The first ever World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe promises football fans across the globe a welcomed distraction from the political turmoil of the day. RUSSIA, as hosts, have turned to former USSR goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov in an attempt to revive their fortunes after a forgettable run of performances in major tournaments. On the back of winning the double with Legia Warsaw in Poland two years ago, Cherchesov and his new 3-5-2 formation have endured a miserable preparation. 1 win in 8 games since October makes the target of a semi-final finish somewhat unlikely. Much will rely on the leadership of star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Further up the field, I am excited to see the three young future “Tsars” of Russian football: CSKA Moscow‘s Aleksandr Golovin, and Lokomotiv Moscow’s twins Anton and Aleksei Miranchuk. All three are only 22 and Golovin, a deep-lying playmaker, in particular has drawn comparisons to the great Dynamo midfielder Viktor Kolotov. URUGUAY are my clear favourites to steamroller this group under the expert guidance of legendary coach Oscar Tabarez. Affectionately known as “El Maestro” (The Teacher), Tabarez has nurtured and matured this group of players into a formidable force. Finishing 2nd behind Brazil in the CONMEBOL qualifying, La Celeste (The Sky Blue) will look to the country’s two all-time top scorers, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, to fire them through to the business end of the tournament. EGYPT’s long domination of African football has never translated to the international stage but with Mo Salah they have a chance, and Argentinian coach Hector Cuper knows it. Seeing Salah limp off in the Champions League final was a blow not only to this country’s hopes but the worlds desire for the best footballers to be on show in Russia. It’s not all about the Liverpool star however, Cuper has built an organised, stout backline that has the ability to soak up pressure and desperately keep the ball out of the net. Mahmoud Hassan, often called Trézéguet in honour of the former French forward, is a work horse who makes things happen in the attacking third and has a fantastic understanding with Salah. Look for them to surprise the hosts and sneak into Round 2. SAUDI ARABIA are all at odds. They are on their third coach since qualifying behind Japan for Russia 2018, have lost 5 of 8 games in preparation for the tournament, and even their new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has highlighted a “deficiency” in attack. The Saudi Football Federation as a result signed an agreement with La Liga for 9 players to spend the last few months at teams in Spain with the aim of performing better in Russia. This was also a complete failure. Talisman forward Mohammad Al-Sahlawi will give his all as usually in attack, and Al-Shabab FC’s young guns Abdullah Al-Khaibari and Hattan Bahebri could impress if given the chance. It has been a long time since Saeed Al-Owairan stunning individual goal against Belgium at USA 94 (see it here) sent them into the latter stages of the World Cup. I can’t see something like that happening again. But hey, it’s the World Cup. Think of François Omam-Biyik at Italia 90, it’s why we watch.
Fun fact: Australia coach Bert van Marwijk led the Saudis to the World Cup but quit after refusing an additional clause in his contract that stated he had to spend 23 days a month in Saudi Arabia in the lead up to the tournament.