New faces, sackings and VAR: 2018 World Cup set to deliver
As the 2018 World Cup gets underway in Russia there is already plenty to suggest that it will not be a tournament that is quickly forgotten, writes Pete Sharland.
If you ever had to describe the feeling before the World Cup the only seemingly apt comparison would be Christmas. Yes it’s a cliché that gets bandied about far too readily but for football fans there is nothing quite like the World Cup.
It has the power to captivate a global audience for just over a month and it still has the ability to throw up the unknown, a remarkable feat in this age of technology.
Even before we have begun things have already been turned upside down, with 2010 champions Spain sacking manager Julen Lopetegui after it was confirmed he was take over at the aforementioned Real.
Still we must see Spain as one of the favourites. Along with Brazil. And Germany. And France. And Belgium. And England…? Okay perhaps it might be too much to expect Harry Kane to lift the trophy on July 15 but England go into a very open World Cup with a young and exciting squad, led by the increasingly impressive Gareth Southgate.
There are two debutants of contrasting pedigree. Iceland shocked a continent in 2016 and no-one will be taking the proponents of the Thunderclap lightly after their exploits in France. Their qualification was by no means a guarantee but it didn’t raise the sort of eyebrows it might have done had it happened in 2014.
Nevertheless, this is a country with a population of just over 330,000, a figure that is over ten times smaller of the other new face, Panama.
Panama's national football team Roman Torres raises his shirt to reveal his tatoo during a press conference at the Olympic training center in Saransk-Russia on June 10 , 2018, ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup.Getty Images
And what of the old guard? This will be the final stop on Andres Iniesta’s farewell to Europe as he gets ready to move to Japan. The little wizard will be hoping he can go out with a bang. It will be farewell too to the likes of Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez, not what they were, but still players capable of producing memorable moments on the world’s biggest stage.
Fans have travelled in numbers with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Peru dominating FIFA’s top ten list in terms of tickets sold. Perhaps Russia does not have the inherent party nature of South Africa or Brazil but there’s still going to an atmosphere befitting a World Cup.
And then there are the two GOATs, the two for whom it may matter most. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will go down in history but in Russia there is a chance to go beyond the other, to truly cement themselves as the best the game has seen.
Pele and Diego Maradona managed to triumph on the biggest stage of all and whilst Messi and Ronaldo have dwarfed them on a domestic level there is still one last hurdle.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano RonaldoGetty Images
And watching on from behind a screen in a room in Moscow will be the VAR, often lambasted, never fully understood. Technology has already changed football immeasurably and that is only set to increase as we try to take every error out of the game.
World Cup 2018 VAREurosport
Will this be the glorious image that Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin envisaged when it was announced in 2010 that Russia would host this historic tournament? Who knows, one will not be present to watch proceedings whilst the other’s attendance is still shrouded in mystery.
What is guaranteed is that somewhere along the line of the next 32 days someone is going to write themselves into the history books. One of those players going to sleep in Russia is going to do something astonishing and change his life forever.
Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a wild ride.