FIFA World Cup 2018: The game begins
June 13, 2018 | 1:14 PM
by Times News Service
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo

The beautiful game’s greatest showpiece has returned after a long four-year wait. On June 14 at 7pm Muscat time, up to a billion football fans around the world will look towards Moscow as the World Cup kicks off at the Lushniki Stadium. For over a month, the 32 greatest national teams, an entire constellation of football stars, will battle across the largest country on earth and on the pitches of Europe’s largest stadiums for the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

At a cost of around 683 billion rubles ($11 billion), Russia is looking its best for the world and no wonder: A new report is predicting the economic impact of the tournament will bring in between 1.62 trillion rubles ($26 billion) and 1.92 trillion rubles ($30.8 billion) over the 10 years from 2013 through to 2023.

Beyond that, within its sprawling territory and 11 time zones, 12 of Russia’s venues and 11 host cities will have a chance to charm the millions watching, on the ground and on TV, offering a glimpse of a Russia many will not have seen or heard of.

A diverse range of venues

Moscow, Europe’s largest city and the capital of Russia, needs little introduction. Nor does its legendary Kremlin, Bolshoi Theatre, and Red Square. This romantic city, the scene of so much history and the setting of so many novels, is home to 13 million people and two of the World Cup’s stadiums.

The first, Luzhniki Stadium, will host the opening game and the final, plus five other games. It was built in 1956 as Lenin Central Stadium and once hosted events as prestigious as the 1980 Olympics and the 2008 Champions League final. Its 80,000 capacity is the largest of any venue this year, and more than double that of Moscow’s second World Cup stadium, Otkritie.

This year, Moscow, so often the epicentre of everything that happens in Russia, will share the limelight with a host of other cities, each representing a unique aspect of the Dancing Bear’s culture and history.

Picture of the interior of the Kazan Arena Stadium

There’s St Petersburg, the stunning former capital of Tsarist Russia, built by Peter the Great as a worthy rival to any capital in its day. It retains its charm and architectural beauty, standing out as Russia’s most glamorous cultural destination. Its brand new, $1 billion Saint Petersburg Arena will feature a different kind of culture. Opened last year for the Confederations Cup, the arena will host four group-round games, one match in the round of 16, one semi-final and the game for third place.

Many might know Volgograd by its former name, Stalingrad, where it famously withstood the bloodiest battle in human history during the World War II. Another type of history is set to be written this summer, with the Volgograd Arena scheduled to host four group games.

Sochi, once the heralded host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the most expensive in the event’s history, will rise to fame once again as the setting of four group-round games, one match in the round of 16 and one quarterfinal. The many footballers and fans will be forgiven for stopping to take in its magnificent Black Sea setting and mountains in between matches at the Olympic-era Fisht Stadium.

Travellers from the Middle East will feel right at home in Kazan, one of Russia’s most diverse cities. With a population that is 51 per cent Muslim and 49 per cent Russian Orthodox, Kazan’s multiculturalism and massive oil reserves have made it one of the country’s richest and most visited destinations. This world-class city is home to the Tatars, one of Russia’s many ethnic minorities, and includes numerous ornate buildings that speak to this mixed and storied legacy. It will be a worthy host of four group-round games, one match in the round of 16 and one quarterfinal at the newly-built Kazan Arena.

World Cup fans looking for a little space history will not be disappointed. Samara has got them covered. One of the largest industrial cities of Russia, today, it is a major hub for the nation’s aerospace industry, complete with a 22-tonne memorial to the Soyuz rocket that took Yuri Gagarin to outer space in 1961. They can explore the cosmos at the massive Aviation and Space Museum, before heading to the equally fascinating hidden bunker of Joseph Stalin.

There is something for everyone this year, with other host cities comprising the small but enchanting Saransk, historic Nizhy Novgorod, the exclave Kaliningrad, the home of the Cossaks, Rostov, and imperial Yekaterinburg.

Leading the pack

This year, five teams are the favourites to take home the World Cup. Once again, Lionel Messi’s Argentina looks like a shoo-in for the title after losing to Germany four years ago. The team boasts exceptional attacking talent such as Gonzalo Higauin, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero, and the little-known but dangerous Christian Pavon. This could be Messi’s last chance to win the World Cup. He’s 30 now and could be nearing the end of his career by 2022. It remains the only major tournament the Barcelona star has failed to win, a fact that many believe prevents him from being considered a true football legend.

