US, but at the same time, I’m hoping they don’t get completely rolled over. Only time will tell.

What’s next?

Keep an eye out for my thoughts on each group, if I foresee any surprises, and who will be moving on to the knockout stages. With that first kickoff so close, we at The Turf are going to do what we can to arm you with necessary banter. Will Germany or Brazil take the cup? Can Iceland defy odds again? Will England finally play to their talent and go deep into the tournament?

Stay tuned.

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