Hard to believe it’s finally about to start. The very first World Cup game starts at 8:00 on Thursday June 14th in Luzhniki Stadium and it ends there too on Sunday July 15th. And at the end of it all, only one country is left smiling! Anyways on with my last group review: Group H. How do they stack up?
-Poland (10)- Poland has a football success that usually is strong one quadrennial, weak another. This time around, it looks like Poland has its strongest team in decades. They topped their World Cup qualification en route to Russia. They’ve even produced a superstar in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.
Poland is not just Lewandowski. There’s also midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek. The team features a good mix of young and older talent. They were very impressive in World Cup qualifying. The team has had some notable wins in the past year against Lithuania and South Korea, but they’ve also had 1-0 losses to Nigeria and Mexico. Russia 2018 is yet another chance for Poland to seize the moment.
-Senegal (28)- 2002 seems like a memory. It was Senegal’s first World Cup and they surprised defending champions France in the opening game of that World Cup and en route to going to the quarterfinals. They’ve failed to return to the World Cup scene until now. They hope to show the world they still have what it takes.
After 16 long years, The Lions Of Teranga come back via coach Aliou Cisse who played for that Senegalese team in the World Cup. Most of the players play for teams with the Premier League or France’s Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. Senegal have had some noteworthy wins in the last year such as to South Africa and South Korea. However they’ve also lost recently to Croatia 2-1 and also had a scoreless draw against Bosnia. Senegal returns to the World Cup stage here in Russia with lots to prove.
-Colombia (16)- This appears to be a new era in Colombian football. They first had a chance in the 90’s to make a name for themselves at the World Cup, but poor performances marred by political strife in their country prevented that from happening. Then they made a return to the World Cup scene in 2014. There they made it to the quarterfinals for the first time ever. On top of that, striker James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot for scoring six goals.
Rodriguez is back, along with midfielder Carlos Sanchez, striker Radamel Falcao and Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Colombia has had some recent noteworthy wins such as 3-2 against France and 4-0 against China. However they’ve also lost 2-1 against Paraguay and 2-1 against South Korea. Chances are Colombia can go further than they ever have here in Russia 2018.
-Japan (60)- Japan is one Asian country that has been struggling to show how talented their team is. The Samurai Blue have made it to the Round of 16 in 2002 (which they co-hosted) and 2010, but that’s as far as they’ve ever gotten. Japan has produced a boom in football back with the boost of the J-League in the 90’s but they’re still waiting for their big moment. Sure, they’ve won many AFC Asian Cups in the past, but they feel they have more to prove internationally.
This past year has had its ups and downs for Japan. They recently won against Paraguay 4-2 and won against Australia 2-0. However they’ve had some notable losses to Brazil 3-1, Switzerland 2-0 and Belgium 1-0. Remember anything can happen in World Cup play and Japan could just surprise everybody during Russia 2018.
So that’s my summary of the Group H teams. As for the two I feel will advance, I will have to go with Poland and Colombia.
ST. PETERSBURG: Krestovsky Stadium (Saint-Petersburg Stadium)
Year Opened: 2017
World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, E,
Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, bronze-medal match
Situated on Krestovsky Island in St. Petersburg, this stadium is not just known for its design, but its enormous cost to construct: an estimated $1.1 billion! It is considered one of the most expensive stadiums ever built. The high cost had a lot to do with a delayed civic loan, wind damage and flooding to materials and a withdrawal of a major corporate funder. Its opening in 2017 is nine years later than expected. The design of the stadium is based on Japanese designer Kisho Kurokawa’s ‘ Spaceship’ design. The stadium is situated where the old Kirov Stadium used to be. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for FC Zenit St. Petersburg.
MOSCOW: Luzhniki Stadium
Year Opened: 1956
World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, C, F
Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, Final match
This stadium has an immense amount of history with it. Actually during the days of the USSR, it used to be known as Central Lenin Stadium. After the collapse of the USSR and the doing away of Communism, the stadium has been named after the Luzhniki district it’s situated in. During the days of the USSR, the stadium was the centrepoint of the national Spartakiad sports celebrations. It was also the host venue for the 1980 Summer Olympics, 1973 Summer Universiade and 1986 Goodwill Games. Since the fall of Communism and the emergence of the Russian Federation, the stadium has hosted the 1999 UEFA Cup Final, 2008 UEFA Champions League Final and the 2013 World Championships In Athletics.
The stadium has had three renovations in the past. The most recent being before the Confederations Cup in preparation for the World Cup. World Cup renovations include a demolishing of the old stadium to have a new stadium with enclosure. The self-supported wall and facade of Lenin Stadium was maintained. New construction allowed the stadium to be connected to a main building. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for the Russian national team.
And that does it! This is the last of my group previews for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Hard to believe the opening ceremonies are 24 hours away, give or take. One thing for sure is that it will deliver a full month of excitement and surprises.
One neat thing about FIFA’s World Cup section is that it not only lists the game times in your time zone, but it also lists the networks that will broadcast the games in your country. I was surprised to see all the Canadian channels listed by the game times! Definitely makes things convenient! Crazy thing for all of us living in cities like Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles is that most of the games start at 05:00, 08:00 and 11:00 our time. I’m sure a morning beer won’t hurt.
