World Cup 2018: Golden oldies, rising stars, Russian readiness and thunderclaps

The wait is almost over. As Russia welcomes the World Cup, a look at the major talking points ahead of the tournament.

Published : Jun 12, 2018 16:43 IST , Moscow

Neymar with team-mates during Brazil's training session in Russia.
Neymar with team-mates during Brazil's training session in Russia.

Neymar with team-mates during Brazil's training session in Russia.

It has now been 2,479 days since Michel Platini declared his optimism for "the finest of World Cups" as Russia were awarded hosting rights for the 2018 finals. In just two more, the tournament will, at long last, be underway.

Much has changed since the 2010 vote – Platini is now very much an ex-UEFA president, while Podolsk and Yaroslavl can no longer be seen on the list of Russia's host cities – but the excitement for the start of the world's grandest football event has scarcely ebbed away.

Read: Russia 2018: Impossible to play Nostradamus games!

Everyone rather hopes football will do the talking, too. With Germany defending their crown, Lionel Messi and Argentina out for revenge and Iceland taking their thunderclap to the global stage for the first time, there is plenty of intrigue around each of the 64 matches to come.

Subplots abound, of course. Security, racism and VAR have rarely been far from the headlines, while a number of players head to the world's largest country desperate to make an impact, both for the sake of their national team and their chances of a transfer when they get home.

So, with a little over 48 hours to go until Russia kick off against Saudi Arabia, there is quite a lot to talk about. Like a well-tuned attacking team of the kind we all hope to see over the next month, we've done our best to break things down...


Brazil felt the sting of falling flat on home soil four years ago, but not even the most die-hard Russia fans (or even government officials) would consider its team to be genuine candidates for the trophy.

The Brazilians can, having breezed their way through the notoriously tough South American qualifying section. Holders Germany have already tasted success on Russian soil with last year's Confederations Cup, Spain are sparkling once again, Belgium's 'golden generation' are hitting their prime and France want to go one better than their runners-up spot at Euro 2016. A winner outside of these five would be a surprise.


There are big guns likely to misfire, too. Argentina, beaten finalists four years ago, only qualified thanks to the stubborn genius of Lionel Messi against Ecuador and look a long way off the main challengers. Likewise, European champions Portugal would be considered also-rans were it not for Cristiano Ronaldo, a man fresh from a fifth Champions League title and a need to gloss over questions about his club future.

That kind of scrutiny could bring the best out of others. Paul Pogba needs an impressive tournament, not least because Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho will be watching on beady-eyed as a Russia Today pundit. But it's Neymar who seems to be prime candidate to be named the tournament's best player: back from a broken foot and with another world-record transfer perhaps in the offing, winning the World Cup and Golden Ball might just pave the way to a first Ballon d'Or.


North Korea, United States, Senegal... no self-respecting World Cup would be complete without a few shocks. So, where will they come from in Russia?

Uruguay, led by Oscar Tabarez, the most experienced World Cup coach at these finals, certainly should not be underestimated. They lack the lustre of some of their South American neighbours but should have little trouble in a group featuring the hosts, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They have Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front, for heaven's sake.

That said, do not discount Egypt. They made light work of Africa's qualifying section, they have a whole country revelling in their first World Cup in 28 years, and they have Mohamed Salah targeting a reunion with Sergio Ramos in the last 16.

Denmark and Christian Eriksen could also cause a stir; Iran have become infuriatingly hard to beat and boast the Eredivise's leading scorer, Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Sweden, meanwhile, have not lost a group game since Italia '90, and got to these finals at the Azzurri's expense.

And who could forget Iceland, Euro 2016 quarter-finalists and World Cup debutants? After watching the infamous thunderclap, nobody, that's who.


Famous faces flock to World Cups both on and off the pitch, but there is always a chance for lesser lights to make a name for themselves.

England's Marcus Rashford, Spain's Marco Asensio and Kylian Mbappe of France need little introduction. None of these nations will likely go far without their young forwards having something to do with it. The same can be said of Uruguay and Lucas Torreira, while Cristian Pavon is one to watch out for if Argentina need a little attacking inspiration.

There are also less illustrious rivals for the Best Young Player award, claimed by Paul Pogba four years ago. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a debutant for England on June 7, is a candidate. Ditto Achraf Hakimi, the Real Madrid youngster vying to become Morocco's star name. Ismaila Sarr of Senegal has already attracted admiring glances with his Rennes form, as has Pione Sisto, the Denmark winger flying high at Celta Vigo, and Australia's Daniel Arzani.

Could the prize go to a goalkeeper? If it does, it might well be Francis Uzoho, the 19-year-old Deportivo La Coruna man who has earned Nigeria's number one spot, a position held for more than a decade by the great Vincent Enyeama.


A World Cup can be a famous farewell for some international stars – nobody will forget Zinedine Zidane's in 2006 – and Russia could be the last hurrah for some of the game's greatest ever.

Spain's Andres Iniesta, scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 final, will quit La Roja duty after these finals. Defender Gerard Pique will most likely follow suit. Sergio Ramos could, too.

Beyond that, Lionel Messi (30), Cristiano Ronaldo (33), Luis Suarez (31), Luka Modric (32), Mesut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski (29) could all be playing in their last World Cups. How these four weeks must be cherished, for their sakes.

In fact, Russia 2018 is something of a golden oldies' festival. We will see Sergei Ignashevich, out of international retirement at 38; Rafa Marquez, 39, in his fifth finals; Australia's 38-year-old Tim Cahill at his fourth. Willy Caballero, Argentina debutant at 36 in March, could find himself first-choice keeper given the injury to Sergio Romero.

We could even have a record. Egypt's Essam El-Hadary is out to surpass Faryd Mondragon, who, at 43, became the World Cup's oldest competitor four years ago. El-Hadary is 45 – the World Cup trophy, the replacement for the original Jules Rimet prize, is a year younger.


Nobody is predicting Russia to do much from a footballing perspective. Stanislav Cherchesov's side head into Thursday's opener as the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, after all.

As far as hosting duties go, there have been concerns ever since they won the vote back in December 2010. Diplomatic disputes and fears of trouble have exacerbated these – and that is before you consider the logistical problems of staging a tournament in a country spanning more than 17 million square kilometres.

There are still some worries around the level of policing. The Russian force's inter-regional trade union thinks resources have been stretched to breaking point, while one security barrier in Ekaterinburg led local residents to proclaim "We now live in a zoo behind a fence".

Racism and homophobia worries won't go away, either. England's Danny Rose has already told his family not to come. Members of the LGBT+ community have been warned to prepare for harassment. Host city Niznhy Novgorod boasts a proud campaign group, but, according to European anti-racism body FARE, it will not make its address public for fear of unwanted attention.

FIFA has enough to worry about on the pitch. VAR will make its World Cup debut this month, a year on from a less-than-wholly-successful trial at the Confederations Cup. One can only hope it does not dominate the agenda again.

And yet, as shown during last year's Confederations Cup, Russia is ready. Whether in westerly Kaliningrad or traversing the grandiose marble Moscow metro stations, visitors should expect warm welcomes, a strengthened transport infrastructure and a significant security presence.

The best advice of all? Try khachapuri, the Georgian cheesy bread. It goes well with vodka.

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