“Look at Diego Maradona, everyone remembers what he did in 1986, nobody remembers so much what he did with Napoli, with Barcelona,” Michel Platini told Reuters in 2012. “Messi will always be great with or without the World Cup, Johan Cruyff will always be great with or without the World Cup, but the World Cup does something special.”

Also in contention is Belgium, whose team features a wealth of talent that is the envy of every team this year. Names like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Merteens, and Yannick Corrasco are more than enough to make them runaway favourites this year, despite having never won a World Cup before.

At the top of most experts’ lists are holders Germany, who, despite recent performances, are expected to put in a strong defence of their title. No one would be surprised if they won it again.

France, while not quite as favoured as Germany, certainly has the squad to challenge for football’s most prestigious trophy. A quick run-through of their squad shows why: Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, Corentin Tolisso, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, and Ousmane Dembele. In terms of potential line-ups, it doesn’t get more exciting than France, who boasts an extraordinary team. But questions remain as to whether or not Didier Deschamps will get the tactical balance right this time, after a disappointing Euro 2016 Final against Portugal.

Rounding off the favourites is the Neymar-led Selecao of Brazil, who will be looking to extend their World Cup record to six titles this summer. New coach Tite has performed wonders with a team left in tatters following their infamous exit from the 2014 World Cup. Brazil has won 20 of its last 21 matches and once again looks to be headed for a semi-final appearance.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah

Besides the favourites, a number of wildcards will be led by some of the world’s leading footballers.

Poland will be captained by Robert Lewandowski, the Bundesliga’s top scorer and one of the most feared strikers in the world. Meanwhile, 100 million Egyptians will be cheering on Mo Salah and the Pharoahs whether or not the talismanic player takes the field.

Sadio Mane will be aiming to carry his exceptional club form with him to Russia, where he will be Senegal’s most dangerous player this year. Keisuke Honda of Japan will take the field for the Blue Samurai as well, with the aim of adding to his already impressive collection of World Cup goals.

Hometown heroes

For a country as football crazy as Russia, the 2018 World Cup has been well worth the wait. While its fans and teams usually make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, there is no doubt that a large contingent of football lovers in the dancing bear is peaceful and passionate. It is those fans that Russia’s football team will be looking to during their campaign.

No one will be more eager than 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin.

The Russian team has been built around the CSKA Moscow midfielder, whose playmaking skills will be key. Born in Siberia, he has long been recognised as a prodigy, the type of player that comes along once in a generation. At the age of 16 he won the under-17 European Cup with Russia two years before making his senior debut for CSKA and helping them win the league that year.

Argentina's Lionel Messi

A prodigy must be what the former Russia Head Coach, Leonid Slutsky, saw at the time, because he later selected Golovin as a starter for their Euro 2016 campaign. Despite concluding the tournament as a sub in Russia’s disastrous 3-0 defeat to Wales, he’d shown enough to secure his next spot in the world of football.

Slutsky would move on to CSKA Moscow, where he would introduce the youngster into the starting line-up. Today, having secured his place in club and country, no one can imagine either team without him. Capable of operating anywhere in the midfield, the young playmaker will be hoping to translate his youth-level and Russian league successes to the biggest stage in the world.

Across Moscow’s football divide, CSKA’s rivals have two other footballers looking to seize this year’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Twins Anton and Aleksey Miranchuk both came through Locomotiv Moscow’s youth teams, with Aleksey making his debut in 2013 at just 17 years of age. His brother would languish in the reserve squad for four years, both enduring difficult campaigns in football’s abyss.

All that would change when Anton was finally promoted to the senior team last year. Their stunning midfield partnership would instantly fall into place, leading Locomotiv Moscow all the way to this year’s title.

The two have earned a reputation as consummate professionals, like Golovin, the vanguard of a new generation of highly motivated Russian footballers. Their countrymen will be counting on them to make this year’s World Cup something special, to use all their trickery, guile and athleticism to create memories that will last a lifetime.

Heroes and villains are born in every World Cup. Only time will tell which ones emerge in 2018. All that is certain and foremost in the minds of every football fan, is this celebration of all things football, a coming together of all that makes the beautiful game what it is.

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