By Dan Cancian
Soccer’s greatest prize is up for grabs yet again, as the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup begins in Russia on June 14. While fans around the globe have been counting down to kick-off for months, the tournament and all of its facets might not be as straightforward for casual viewers.
If you can’t tell your Socceroos from your Samurai Blues, however, fear not. Newsweek has compiled a World Cup primer that will—hopefully—answer all your round-ball shaped questions.
What is the World Cup?
The FIFA World Cup is the biggest soccer tournament in the world and the most widely viewed sporting event in the globe, exceeding even the Olympics. Since the inaugural edition in 1930, the tournament has been held every four years, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, when World War Two got in the way.
Where is this year’s tournament?
The 2018 World Cup will be staged in Russia, the first time the country has hosted the event and the first time the tournament will take place in Europe since it was held in Germany in 2006. Nine of the 12 hosting stadiums are brand new, while the remaining three—Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the Fisht Stadium in Sochi and the Ekaterinburg Arena in Ekaterinburg—have been renovated.
When is it?
The 2018 World Cup kicks off at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, June 14 when Russia face Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The same venue will also host the final on Saturday, July 15.
How many teams are taking part?
This year’s World Cup will consist of 32 teams, and if FIFA has its way it could be the last time such a number before the tournament is expanded to 48. Enlarging the tournament was already scheduled for 2026 but there are plans to fast track it to 2022.
How does the tournament work?
The 32 teams have been divided in eight groups of four and the tournament consists of 64 games spread across four weeks. The top two teams from each group go through to round of 16, where eight teams are eliminated. The quarterfinals select the four teams that will compete in the semifinals, with the two winners earning the right to compete for the World Cup trophy.
In the knockout stages, if games are level after 90 minutes, teams will play 30 minutes of extra time. If they still can’t be separated then a penalty shoot-out will decide the outcome.
Have a lot of nations have missed out?
Well, yes. FIFA has 211 national association affiliates across the globe, divided in six different confederations. Each confederation ran its own two-year qualifying process to select the 31 teams that will join Russia, who qualified automatically as the host country, to the World Cup.
Are all the big teams there?
Alas, they are not. The Netherlands missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 2002, Chile fell short of qualification on goal difference but the main absentee is Italy. They have lost the playoff 1-0 to Sweden on aggregate and failed to qualify for the first time in 60 years.
Have the U.S. qualified?
They have not. They finished second-from bottom in the CONCACAF and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. In other words, the last time the U.S. did not make it to the World Cup, Brad Daugherty was the number one overall pick in the NBA draft.
Who is the favorite?
It’s difficult to predict a winner. Brazil are favorites at 4/1, with defending champions Germany close behind at 5/1, while Spain and France are both at 6/1 with the bookmakers. Argentina, meanwhile, are slightly further adrift, with odds on them lifting the World Cup floating between 8/1 and 9/1.
Why should I watch it?
Because it is arguably the last World Cup that will see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the peak of their powers. The Argentine magician will be 34 by the time the biggest tournament in the world pitches up in Qatar in four years, while CR7 will be three months short of his 38th birthday and unlikely to be leading Portugal yet again.
Aside from the duo, there will be plenty on talent on display. If that wasn’t enough, Panama and Iceland make their World Cup debut.
Who are the players to watch?
Aside from Messi and Ronaldo, Neymar is the obvious answer. He was brilliant in 2014 until an injury saw him miss out as Brazil were thrashed 7-1 by Germany and will again be the man a nation pins its hopes of success on. Toni Kroos is the man who makes Germany tick, Antoine Griezmann is France’s talisman up-front and Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne lit up the Premier League last season.
Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah have scored almost at will throughout the season but there are doubts over their fitness, as Kane has just returned from an ankle injury while Salah faces a race against time to recover from the shoulder knock he suffered in the Champions League final.