Anybody who doesn’t enjoy non-stop and incessant coverage of collusion football in Russia should probably stop reading now. The 2018 FIFA World Cup is here, and the tournament will become the daily focus of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who appreciate the highest levels of the Beautiful Game.
According to the official World Cup song—“Live it Up,” by two people I have never heard of and Will Smith—we have been waiting for this all year. And while the song also wants us to get “pumping” at the football (whatever that means), it is not hyperbole to state that football fans will be glued to either televisions, tablets or smartphones for the foreseeable future.
Over the next month, 64 matches will take place, spread over 12 venues in 11 host cities. Of the 32 national teams that will start the tournament, 20 will be making back-to-back appearances from Brazil, while two teams (Iceland and Panama) will be the rookies that the neutral fans will be rooting for.
Sadly, there will be some noticeable absentees—Italy, Holland, Chile, Ireland, Cameroon and the United States are not part of the finals—but the 32 qualifiers will hopefully provide a feast of football for fans, neutrals, and the inevitable football rookies/hipsters.
Eight groups of four teams, every player focused on getting out of the group and into the knockout stage … where they (and, by association, the fans) will then experience either joy or suffer the misery of going home early.
In fact, the next 30 days or so will be extremely enjoyable for those of us that enjoy sports that can be consumed in just over 90 minutes. With a limited number of commercial breaks. And no timeouts.
With that in mind, here is a brief(ish) guide to the World Cup in Russia. Spoiler alert; this article will not tell you who to follow at the finals. If your country is there, you know who to support. If not, then the best thing to do is follow your heritage and see if that works. As a last resort, pretend you have relatives in Iceland.
How The World Cup Finals Work
As we mentioned above, the 32 nations have been sorted into eight groups of four teams each.
A seeded draw for the finals took place in December 2017, and was determined by each qualifying team’s official FIFA ranking. For example, teams like Germany and Brazil were in the first pot, while England and Mexico were in the second pot. The next two pots were then filled with teams that were lower down the rankings. The only exception to this was Russia who were placed in Pot 1 as hosts, despite having a FIFA ranking of 65 at the time.
The benefits of this seeded system is that it mixes together (in theory) the big fish and the minnows, and provides the tournament organizers and FIFA with a roadmap that sees the major footballing nations progress to the later stages. In addition, it means that the qualifiers know exactly who they are playing, which cities they will be based in and what they need to do to progress.
The caveat to this pre-tournament grouping is that there is always at least one national team who either performs above expectations or fails to show up when it matters. At least one major footballing nation will have a dreadful time in Russia and follow in the footsteps of England, Spain and Portugal in 2014, France and Italy in 2010, and, arguably, Croatia in 2006.
The early stages of the finals—the groups—are a round-robin format, which accounts for a daily fix of at least three matches from June 15th until June 28th. Each team plays three matches in their respective group, earning three points for a win and one for a draw. The top two teams in each group then move on to the round of 16.
In the event of two or more teams finishing on the same points (and it happens more often than not), then tiebreakers will come into play—goal difference, goals scored, head-to-head record.
Once the group stage is over, then the knockout stage starts. This is where the fun really begins and the misery/joy is taken to new levels. Games that are level after 90 minutes go to extra time (two 15-minute halves), then a penalty shootout. Both of these options are excruciating for fans, but at least FIFA decided back in 2004 to scrap the “golden goal” rule for its tournaments.
The knockout stage also means that the daily football fix is over and that some of us can concentrate on other things … like life or working, for example.
The winners of each game in the round 16 advance to the quarter finals, the winners of the quarter finals move on to semi-finals and the winners of the semis get to play in front of Vladimir Putin and his invited guests in Moscow on July 15. As a side note, the losers of the semi-finals play in the relatively pointless third-place play off on July 14.
And we all love a bracket, so if you fancy having some FIFA-endorsed fun, you can take the World Cup challenge here. For the record, I will not be partaking in this exercise.
