The 2018 FIFA World Cup gets under way on Thursday, when hosts Russia face Saudi Arabia following an opening ceremony at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Football’s showpiece event features 32 teams, including holders Germany, competing in 64 games over 32 days.
The 21st edition will be played in 12 stadiums, across 11 cities, spread over 1,800 miles.
England, winners in 1966, are the only team from the home nations to qualify and start against Tunisia on 18 June.
Germany, who beat Argentina in the 2014 final, are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since 1962, while Brazil seek a record-extending sixth world title.
The month-long tournament is expected to attract one and a half million fans to Russia and an estimated global television audience of over three billion viewers.
There are eight groups, each containing four teams, with the top two advancing to the last 16. The final takes place at the 81,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, 15 July (16:00 BST).
Who will win the World Cup?
Germany, Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, 2014 runners-up Argentina, Belgium, Poland and 1998 winners France are among the eight seeded teams.
Hosts Russia are also seeded, though they are the tournament’s lowest-placed team – 70th – in Fifa’s world rankings.
England, who have won only one of their past eight World Cup matches, are unseeded, as are 2010 champions Spain.
Germany have reached at least the semi-finals in each of the past four editions of the competition and, as the only team to progress through European qualifying with a 100% record, are expected to be in the shake-up again. They are in Group F with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
“Germany will be hunted like never before,” said head coach Joachim Low. “Only us, as world champions, have anything to lose.”
Brazil are the only nation to have appeared at every single World Cup, but they have not won the tournament since 2002, and not since 1958 in Europe.
Yet the Brazilians will fancy their chances, particularly as Neymar, who cost a world record £200m when he moved from Barcelona to Paris St-Germain in August 2017, has returned after a broken foot.
Spain feature several Champions League winners from Real Madrid in their squad as they look to recapture the magic that saw them crowned world champions eight years ago and European champions in 2008 and 2012.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping for a first World Cup winners’ medal after helping Portugal win Euro 2016, while Lionel Messi is hoping to win a first major trophy with Argentina.
France boast a young, exciting squad which includes 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe as well as a number of familiar Premier League names including Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba and Chelsea forward Olivier Giroud.
Who are the new boys?
Panama and Iceland will be competing at their first World Cup, which is held every four years.
With a population of approximately 335,000, Iceland are the smallest nation ever to qualify.
They will hope to repeat their exploits of two years ago, when they lit up Euro 2016 by reaching the quarter-finals in their first appearance at a major tournament, humiliating England en route.
Iceland’s first game in Russia is against Argentina on 16 June.
A national holiday was declared in Panama after they qualified for the World Cup for the first time.
The Central American country, 55th in Fifa’s world rankings, boast an experienced coach in Hernan Dario Gomez, who was in charge of his native Colombia at the 1998 World Cup and Ecuador at the 2002 edition.
There are several teams back on the world stage after lengthy absences.
Peru return to the finals for the first time since 1982, while north African nations Egypt and Morocco are back for the first time in 28 and 20 years respectively.
Four-time winners Italy, South American champions Chile and their African counterparts Cameroon all failed to qualify.
The Netherlands, runners-up in 2010, also missed out while the United States are absent for the first time since 1986.
Referees to get VAR help
Video assistant referees (VAR) will be making their debut at the World Cup.
The technology will be used to help officials avoid making potentially match-deciding mistakes when it comes to important issues such as awarding goals, penalties or red cards.
VAR has been trialled in some domestic English cup games this season, and has been used in Germany and Italy.
“We wanted to give the referees tools so they can make better decisions, and in the World Cup some very important decisions are made,” said Fifa president Gianni Infantino.
“It’s not possible that in 2018 everyone in their living room knows a few seconds after the play whether a referee has made a mistake and the referee doesn’t.”
VAR was first used at the Club World Cup in December 2016, and trialled in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Fan safety and security
Russia is hoping to put on a tournament to remember after beating England- as well as joint bids by Spain and Portugal, and the Netherlands and Belgium – to stage the tournament for the first time.
While about 10,000 England fans are expected to travel to Russia, a number are likely to stay away because of political tensions between the two countries and safety issues.
There were violent clashes when Russian fans charged England supporters in the stadium when the two countries played each other in Marseille at Euro 2016. Trouble was also reported in the city’s streets between England, Russia and France fans.
“One thing supporters need to do when they go is be a good guest, behave themselves,” said Mark Roberts, Britain’s lead officer for football policing.
Deputy Chief Constable Roberts warned acts of disorder will carry “severe” sentences in Russia although Alexei Smertin, the anti-discrimination chief of Russia 2018, played down concerns and said the atmosphere around World Cup venues will be friendly.
“It definitely won’t be stressful and we let everyone feel comfortable and safe in our country,” said the former Chelsea midfielder, capped 55 times by Russia.
Source: PM News