The greatest sporting event in the world is back. Four years after Brazilian tears and German joy in South America, the FIFA World Cup returns this summer in Russia. Here is your ultimate guide to the 2018 World Cup.
Billions of fans, 736 Players, 64 matches, 32 days, 32 countries, One trophy. Welcome to Russia.
208 FIFA nations entered qualification, while hosts Russia qualified automatically. Each country competed within a confederation, for one of the places allocated.
Unchanged from 2014, UEFA has 13 spots, CONCACAF three, CAF five, AFC four and CONMEBOL four. In addition to these automatic spots, two further countries from AFC, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and OFC will qualify through an intercontinental play-off.
The successful nations are as follows, organised by group. Click on each country to see an in depth preview of their squad, players, manager and chances this summer.
Of the 32 successful nations, 20 will be making successive appearances at a finals. After Bosnia and Herzegovina were the only team to make their tournament debut in 2014, both Panama and Iceland will make their World Cup bow this summer.
From South America (CONMEBOL), Brazil continue to be the only country to appear at every edition of the World Cup and are joined by Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Peru, with the Peruvians having clinched their first qualification for 26 years with an aggregate victory over New Zealand. The All Whites failure at the play-off stage means for the second successive tournament there will be no country from OFC at the World Cup.
In Europe; Belgium, England, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Serbia, Poland and Iceland each won their group to seal automatic qualification. Eight of the nine second placed teams then entered a play-off system against each other, with four progressing. Over two legs, Switzerland, Croatia, Denmark and Sweden were victorious, over Northern Ireland, Greece, the Republic of Ireland and Italy respectively. Those four joined the nine group winners and hosts Russia as the 14 UEFA nations at the World Cup this year.
There are five nations representing AFC (Asia) this summer. Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea secured automatic berths through the AFC qualifying system, while Australia (who have played as part of AFC since 2006) had to overcome Syria and then Honduras – both over two legs – to reach Russia.
In Africa, several shocks took place throughout qualifying. Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia were the five successful countries, but only Nigeria are appearing at consecutive tournaments. Previously successful Ghana, Ivory Coast and Algeria all fell unexpectedly, while AFCON champions Cameroon also missed out.
Finally, North and Central America (CONCACAF) occupy the final three positions. It continued the theme of shocks in this qualifying period, with Panama stealing the third and final qualification spot on the final day, joining Costa Rica and Mexico. Honduras had to settle for fourth place and an intercontinental play-off with Australia (which they went on to lose), while the USA were eliminated entirely.
Each of the 32 countries in Russia this summer will have 23-man squads, meaning 736 players will travel in total.
The only rule imposed on squads is that each nation must have at least three recognised goalkeepers. This remains a FIFA regulation, despite only four countries in history playing all three keepers in the same tournament.
That rule was first put in place for the 1934 World Cup, and has contributed largely to the fact that no team has ever used all 23 players at a single World Cup.
Never far from the headlines, and as the lowest ranked side at the World Cup, there will be a lot of scrutiny on Russia as the host nation this summer.
Amid accusations of racism and homophobia in fans, chemical attacks in Britain, widespread doping in sports and even alleged bribes relating to the process in which they won the right to host this World Cup, the whole of Russia will be hoping their team can eclipse these thoughts with their displays on the pitch.
Russia won the right to host this tournament back in December 2010, where they famously beat England and joint bids from Belgium/Netherlands and Portugal/Spain in two rounds of voting.
As typical with host nations, they did not have to qualify, and were assigned to position one within Group A. Fans will have been encouraged by the rest of the teams drawn into group A, with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia by far making up the easiest group on paper.
Historically, host nations have performed admirably at their own World Cups. Of the 21 host nations so far, six went on to win it, with another two making the final. Five more reached the semi-finals, four the quarter-finals and three the second round/round of 16. Only South Africa in 2010 failed to make it out of their group or past the first round, and Russian fans will be at their hostile best to help ensure their side doesn’t join them in that club.
12 stadiums in 11 different cities will house games in June and July. All of these are located within European Russia, to reduce travel time between venues.
Below is the complete list of Stadiums, listed with the city and renovated World Cup capacity:
- Ekaterinburg Arena, Ekaterinburg – 35,000
- Fisht Stadium, Sochi – 45,000
- Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad – 35,000
- Kazan Arena, Kazan – 45,000
- Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow – 81,000
- Mordovia Arena, Saransk – 44,000
- Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod – 45,000
- Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don – 45,000
- Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg – 67,000
- Samara Arena, Samara – 45,000
- Spartak Stadium, Moscow – 45,000
- Volgograd Arena, Volgograd – 45,000
The Luzhniki Stadium and Saint Petersburg stadium will each host seven games, including the final and third place play-off respectively. The opening ceremony and fixture will also take place at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Once again produced by Adidas, the ball that will be used this summer is the Telstar 18. An amalgamation of the words “Television” and “Star”, it pays tribute to the original Telstar, Adidas’ first World Cup ball from 1970.
