Germany look to become first repeat champs in 50 years
After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany hope to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15 and become the first repeat champions in more than a half-century.
The football world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting tomorrow for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the hosts Selecao 7-1 in the 2014 semi-finals, then left Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina on Mario Goetze's 113th-minute goal.
Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutants, Peru are back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt end an absence dating to 1990.
Germany and Brazil are the pre-tournament favourites, and France are fancied behind them with a young roster. England will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning their only major title on home soil in 1966. Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri open against Germany and their likely second-round opponents are Brazil.
Some of the top storylines likely to dominate play in Russia:
MESSI AND RONALDO
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have split the last 10 FIFA Player of the Year awards, and this is likely their last chance to win a World Cup. Messi turns 31 on June 24, two days before Argentina finish the first round against Nigeria, and has lost four finals with the national team. Ronaldo, 33, helped Portugal win the 2016 European Championship for their first major title.
Brazil's Neymar, England's Harry Kane, Egypt's Mohamed Salah, France's Antoine Griezmann and Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne are stars who could lift themselves into Player of the Year contention with stellar World Cups.
BACK TO BACK
Italy in 1934 and 38, and Brazil in 1958 and 62 are the only teams to win consecutive World Cups. Germany were 10-0 in qualifying, the only European team with a perfect record, and outscored opponents 43-4.
PLAY IT AGAIN
Following the first use of goal line technology at a World Cup in 2014, FIFA has expanded off-the-field decision-making. A video assistant ref can notify the referee by headset of the need to reverse a decision if there is a "clear error" involving goals and their build-ups, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and mistaken identity for red and yellow cards.