The opening game of the World Cup will be Russia against Saudi Arabia. Or, to put it another way, the two worst teams in the tournament, according to the FIFA rankings. The group is quite nicely balanced, though: Uruguay will expect to make the last 16, but both Russia and Egypt will have hopes of joining them.
Best World Cup: Fourth place, as the Soviet Union (1966); as Russia, it has never advanced out of the group stage in three tries
How did they qualify? Automatically, as the host. Russia’s form over the last two years, though, has been patchy: the occasional creditable result, like a draw against Spain, but sapping setbacks, too, including a heavy defeat against Ivory Coast and a disappointing display in the Confederations Cup.
What can we expect? There is a genuine fear in Russia that, whether or not the World Cup as a whole is a success, on the field it might become only the second host nation — joining South Africa in 2010 — to be eliminated in the group stage.
Who’s the star? Only Alan Dzagoev, a mercurial playmaker with CSKA Moscow, gives Russia any creativity, but much will depend on the form of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
How to sound smart talking about Russia: “How curious that, after so many years with the Berezutski brothers in defense, Russia now has the Miranchuk twins on the field.”
What would success look like? On home soil, with so much financial and political capital invested in the tournament, the team has to make the knockout round.
Best World Cup: Winner (1930, 1950)
How did they qualify? Óscar Tabárez’s team managed to avoid the worst of the mayhem in South American qualifying, securing a place with a game to spare, thanks largely to a formidable home record.
What can we expect? Uruguay’s inherent characteristics have not changed since it finished fourth in South Africa in 2010: a tough-as-teak defense; an energetic, aggressive midfield; and genuine class in attack, in the form of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. The issue is whether time is catching up with them.
Who’s the star? Suárez will presumably be hoping for a rather happier ending in Russia than the ignominious ones he had in Brazil (where he was barred after biting an opponent) or South Africa (where a red card brought a win but also worldwide scorn).
How to sound smart talking about Uruguay: “Of course it’s easy to praise Suárez, but the best example of garra charrua is Diego Godín.”
What would success look like? The quarterfinals would be reasonable; if Suárez, Cavani and Godín are in form, a little further is not impossible.
Best World Cup: Group stage (1990)
How did they qualify? In suitably dramatic fashion, given that Egypt — a serial African champion this century — had not qualified for a World Cup since 1990. Mohamed Salah’s injury-time penalty against Congo in Alexandria sent the nation into a frenzy.
What can we expect? Egypt’s coach, Héctor Cúper, of Argentina, built his reputation with a safety-first style, but the team will be worth watching solely because of Salah, the star of Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final. The shoulder injury that forced him from that game early has his entire nation on edge.
Who’s the star? No question about that: Salah is a national hero in Egypt, his face a daily sight everywhere one goes in Cairo. A good World Cup and he could even win the Ballon D’Or.
How to sound smart talking about Egypt: “Salah’s form has been spectacular, but I still wonder what Mohamed Aboutrika could have done if he’d moved to Europe.”
What would success look like? A kind draw and an unstoppable Salah should mean Egypt makes the last 16.
Best World Cup: Round of 16 (1994)
How did they qualify? In a tight group, Saudi Arabia edged Australia on goal difference to qualify automatically. It came at a cost, however: Two managers, Bert van Marwijk and Edgardo Bauza, were fired during the campaign. Another Argentine, Juan Antonio Pizzi, has taken over.
What can we expect? Pizzi’s hire is something of a coup; he won the Copa América Centenario with Chile in 2016. But his resources are thin: Saudi authorities had to arrange a host of loans with Spanish clubs to try to get some of their players European experience. It did not work.
Who’s the star? Mohammad al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualifying, making him the joint top scorer worldwide in the 2018 cycle.
How to sound smart talking about Saudi Arabia: “I really feel Fahad al-Muwallad could have offered something to Levante, if only he’d been given a chance.”
What would success look like? Returning to the tournament after a 12-year absence should, really, be enough.