That original was designed for the future. It was the first ball to be made in a black and white pattern, specifically to be visible to worldwide crowds watching on predominantly black and white televisions. The original Telstar was named after the Telstar satellite, which was used to broadcast the World Cup that summer.
Adidas continued to produce World Cup balls for each world cup since, each evolving with aesthetic trends of the eras as well as advances in material technology and aerodynamic efficiency.
However, as Adidas claim to move closer to the perfect football, balls of recent World Cups have garnered more negative headlines than positive.
2002’s Fevernova – perhaps the best looking of all – was condemned by several of the world’s top Goalkeepers for being too light. Perhaps if it was a bit heavier, David Seaman would have been able to claw away Ronaldinho’s freekick…
2010’s Jabulani was even less popular. The eight-panel design was meant to improve its flight through the air, but the result was a ball so unpredictable it was hated almost as much as the tuneful Vuvuzelas that plagued our screens and stadiums for months.
Adidas designers will be hoping for few headlines with the Telstar 18, following on from 2014’s largely successful Brazuca.
Made from six panels seamlessly glued together, the Telstar 18 contains an in-built NFC chip, which can connect to smart phones to transfer personalised data unique to each ball.
Adidas have released different variations of the Telstar 18 available to buy today. As usual, there is a full price Match Ball (£129.95), a cheaper Replica (£29.95) and a Mini Ball (£12.95) amongst others. A notable addition for 2018 is the “Jumbo” ball. With an 80cm diameter, the scaled-up Telstar 18 will set fans back £249.95.
The official song of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is Live It Up, by Nicky Jam featuring Will Smith and Era Istrefi. Produced by Diplo, The Picard Brothers and Free School, the message of the song is “you’ve got one life, live it up”.
As nice a message as it is, unfortunately the song is pretty bad. With classics like World in Motion, Three Lions 98, Carnaval de Paris and Waka Waka lining World Cup history, it looks unlikely Live It Up will stand the test of time and be remembered as one of the better World Cup songs.
Some of the biggest countries to miss out on qualification include Chile, the Netherlands, Italy and the USA.
Chile, USA and the Netherlands all missed out on qualification directly, while Italy fell in the play-offs to Sweden and will miss their first World Cup since 1958 as a result.
Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all feature in the top 35 in the current FIFA rankings, but none joined England as home representatives in Russia.
New Zealand’s play-off loss means that OFC has no representative at the World Cup for the second successive tournament.
Like with the countries, several of the world’s top players will not get the chance to showcase their talent at the World Cup.
Whether it be through injury, their country missing out on qualification, or simply failing to make their nations squad, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Karim Benzema, Leonardo Bonucci, Gianluigi Buffon, Edin Dzeko and Jan Oblak will all watch the World Cup from home, despite being on the Ballon d’Or shortlist for 2017.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale will not get the chance to recreate his incredible Champions League Final goal at the World Cup, having missed out on qualification with Wales.
Below is a further selection of players who will miss the World Cup:
- Laurent Koscielny
- Dmitri Payet
- Sergio Romero
- Manuel Lanzini
- Fernando Gago
- Dani Alves
- Lars Stindl
- Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
- Joe Gomez
Did not Qualify:
- David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic (Austria)
- Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast)
- Georgio Chiellini (Italy)
- Virgil Van Dijk and Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
- Antonio Valencia (Ecuador)
- Andrew Robertson (Scotland)
- Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)
- Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
- Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia)
- Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
- Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
- Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
- Victor Wanyama (Kenya)
- Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere (England)
- Marcos Alonso, Hector Bellerin, Aymeric Laporte, Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and Alvaro Morata (Spain)
- Lucas Digne, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial (France)
- Andre Gomes and Ruben Neves (Portugal)
- David Luiz, Fabinho, Fred and Alex Sandro (Brazil)
- Mauro Icardi (Argentina)
- Shkodran Mustafi, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze, Sandro Wagner and Leroy Sane (Germany)
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
- Radja Naingolan and Christian Benteke (Belgium)
These of course are just a selection of the countless players to miss out. Please excuse any big names not listed.
Despite the fact that only one non-European country has ever won the World Cup when it has been staged in Europe, Brazil are currently favourites at most bookmakers.
Most bookies have the South American side at 4-1, just ahead of Germany at 9-2. Moving down the list we see Spain, France, Argentina and Belgium, before we arrive at England. Odds of around 16-1 make England the seventh favourites for glory this summer, suggesting there is a quiet belief through the land that we may go all the way.
Down at the other end, punters who love a long shot will like the look of Saudi Arabia and Panama, who both have odds as long as 5000-1 to triumph in Russia.
36 referees and 63 assistant referees were selected for the World Cup by the FIFA referees committee in March.
Notably, 2018 will mark the first World Cup without an English referee. Furthermore, not a single assistant or video assistant referee will come from any of the home nations this summer, let alone England.
The list of officials was trimmed on 30th May, when Saudi referee Fahad Al-Mirdasi was found guilty of match fixing and banned for life as a result. Al-Mirdasi and both of his assistants were subsequently removed from FIFA’s list, with football’s governing body electing to replace the two assistants, but remain with only 35 referees.