Matches to Watch
With 64 games played in a month, there will be some that are more appealing than others. The group stages take up the bulk of the tournament with 48 games, many of which have the capacity to be must-watch football or a snooze-fest.
The “big games” will naturally come after the completion of the eight group stages, but there are some potential classics on the horizon;
- Spain vs Portugal (June 15)
- Croatia vs Nigeria (June 16)
- Germany vs Mexico (June 17)
- Argentina vs Croatia (June 22)
- Germany vs Sweden (June 23)
- Denmark vs France (June 26)
- England vs Belgium (June 28
Spain versus Portugal, for example, takes on an added significance as the Spanish football federation sacked the manager two days before the team’s first match. Yes, he had agreed to take over at Real Madrid after the tournament but, according to Spanish media reports, this decision annoyed the federation’s president so much that he decided to sack him before a ball was kicked.
The Belgium-England game should also be a treat for fans of the English Premier League as the former has 12 EPL players in its squad. Every England player chosen plays for an EPL club, so it is fair to say that this fixture will likely bring out some familiar rivalries.
All Hail The Underdog
As we know, the World Cup always throws the odd spanner in the works.
As you would expect from a global tournament, there will be unfancied countries who will punch above their weight and football behemoths that will be utter bobbins. With that in mind, the neutral supporter will want the underdog (bolded for stylistic emphasis) to triumph whenever possible;
- Argentina vs Iceland (June 16)
- Columbia vs Japan (June 19)
- Tunisia vs England (June 18)
- Portugal vs Morocco (June 20)
- France vs Peru (June 21)
- South Korea vs Mexico (June 23)
- England vs Panama (June 24)
- Uruguay vs Russia (June 25)
- Spain vs Morocco (June 25)
- Nigeria vs Argentina (June 26)
- Serbia vs Brazil (June 27)
- South Korea vs Germany (June 27)
The Players To Watch
Unless you have a) an encyclopedic knowledge of world football or b) an addiction to Sega’s Football Manager video game simulation, it is a fair bet that the majority of players will be somewhat unfamiliar.
Anyone who follows the major European Leagues will scrape by, but with 736 individual players picked for Russia 2018—96 goalkeepers, 248 defenders, 233 midfielders and 159 forwards—then the average fan can be forgiven for not knowing much about players such as Mehdi Benatia, Uros Spajic or Maximilano Meza. The exception to this rule is The Turf’s Kevin Morin, who likely has a spreadsheet filled with Opta Sports data about each and player selected. Probably.
On the plus side, FIFA has a handy Player Browser that lists all the players picked, and even has photos of some of them for easy identification. You can access the browser here.
The global superstars are the ones that will generate the headlines. Messi, Ronaldo, Kane, Salah, Greizmann, Silva, Lewandowski and Neymar are names that should be mentioned on a semi-regular basis, while there will be those of us waiting to see whether Modric, Pogba, Isco and Fred live up to their big-money reputations.
At the same time, there will be millions of people who want the unknowns shine, even more so if a player takes the attention away from the superstars. And then will be the fans who really want the superstars to fail on the big stage … especially if means that we don’t have to endure a certain person from Portugal ripping off his shirt like a demented version of the Hulk.
How And Where To Watch
Long gone are the days when you had to work really hard to find coverage of the World Cup. Some of us remember that not every game was always broadcast live or were shown at ludicrous hours of the day when the pubs were not open. There was even a time before the Internet when finding out the World Cup minutiae of every team and player was harder than getting hold of the POTUS’s tax returns.
Roger Bennett (one of NBC’s Men in Blazers) wrote in the Washington Post that he struggled in 1990 to find a place in rural Maine that would show the England vs Germany semi-final. With no Internet, Bennett said, he had to wait until the next day to find out the result.
“What scarred me most was the bar owners: Not only did they refuse to change the channel for two desperate English soccer fans, but they took a perverse, sadistic delight in doing so,” Bennett recalled. “I had traveled the world, visiting Africa, the Middle East and South America. For the first time in my life, I was stunned to encounter a culture that wore its widespread hatred of soccer as a proud mark of honor.”