Now on to my next group to review:
-Belgium (3)- The Red Devils sure have been ranking very high these past few years. You can attribute that to brilliant play within UEFA matches and world Cup qualifying. However they’re hoping to make a big impression on the world stage. Before the last World Cup, they had a high ranking back then but got as far as the quarterfinals. That’s actually a respectable achievement since it’s their best finish since their fourth place in 1986. However Belgium feels they have more to prove.
Belgium has a strong team. Leading the Belgian team are defenders Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, midfielder Marouane Fellaini and strikers Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. Interestingly, almost half of Belgium’s team plays for the Premier League. Belgium again delivered in World Cup qualifying with nine wins and a draw. Their last defeat came in a friendly against Spain in September 2016. Looks like Belgian fire could pay off over in Russia.
-Panama (55)- So you may wonder how did a team with an outside shot like Panama qualify for the World Cup? Simple. With just the final game in World Cup qualifying, the US needed to simply tie Trinidad and Tobago to join Mexico and Costa Rica in qualifying. Instead the US lost 2-1 while Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 and Panama beat Costa Rica 2-1. That’s sport. What’s rightfully yours will go to someone else if you’re not there. And Los Canaleros are the ones laughing!
It’s their first World Cup. Interestingly many of the players on the team play for MLS. Only five play for European teams. Interestingly, two for Belgian teams. So far this year they scored a win against Trinidad and Tobago, but lost to Switzerland and Denmark. Whatever the situation, Russia 2018 will be a great experience for Panama.
-Tunisia (21)- One thing about Les Aigles de Carthage is that they keep on trying. Tunisia has participated in four World Cups but have not yet made it past the group stage. Their only World Cup win was in their debut year of 1978. Tunisia is hoping this is the year in which they finally progress to the knockout stage.
Most of the player play for Tunisian clubs or French clubs. A good percentage of the team’s players are 25 and under. Their coach Nabil Maâloul has coached many club team and national teams in the Middle East. Tunisia’s play has been very impressive in this past year. They won against Iran and Costa Rica and even drew against Portugal.
-England (12)- England has had a reputation of being a top team that excels in underachieving. However it was the last World Cup where they took it to a new low by failing to advance past the group stage for the first time since 1958. A Round-of-16 elimination at Euro 2016 did not help much either. After Euro 2016, they have been coached by Gareth Southgate who played at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. His experience is expected to help the team do much better this time, if not win.
No doubt England has an easier group this time. Not like last World Cup where they were in the ‘group of death.’ If you ask me, I think they were just underconfident. This year’s team is led by rising newcomer Harry Kane who is already the captain at just 24! England’s last defeat came via France 3-2 and that was exactly a year ago. Since then, they won against the Netherlands 1-0 and Nigeria 2-1 and drew against teams like Italy, Brazil and Germany. Chances are they can finally deliver on their greatness.
And that’s my summary of Group E. Now my prediction for which two I think will progress. Drum roll, please! My predictions are for Belgium and England.
As we’re getting closer to the last group, I’ll be reviewing the two biggest stadiums for the Cup. Meanwhile this will be the last stadium spotlight where I focus on a stadium that seats less than 50,000.
NIZHNY NOVGOROD: Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Year Opened: 2018
World Cup Groups Hosting: D, E, F, G
Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 and a Quarterfinal
This new stadium cost $290 million to build. The stadium is inspired by two key elements of the region: water and wind. It adds a new vibe in an area with a lot of classic buildings without compromising the area’s classic feel. The biggest features the stadium has to offer are extra spaces for people with disabilities as well as accessible elevators and special navigation. The stadium also features top safety features like alarm and public alert systems, metal detectors and indicators of hazardous liquids or explosives. The arena is designed for multifunctional use. It will serve sports events and entertainment events and even exhibitions and expos. The arena grounds will include a park, futsal fields and tennis courts. The stadium will also be the home venue for FC Olympiec Nizhny Novgorod.
BONUS FEATURE: 2018 Mascot – Zabikava
Yes, what’s a review of the World Cup without a focus on the mascot? Most sports events which Russia hosts has a bear as the mascot. The World Cup decided to go with something different: a wolf. Actually it was online voting that decided what the mascot would be. The tiger and the cat were the other two rivals.
Zabivaka was introduced on December 4, 2016. Zabivaka is Russian for ‘the one who scores.’ He was designed by a University Student who was inspired by Disney images to create the wolf mascot. There has been some disapproval. The disapproval of some being how Zabikava appears to wear ski goggles. They’re actually supposed to be ‘sports goggles’ to ‘protect his eyes as he runs really fast.’ He not only has his own page at the FIFA site but also his own Facebook page as well.
And there you go. My review of Group G along with another stadium review and a look at the mascot. One last group to go.
With the World Cup getting ever so closer, it’s time for another group review, along with another stadium review. Also this blog will give you an added bonus feature. Anyways lots to anticipate. Lots to focus on here.