The remaining list of officials is diverse, with five referees from AFC, six each from CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and CAF, two from OFC and the remaining ten from UEFA. Dutchman Bjorn Kuipers and Turk Cuneyt Cakir are amongst the most recognisable.
The Big matches
By design, the draw of the group stage protects the world’s best nations from facing each other early in the tournament, with the focus on a high-quality knock-out stage.
That said, there are still a number of mouth-watering Group Stage clashes the draw failed to prevent.
Brazil v Switzerland: By current ranking, Brazil and Switzerland’s opening Group E encounter pits two of the top six sides in the world against each other. Few expect anything other than a Brazilian victory, but you don’t get to sixth in the world without carrying a threat of your own, as Brazil will surely be aware.
Portugal v Spain: In Group B, Mediterranean rivals Spain and Portugal face off on 15th June. This is the standout fixture of the group stage, and will go a long way to deciding the final order of the group. Expect fireworks.
Argentina v Croatia: The second round of fixtures in Group F sees Messi and co. take on the perennially underrated Croatia. Having beaten Spain before an extra-time exit to eventual champions Portugal at Euro 2016, Croatia are many people’s dark horses for glory in Russia. On 21st June, they face the task of stopping the unpredictable might of Argentina, who need no introduction.
England v Belgium: Like in Group B, this is expected to be a final round clash to decide the group winners. If both aren’t already through, this has the makings of an absolute classic.
Russia v Saudi Arabia: Though not the biggest of teams, hosts Russia open the tournament against lowly Saudi Arabia. If any quality lacks on the pitch, expect it to be made up in pride visible in the stands.
The Dark Horses
Everyone loves a dark horse. Stealing in from nowhere to win the title, Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004 and Portugal in 2016 all claimed European glory when they were barely fancied for it. That said, the World Cup has never really been won by a true underdog.
The definition of dark horse is “a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds”. Who fits this bill in Russia?
As mentioned above, Croatia are mentioned a lot when the subject of dark horses is brought up. But if everyone quietly fancies them are they really unknown? Arguably, Group H’s Poland and Colombia all fit the bill more, with fans unfamiliar with most outside the spine of the teams.
Despite being ranked sixth in the world, no one fancies Switzerland at all. Peru and Denmark vie with France and Australia for progression from Group C, with both currently ranked inside the top 12 in the world.
If you prefer longer odds on your darkest of horses, look no further than Costa Rica and Tunisia. Costa Rica have been inconsistent in friendlies leading up to now (including a loss to Tunisia in March), but have many of the squad from 2014, when they won England, Uruguay and Italy’s Group of Death and were unlucky to exit in the quarter-finals on penalties. The belief will remain in the players that they can cause another upset, and odds as large as 750-1 suggest they are unfancied once again.
Tunisia have similarly long odds, though SkyBet currently have them at a gargantuan 2000-1. Though Group G appears to be a formality; with Belgium and England expected to progress, Tunisia are actually ranked 21st in the world right now, and were as high as 14th in May. The squad is not littered with big names, but as a unit they know how to get results. Of course it is unlikely; and the England fan in me wants them to take a heavy defeat in their opener, but for a team ranked 14th in the world just a month ago, 2000-1 seems absurdly large.
The Group of Death
The Group of Death describes what is believed to be the most difficult Group to escape from.
The rules of the draw were changed for 2018, meaning that a group of death is far less likely than in previous editions. Before 2018, the pots for the draw were organised by confederation (apart from pot 1, which has always been the host and next seven ranked nations). This meant that it was very possible for highly ranked sides from each confederation to be bundled together into one supergroup.
The changes for this year meant that aside from hosts Russia, every country was ordered by current ranking (in November 2017) and put in pots accordingly, with Pot 1 the highest ranked and Pot 4 the lowest. This resulted in a far larger spread of rankings, while FIFA were able to restrict countries from the same confederation playing each other in the group stage by carefully organising draw regulations.
The result is that there is no glaringly obvious Group of Death this summer. However, based on current rankings (June 7th) we are able to consider which groups contain the highest quality teams on average.
Below is each Group, ordered by average ranking of each team in the Group:
- Group E – 16.25
- Group C – 16.5
- Group G – 22.75
- Group B – 23
- Group D – 23.75
- Group F – 24.25
- Group H – 28
- Group A – 49
No surprises at the wrong end of that list as Group A comes embarrassingly far behind the others, but it is perhaps surprising which two are clear at the top.
Group E leads the way; Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23) and Serbia (34) have a mean ranking of 16.25. Just behind with a mean ranking of 16.5 is Group C, containing France (7), Peru (11), Denmark (12) and Australia (36).
In both E and C, there is a strong favourite to top the group (Brazil and France). This is a stretch from the usual Group of Deaths, where there is typically no standout nation.
This is only based on stats however, though no other group has the feel of a Group of Death either.
With the new draw system the way it is, and the World Cup expanding to 48 teams for 2026, will we see another Group of Death again?
Written by Sam Hanys.