By MATTHEW JENNINGS
Four years after Brazil hosted the World Cup, where Germany were crowned champions, all eyes are now on Russia where 32 Footballing Nations will fight it out for the greatest honour in world football. Thursday 14 June will see the hosts take on newcomers Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening game before the other two members of Group A, Uruguay and Egypt, lock horns on Friday.
The African side is making their first appearance in 28 years and will hope that talisman Mohammed Salah will be fit and ready to play after he recently sustained an injury. If he performs as usual he could lift Egypt out of the group and into the Round of 16.
In the other groups, Group B has the mouth watering clash between Portugal and Spain, although it would be exciting to see another African side upset the Spanish, this time at the hands of Morocco.
Nigeria will be hard to miss with their stylish new kit which will add a dash confidence to an already good team.Their path to the knockout stages is two-time former champs Argentina, crafty Croatia and the enthusiastic newcomers Iceland who topped a qualifying group that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.
France came close to Euro 2016 victory but fell narrowly short. Given a little bit of consistency, the French could propel themselves forward during this World Cup given their manageable group against Denmark, who should also advance, Australia and Peru.
Neymar returns for Brazil after several months out with a serious injury and with the likes of Coutinho, Firmino and Gabriel Jesus, the Brazilians could go as they managed in 2014 and further, as long as they don’t draw Germany in the knock-out phase. The Germans are expected to be equally dominant in their group, as well as in the tournament. Sweden still have hope of progressing with Germany, despite missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic available. The Swiss (also in the group), could have other plans for their European rivals.
Belgium and England should dominate proceedings in Group G. Following many dismal International outings, England haven’t got much excuse to under-perform given the immense quality of their squad. The same is true for Belgium and with Premier League ex-manager and maestro Roberto Martinez as Coach, the Belgians could also mount a title challenge.
Senegal could lift the African continent if they reign victorious in their Group, with stiff competition from the Japanese who are quite capable of going far in any World Cup as well as Poland, who will look to go further than usual.
The top international teams will be expected to go far, but Africa’s hopes will be on the likes of Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal in Russia 2018. Russia are only an hour ahead of South Africa, meaning that most games are in the afternoon or early evening.
Look out for an upcoming promotion that Grocott’s Mail will be running with a local business for the duration of the World Cup.