Why you should care
Because the world’s biggest sport has reached its biggest stage.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? The 2018 FIFA World Cup officially kicks off on Thursday evening as host nation Russia takes on Saudi Arabia in a fitting launch of the beautiful game’s quadrennial celebration that, once again, has strong political overtones. Brazil, Germany, Spain, France and Argentina are the favorites, in that order, but plenty of captivating group-stage matchups present upset potential. Italy, which ranks third all-time with four World Cup trophies, is absent, the victim of missed qualification, along with the United States — which, along with Canada and Mexico, just won a bid to host the 2026 Cup. Who will win? Tune in over the next month to find out.
Why does it matter? It’s not the first time President Vladimir Putin has used a major international event to spruce up his country’s image. Yet this year’s World Cup is clouded by even more bad news than the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was: Besides its routine human rights abuses and belligerent activities in Syria and Ukraine, Russia has faced global condemnation for its apparent poisoning of a former spy in London, its meddling in the U.S. presidential election and its state-sponsored doping program. But despite criticism, foreigners are flocking to Russia, and Putin emerges — once again — as an international statesman to be reckoned with. Observers say the event effectively proves Western efforts to isolate Moscow have failed. “If this is isolation,” one senior Russian official joked, “then we are enjoying it.”
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Safe mode. Teams and fans traveling to Russia for the Cup have been warned they are potential hacking targets for the Russian government and criminals. England’s national team got instructions by a team of tech experts on measures to improve their online security; players’ personal devices even had extra security software installed. Meanwhile, fears about hooligans have seen all 32 countries send police officers to help control potential racist violence, while more than 1,200 English fans have been forced by the U.K. Home Office to surrender their passports to keep them away from the competition.
Africa rising? Will this be the year that Africa finally captures World Cup glory? Africa has largely underperformed in recent tournaments, with only Ghana (2010), Senegal (2002) and Cameroon (1990) advancing to the quarterfinals. No African nation has ever made it through to the Cup’s final weekend. This year, Tunisia is the top-ranked of five African teams. In group play, they’ll look to upset England or Belgium in order to advance. Morocco, Nigeria, Egypt and Senegal are also competing.
Cleat the competition. Days before Iran’s opening match against Morocco, Nike informed the team it couldn’t provide footwear due to economic sanctions by the U.S. “Players get used to their sports equipment, and it’s not right to change them a week before such important matches,” said Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz. It’s unlikely Iranian players who prefer the swoosh will be left wearing Adidas though — players can still get their preferred footwear from friends or buy them at stores. Meanwhile, cleats haven’t been the only political trouble to bleed into the tournament for Iran: A warm-up match with Greece was canceled after haggling over the location turned ugly, and now Iran’s suspended relations with the Greek soccer federation and is seeking restitution for money spent on the friendly.
A betting game. Both in terms of viewers and money spent, the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. Needless to say, it’s the biggest betting event in the world too. So who are fans betting on? According to BetOnline, the favorite, Brazil, is receiving 30 percent of dollars wagered to win the World Cup. Germany, the 2014 champion, is drawing 13 percent of wagers, while Uruguay (28 to 1 odds) is the most popular long shot, luring 2 percent of the money. Belgium (10 to 1) is another popular dark horse at 5 percent. England (1.2 to 1), Croatia (2.2 to 1), Denmark (4.5 to 1), Egypt (5.5 to 1) and Peru (9 to 1) are enticing picks to win their first-round groups. But as the tournament progresses, expect many of the World Cup favorites to still be standing. Our advice? Choose one underdog per round and root your heart out.
WHAT TO READ
The New Hooligans of Russia, by Sam Borden in ESPN
“While part of the concern from Russian authorities has to do with the country’s global reputation, much of it also has to do with the inherent unpredictability of hooligans and their whims.”
Part Giant Squid, Part Supernova, This World Cup Will See Politics and Football Mix Like Never Before, by Jonathan Liew at The Independent
“Now Putin stood, solemn and unsmiling, in front of a Kremlin backdrop. Apart from a cursory greeting at the end, the entire speech was given in Russian. The message was clear: We’re in charge now.”
WHAT TO WATCH
We Simmed the World Cup on FIFA 18, and It Did Not Disappoint
“All of the favorites made it out of the groups, but Egypt and Croatia did fall …”
Watch on Bleacher Report on Facebook:
Men in Blazers: Favorite Moments, 2014 World Cup
“It’s time to fire up the George Michael time machine one last time and take you on a magical journey.”
Watch on NBC Sports on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Long shots and small fry. Star forward Mo Salah led club side Liverpool to the Champions League final, but Egypt is not Liverpool. Advancing out of the Group A would qualify as a positive performance for the Nubian Pharaohs — don’t expect any more than that. Meanwhile, Iceland’s Strákarnir okkar (translation: “our boys”) represent the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup. Reigning champions Germany begin the 2018 Cup on an eight-game winning streak. Their last World Cup loss was 1-0 to Spain in the 2010 semifinals. Brazil owns the all-time record, with 13 straight wins from 1954 to 1966.