The 21st World Cup kicks off Thursday, when host Russia meets Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Thirty-two teams will tussle for 32 days until the final at the same stadium July 15.
The U.S. won’t be part of the party for the first time since 1986, but the greatest show on earth must go on.
The story lines:
The last dance for two legends?
In many circles, Lionel Messi might be regarded as the best player in the world, but the Argentine has yet to win a major international team title. Portugal fans, however, will boast about scoring-machine Cristiano Ronaldo. Given that he turns 31 June 24, this probably is Messi’s last shot for WC glory. Ditto for Ronaldo, 33, who led Portugal to the 2016 Euro crown (and Real Madrid to the 2018 UEFA Champions League title).
The favorite — Germany
The Germans, who have reached the World Cup semifinals, will try to become the third team to win consecutive titles, joining Italy (1934, 1938) and Brazil (1958, 1962). They have one of the deepest and balanced teams as unsung midfield hero Toni Kroos leads the way. If Germany doesn’t win, coach Joachim Löw will be second-guessed for keeping 22-year-old phenom Leroy Sané off the roster.
Spain: After a disappointing first-round exit four years ago, the 2010 world champions have found their mojo again, blending in the new with the old. Veteran midfielder Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva are key to their success. They still can possess the ball for long periods of time, but have problems turning that in goals.
France: A talented young side, the French might be four years ahead of their time, but they will try to prove otherwise. Only six players on this team competed in the 2014 World Cup. Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained France’s 1998 world champions, will rely on several veterans, including strikers Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud and midfielder Paul Pogba.
Brazil: The South Americans want to make the world forget its embarrassment of losing to Germany 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals at home. Not known for its goalkeeping, Brazil boasts Alisson, considered one of the world’s finest. The fabulous Neymar, who recently returned from injury, must be in top form if the Brazilians want to capture a record sixth crown.
The dark horse — Belgium
Known for years as a plodding side, this golden generation of Belgians are more dynamic and play at a faster pace. The team is oozing with talent and stars. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, defender Vincent Kompany, midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and forward Eden Hazard are among the standouts who could make some history.
Will home cooking help?
Russia, in weak Group A, hopes to avoid becoming the second host team to fail to gain the knockout round (South Africa in 2010). The Russians failed to qualify for the second round of last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, a WC dress rehearsal.
Will the Icelandic men cometh again?
It reached the semifinals as Euro 2016 darlings, so Iceland has a difficult act to follow — itself. There will be no surprises this time, especially in a difficult group that includes Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria (the closest thing to a Group of Death in this competition). This tight-knit side needs several stars to find their form after injuries.
The old and the beautiful
A shoulder injury suffered in the Champions League final while playing for Liverpool has threatened Egyptian Mohamed Salah’s participation, though his coach says his star forward should be fit. Salah is key for any hopes of Egypt reaching the Round of 16. Goalkeeper Ahmed El-Shenaway is out (knee injury), which could pave the way for 45-year-old Essam El-Hadary to become the oldest WC keeper ever.
He’s a real keeper
Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas backstopped Costa Rica to a surprising quarterfinal finish in Brazil. It will be more difficult to duplicate this time. It should be noted the Ticos were the Italia ’90 surprise team, reaching the quarters.
England’s quadrennial anguish
It happens every World Cup. The English media hypes the team with great expectations and the side fails spectacularly. Perhaps Raheem Sterling and striker Harry Kane will turn around its fortunes.
Curse of the fifth game
Since 1994, Mexico hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals. It’s the responsibility of coach Juan Carlos Osorio, a former Red Bulls coach, to make history. Giovani dos Santos and Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez are expected to lead the charge so El Tri can avoid stumbling again (7-0 humiliating quarterfinal defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario).
A high 5, low Rafa
Mexico’s Rafa Marquez can become the third player to appear in five WCs, tying former El Tri keeper Antonio Carbajal and ex-MetroStar and German great Lothar Matthaeus. However, the U.S. Treasury Department has accused the former Red Bull and several of his businesses of holding assets and acting as fronts for a man it alleges is the leader of a drug trafficking organization.
Another set of eyes
The Video Assistant Referee will be used for the first time at a WC. It is expected to help with close decisions (such as when England’s Frank Lampard was denied a goal against Germany in 2010). But VAR could open itself for controversy because many game officials don’t have extensive experience with the system in club competition.
Lone American presence
The U.S. still could make an impact in Russia with referees Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo and assistant referees Frank Anderson and Corey Rockwell.
More NY connections
Ex-Red Bull Tim Cahill, 38, Australia’s career goal leader, will try to score in a fourth consecutive WC (only Brazil’s Pele and Germany’s Miroslav Klose accomplished that feat). Poland coach Adam Nawalka played for the Yonkers-based Polish-American Eagles in a regional league that included Long Island teams in the late 1980s.
For club and country
Manchester City has the most players — 16 — represented on rosters. The English Premier League champions placed performers on England, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Belgium, France, Portugal and Germany. Real Madrid (15) is next, then Barcelona (14).