Soccer’s World Cup – the event secretly organized by a cabal of widescreen TV manufacturers and brewers to sell more products – is back, even though it seems like only yesterday that we were laughing at Brazil after its 7-1 capitulation to Germany in July 2014.This year’s tournament runs from June 14 through July 15, with 32 countries hoping to claim the trophy currently held by Germany. There will be 64 games, spread over 25 days, with host Russia hoping to prove all the doubters wrong and avoid an early exit (good luck with that, comrades).
Here are the 11 things you need to know about this year’s tournament:
1 The matches are being played in 11 cities – from the exclave of Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east (a mere 2,900 kilometers, or 1,800 miles, apart). There are two stadiums in Moscow, but clearly the most interesting site is the Kazan Arena: This was previously used for the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, when the soccer field was replaced by two swimming pools. Given that Kazan gets an average of 13 days’ rain in June and nearly twice as much precipitation as Seattle for the time of year, we might even see a recreation of that when France faces Australia on June 16.
2 Only two teams have ever successfully defended the trophy (Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962). Indeed, based on the fortunes of recent World Cup winners, Germany is more likely to get knocked out at the group stage than win the actual cup. But if you believe that is going to happen, you clearly haven’t seen “Die Mannschaft” in action.
Because the Germans have a word for every weird sensation, I for one hope their team is a complete kuddelmuddel (mess) and their fans are forced to partake in kummerspeck (literally, grief bacon, or eating lots to feel better about something) after an early exit. #Schadenfreude.
3 Two countries are making their tournament debuts – Iceland and Panama – and both are true minnows, having the smallest-ever populations of any qualifying nation. Panama also has the oldest set of players in the tournament and a head coach whose nickname is “El Bollillo” (“The Truncheon”). It also has a canal. Sorry, I’ve exhausted all of my Panama facts.
Iceland’s fans will leave their mark on the tournament with their distinctive “Viking clap,” which is actually ripped off from the 2006 Gerard Butler film “300.” Expect every other set of fans in Russia to steal it, too, and for it to inspire President Vladimir Putin to go topless – and invade Ukraine.
4 The entire nation of Egypt is sweating on star forward Mohamed Salah recovering from the injury he sustained in last month’s Champions League final and being able to play in the group games against Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Salah reportedly received a million votes in the last Egyptian presidential election – despite not actually being a candidate – which made him the unofficial runner-up, behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. If Salah scores and Egypt advances to the next stage, Sissi should start seeking life-after-presidency tips from Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi.
5 If results in groups A and B go in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s favor, the two Middle Eastern rivals could actually face off in the round of 16 – making it the most politically loaded match since Team Melli beat the United States in 1998. The Americans may be extracting belated revenge for that defeat, though: Due to the recently reimposed U.S. sanctions, Nike has refused to give new boots to any Iranian players, causing Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz to cry foul. Check to see how tatty the Iranians’ boots are when they kick off against Morocco on Friday.
Saudi Arabia, incidentally, is the only country in the top 10 of military spenders (compared to GDP) to qualify for this World Cup – perhaps proving that spending more on defenders is a better investment than on defense for those interested in improving their soft power through sports.
6 Anyone listening to Israeli radio in recent weeks has been unable to avoid advertisements wishing one and all “Mondial sameach!” (“Happy World Cup!”) – but especially to those upgrading their televisions.
Israelis will certainly be hoping it’s not a repeat of the World Cups of 2006 and 2014, when wars broke out with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, respectively.
If the shooting is confined to the soccer fields of Russia, Israelis will be able to watch the games at decent times, as most evening games kick off at 6 and 9 P.M. Israel time. (Some games are being shown on free-to-view Channel 1, while subscription-only Sport 1 is showing them all). Many American soccer fans may be secretly relieved their team messed up so royally in the qualifiers, given that the start time for weekday group games on the West Coast is 5 A.M.
7 Sure, no one gets extra points for having a cool jersey design, but you do secure bragging rights. The online buzz suggests this year’s best jersey final will be contested by Nigeria and Peru, with Colombia’s “superhero” outfit a close third. GQ wrote that Nigeria’s eye-catching Nike jersey “looks less like a traditional soccer kit than a hyped-up sneaker.” Three million of the lime-green-and-white jerseys have been sold and it’s now reselling at three times the original price.
For traditionalists, though, the prize must surely go to the red sash jersey of Peru – returning to the World Cup after a 36-year absence – which could only be bettered if it had an image of Paddington Bear on it somewhere.
8 If you only watch soccer once every four years, you’re in for a special “treat” this year as the World Cup debuts the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. A lot of pundits are predicting a complete “varce,” as a host of referees who are new to the system try to learn on the job. In theory, it’s meant to highlight “clear and obvious errors” involving goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identities. In reality, it is as likely to trigger as many controversies as it resolves. Some 35 cameras will be inside all of the grounds, with four video officials watching at an operations center in Moscow to deliver their verdict. What could possibly go wrong? Just wait and see – which is exactly what we’ll all be doing as we hang around for the VAR decisions.
9 One of the traditional highlights of the World Cup is the carnival of traveling fans who roll into town in support of their team. Holland didn’t qualify this year, so its orange-clad hordes will be much missed. Likewise the drunken “Green Army” of Ireland. Still, at least that Colombian guy who always dresses like a giant Andean condor (if Andean condors had yellow, blue and red plumage, anyway) will be present.
A lot of traveling supporters are staying away, though, citing costs, logistics, Russian hooliganism and Moscow’s poor human-rights record. But mainly costs. Soccer’s world governing body FIFA (just think SPECTRE absent the furry white cat) will also be praying there’s no racist chanting in the stadia – in a country where abuse of black players has been a major problem for a very, very long time. The other thing to watch out for is how camera operators depict Brazil’s fans in this #MeToo era: Will they now be forced to show us fat ugly men from Rio as well as the samba-dancing young women they normally zoom in on for crowd cutaways?
10 Every tournament always creates at least one star: A player who will be showered with praise in June, signed by Real Madrid in July, and then spend the entire next season warming its bench. Four years ago, it was James Rodriguez (Colombia). In Russia, it could be someone like Serbia’s brilliant midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Senegal forward Sadio Mané, Mexico’s speedy winger Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech or “the Iranian Messi,” aka forward Sardar Azmoun.
By the way, why is it that every country has its own Lionel Messi but none seem to have their own version of Cristiano Ronaldo? Mind you, even statues of Ronaldo look nothing like Ronaldo.
11 Much like a date arranged on Tinder, romance goes out of the window when it comes to World Cup winners. Just three countries (Brazil, Germany and Italy) account for nearly two-thirds of all wins, although with Italy a notable absentee this year, Spain, France and Argentina will fancy their chances slightly more.
As for dark horses, England has an eager, if inexperienced, side (ironically, the team’s oldest player is Ashley Young); Belgium has two of the world’s best players in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard; and current European champion Portugal has Ronaldo.
It would be wonderful for the game if a team or two from Africa or Asia have strong tournaments, but it’s hard to bet against any of the usual suspects. Let’s just hope this is a tournament where, for once, fear isn’t the overriding factor and that strong offense triumphs over a defensive mind-set.