That is not likely to happen in 2018. Even without the participation of the United States, Italy, Ireland or Holland in Russia, it is fair to assume that coverage of the World Cup will be ubiquitous. People who prefer to watch in bars will be able to do so with minimal effort (mainly because baseball is the only real summer alternative for bar owners), while the in-home market can look forward to a full array of pre- and post-match analysis from day one.
The only fly in the ointment here in the U.S. is that Fox Sports has replaced ESPN as the World Cup broadcaster. The network bid (in partnership with Comcast-owned Telemundo) around $1 billion for the rights to Russia 2018, thereby breaking a run of six previous World Cups on ESPN. That is a lot of money to fork out, and we can only assume that is was based on the United States team qualifying for the finals.
As we are aware, that didn’t happen. But Fox Sports is reportedly doubling down on its investment and is determined to provide the viewing public with a World Cup experience that is, according to The Guardian, a “fist fight for the championship of the planet.”
At the time of writing, none of us can know what that description means. All we do know is that Fox Sports will wheel out its regular panel of pundits—which includes the tedious Warren Barton and the “ram-jawed doofus” that is Alexi Lalas—and attempt to provide some level of competence on a global stage.
That might be slightly harder when you take into account that Fox is sending a skeleton crew to Russia and is, numerous media resources reported, planning to cover most of the games from a studio in LA.
The reason for this, Fox said in a press release, is because being at the actual stadiums is not actually an advantage and limits what you (the broadcaster) can see. Which just sounds wrong. By contrast, Telemundo is not only sending a full team to Russia for its World Cup debut, but will also show every game in virtual reality.
Time will tell if Fox’s decision to stay in California rather than make the journey to Russia will pay off. Bearing in mind that the average football fan just wants to see the games, then it might be OK. And then again, it’s Fox.
Gulp … Video Assisted Referees
And finally, let’s wrap up this brief World Cup 101 with a word about technology.
The digital transformation of both society and sports world means that fans have access to more data and viewing options than ever before. You don’t need to be Mark Zuckerberg to know that his social network will be a popular forum for football-related debate over the next month, and the Twittersphere may—fingers crossed—actually be worth diving into again.
Social media and live streaming aside, it is also extremely likely that this World Cup will give us a definitive answer as to how useful—or not—the video assisted referee will be.
VAR was first introduced top-level football in April 2017 and Russia 2018 is the first global tournament to integrate the tech into the games. To date, VAR has been tested in various countries on an irregular basis, with the glitches receiving more attention than the moments when it actually helped the on-pitch referee.
The theory behind VAR is sound. More accurate decisions at the most important moments in matches—goals, penalties, potential red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The latter is only relevant if a player gets a red or yellow card that should have been given to someone else, but the intention is to correct “clear and obvious errors” as soon as humanly possible. Which sounds great.
The problem is that, so far at least, VAR has been incredibly annoying for fans and players alike. The BBC reported that a recent cup final in Australia was decided by a single goal that was reportedly offside but a software glitch meant that the VAR system was offline at the moment that the goal was scored and then allowed to stand by the on-pitch referee. Granted, this was only of interest to the fans of Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory (the cup winners), but the thought of a farcical mistake like that in the World Cup keeps me awake at night.
A recent study of 1,000 matches, cited by the BBC, that used VAR at some point in the last 18 months said that the system is a success in its broad aims and improves decision accuracy to around 98.8%. If that is the case, then all is good. But I have my doubts as to whether VAR will actually bring anything good to the game. After all, goal-line technology is still a source of debate among football purists and that took years of discussion before the tech was introduced into the major leagues by the relevant associations.
There is no doubt that technology and sport can work together, but the jury remains out over video-assisted decisions in games that a) don’t have a lot of downtime and b) are played at a frenetic pace. All I hope is that if and when VAR is called upon in the World Cup, it doesn’t provide a memorable moment that is unrelated to the game itself.
So, enjoy the World Cup. It will be a month-long feast of Russian-based football. And then there are only four more years until Qatar 2022.