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From shootin' to Putin: Here's TheJournal.ie's bluffer's guide to World Cup 2018

The tournament kicks off in Russia later today.

(SP)RUSSIA-MOSCOW-FIFA-FINAL DRAW Dancers perform by the official World Cup trophy at the State Kremlin Palace. Source: PA Images

IT’S EXACTLY SEVEN months ago today that Ireland was spanked 5-1 by Denmark at the Aviva Stadium, ending the country’s chances of competing at its fourth World Cup.

The pain of that defeat for fans may have eased in the months since, but it’s about to all come flooding back as the largest sporting event of the year kicks off later today.

The build up to World Cups without Ireland always seem a little less exciting, especially to casual fans, and this is perhaps truer than ever this year.

But regardless of everything that’s gone before, the next month is about to be overtaken by football, so here’s a guide to everything you need to know.

Where’s it happening?

Russia Soccer WCup Russia

Yes, there is baggage attached to the hosting of this year’s tournament.

Russia was announced as the host of the tournament way back in 2010, beating a high-profile bid from England. It was controversial at the time but in the years after it was somewhat overshadowed by the selection of Qatar for 2022, which was announced on the same day.

That was until a succession of events like the invasion of Crimea, MH17, Trump’s election and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal all put the focus on Russia’s hosting of the tournament.

In reality though there was never any question that Russia would be relieved of its hosting duties. The country has a long footballing pedigree and hosted the Winter Olympics as recently as 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was keen to host the tournament and has been at Fifa events in Moscow this week, officiating at events with Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

Russia Soccer WCup FIFA Congress

Which brings us to now – today’s opening match is between Russia and Saudi Arabia at 4pm. It’s being held at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which will also host the final on Sunday 14 July.

In total there are 11 cities hosting matches with the capital having two stadiums in the mix.

The most northern city is St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea and the southernmost is Sochi on the Black Sea, with a distance of almost 2,000 km between them.

Who should I follow?

FIFA 2018 World Cup Draw in Moscow

With Ireland not in the tournament it can be tricky to know who to support if you want to get involved in the action.

So here’s some information about some of the teams that might help you decide, or indeed just help you with the pub chat.

Group A is where the hosts Russia are placed and, along with the three other teams, is the weakest group in modern World Cup history.

Perhaps the biggest talking point in that group is about the fitness of Liverpool and Egypt star Mohamed Salah. The player was the top scorer in the Premier League this year and was talked about as a possible Ballon d’Or award winner.

That was until an injury forced him off the field in the Champions League final and placed his participation in the World Cup in doubt.

He has travelled to the tournament but there are doubts about how fit he’ll be. Egypt face Uruguay in their opening game and the two are the best ranked teams in the group.

Egypt: Mohamed Salah Training Before World Cup in Russia

In Group B, the biggest talking point is the Saipan-esque development of the sacking of Spain‘s manager yesterday, 48 hours before the team’s opening match against Portugal.

Julen Lopetegui signed on to be Real Madrid’s manager for next year and Spain’s footballing bosses were apparently so annoyed that he went behind their back that they sacked him. It’s undoubtedly a blow for a team that was among the favourites for the tournament.

Group C may be a difficult one for Irish people to follow because it contains the aforementioned Denmark, who beat Ireland to a place at the tournament.

They’ll face one of the tournament favourites, France, as well as Peru, who are competing in their first World Cup since 1982.

Australia is the fourth team in the group, they’re known as the Socceroos.

WC18 AUSTRALIA FAN DAY Fans watch the Australian team training in Russia. Source: PA Images

Groups D and E contain the two South American footballing giants, Argentina and Brazil. The latter being the bookies favourite to win the tournament.

Many consider Argentina’s Lionel Messi as the best footballer of all time but he turns 31 during the tournament so his chances of winning the sport’s greatest prize are running out. The team were runners-up four years ago and Messi’s fans will be hoping the team can go one better this year.

Elsewhere in Group D is Iceland, who are the smallest nation in the tournament and won fans around the world in reaching the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 two years ago.

Defending champions Germany are in Group F and are also among the favourites for the tournament. Mexico are also in the group and they’ve just been awarded the rights to host the 2026 tournament along with the USA and Canada.

For many Irish people though, Group G is where it’s at. If you can’t cheer for Ireland, maybe cheering for or against England is the best you’re going to get in terms of emotional investment.

England’s team is among the youngest in the tournament and will be fancied to get out of the group but could potentially face Germany in the quarter-finals.

Group H is the final group and is somewhat symmetrical in having one team each from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. So for that alone it’s probably an interesting one to watch.

How to watch it?

RTÉ is showing all 64 games of the World Cup and has announced some familiar and new faces as part of its coverage.

The regular team of pundits Eamon Dunphy, Liam Brady, Richie Sadlier, Damien Duff and Didi Hamann will all be part of the programming.

Former Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given and retired United States international Hope Solo also part of the punditry team. Solo, one of the biggest names in women’s football, is both a surprising and controversial addition to RTÉ’s team.

There is Irish interest elsewhere though.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane will both be part of the punditry team for ITV’s World Cup coverage.

The Ireland pairing will join a team of 11 ITV pundits that includes Keane’s former teammate and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.

ITV is sharing the UK rights to the tournaments with BBC. The BBC has 33 live matches while ITV has 32.

BBC announced its punditry line via a spoof WhatsApp group video on social media.

Enjoy the football!

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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