-Brazil (2)- I’m not going to bring up the humiliation Brazil went through during the 2014 World Cup. I will say it has been an interesting four years since. The first two years were the hardest, but also very hopeful. Dunga had assumed the role as head coach and things looked promising, until the 2015 Copa America. There, they were ousted in the quarterfinals. For the next year, they struggled in international play and were even ranked low in World Cup qualifying. Then at the 2016 Copa America, another early ouster: in group play. With the Olympics coming soon, they changed to coach Tita, who was most experience in play and coaching with Brazil’s Campeopnato Brasiliero league. The change has worked to success. Brazil won gold at the 2016 Olympics and won every World Cup qualifying game since. Brazil would become the first team to qualify for this World Cup.
The Seleção’s success continues. It has not lost a game since the 2016 Copa America and even won a friendly against Germany 1-0. Brazil is one team coming to Russia not simply for victory, but redemption as well.
-Switzerland (6)- Switzerland is one team that’s been waiting long and hard for their big breakthrough. They have a lot to prove, but have often come up short. The last time they won a knockout game was back in 1938. Their best ever result is the quarterfinals which was last achieved in 1954 which they hosted. They’ve grown in talent and prowess in recent years. At the last World Cup, Xherdan Shaqiri delivered a hat trick en route to qualifying to the Round Of 16, but their trip to the Cup was ended by Argentina.
The Swiss team has had its strongest years in this past while. This is the fourth straight World Cup they’ve qualified for. The team features defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, midfielders Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka and striker Haris Seferovic. The team is coached by Bosnian Vladimir Petkovic. The Swiss team come to Russia with a good track record in this past year with wins against Hungary and Greece and a 1-1 draw against Spain. However they also had to endure a 2-0 loss to Portugal. Switzerland comes to Russia with a lot to prove.
-Costa Rica (25)- Costa Rica is a team that will surprise you when you least expect it. At the last World Cup, the team wound up in Group D where they would have to play Italy, Uruguay and England. Just about everybody, including myself, thought Coast Rica would be the team least likely to qualify. Instead they topped the Group with wins against Italy and Uruguay and drew against England. A win against Greece on penalties in the Round of 16 took them to the quarterfinals for the first-time ever. Despite losing to the Netherlands on penalties, Costa Rica defied all expectations and set a new standard for the team.
This year’s team features a new coach in Oscar Ramirez. Their star striker Bryan Ruiz from Sporting CP is back. Many of the team’s top players play for MLS. In the past year, Costa Rica has had good wins against Northern Ireland, Scotland and the US. However it’s had to endure losses to Hungary, Spain (5-0) and Tunisia. Who knows? 2018 could be another Cinderella story like 2014.
-Serbia (35)- Serbia is a national team that’s rather young: only 12 years old. Its national team may not have the experience as most of the teams present in Russia. However they’re a team of surprises. If you remember the 2010 World Cup, they won against Germany 1-0. The team of the former Yugoslavia has had way better success in the past; even going as far as fourth. Serbia hopes one day to emulate the past success. The team does show promise as they won the under-20 World Cup in 2015.
Possibly as a result of their win in 2015, seven players of the Serbian team were born in 1995 or later. The team also features top veterans like defenseman Branislav Ivanovic and goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic. In the past year, they’ve acquired notable wins against China, Ireland and Nigeria. However they’ve had notable losses to Morocco and Chile. Don’t rule Serbia out for 2018.
And there’s my rundown of the teams from Group E. As for who will qualify for the Round of 16, I believe it will be Brazil and Switzerland.
Moscow: Spartak Stadium (Okritie Arena)
Year Opened: 2014
World Cup Groups Hosting: D, E, G, H
Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16
Spartak Stadium is one of two venues in Moscow that will be hosting matches for this World Cup. Its current name is Okritie Arena after the Russian Okritie Bank, but will be known as Spartak Stadium during the World Cup.
The stadium cost $430 million to build. Actually the second Moscow stadium that was planned for the World Cup was VTB Arena, which was to combine a soccer stadium and ice hockey rink all in one. Instead Spartak Stadium was build first and won the right to be an official venue. It was even one of the four venues that played host to last year’s Confederations Cup. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for FC Spartak Moscow and the Russian national team.
Stadiums aren’t the only thing I will be focusing on in this World Cup. I will also focus on other things unique to the World Cup. For this first bonus, I will be focusing on the official World Cup Ball.
Official Match Ball: Telstar 18
It’s a given that with each world Cup, Adidas delivers a match ball that is designed to take football technology to a new level. Some like 2014’s Brazuca are welcomed well. Some like 2010’s Jabulani hit a sour note with the players. For 2018, Adidas launches Telstar 18.
The ball was unveiled by Adidas on at its official presentation in Moscow on November 9, 2017 and it was Lionel Messi that announced the name. Telstar 18 plays tribute to the original Telstar ball (from 1970) which was Adidas’ first ever official World Cup ball. This Telstar ball features six textured panels that aren’t sewn together, but seamlessly glued together. The ball has an embedded near-field communication chip which allows the consumer to access information personalized from the ball and including interactivity themed on the upcoming World Cup.
And there you have it. That’s my review of the Group E teams. Only three more groups to go! Time sure does pass fast! Stay tuned!