World Cup 2018: a bluffer’s guide to sport’s greatest tournament
Where to watch, when to watch and who to support as the 21st Coupe de Monde begins
Nigeria Alex Iwobi poses with fans. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekei/AFP/Getty
What is it?
The World Cup is the greatest sporting tournament on the planet - trumping even the Olympics. In its current guise it brings together 32 nations from across the planet once every four years for a month-long celebration of football, sport and life in general.
Has it happened before?
Yes, this is the 21st instalment of the World Cup. It first took place in 1930, the inaugural tournament being won by hosts Uruguay.
How does it work?
32 teams have been split into eight groups of four (A-H), with the top two sides from each progressing into a straight knockout stage.
Where is it?
This year’s tournament is being staged in Russia. The 64 matches will take place at 12 stadiums across 11 Russian cities, ranging from St Petersburg and Moscow in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east. You can get to know all of the venues here.
When is it?
The Coupe de Monde begins on Thursday June 14th as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. It finishes with the final at the same ground on Sunday July 15th.
What time are the games on?
Those of you who can remember the 2002 tournament in South Korea & Japan and early alarm calls can rest easy - literally. Fixtures are scheduled to take place at 1.0pm, 3.0pm, 4.0pm and 7.0pm - with games taking place at 3.0pm and 7.0pm in the knockout stages. The opening Saturday - June 16th - has fixtures at 11.0am, 2.0pm, 5.0pm and 8.0pm, which equates to roughly 11 hours in front of the box. These are halcyon days.
Brilliant, where can I watch it?
All the fixtures are spread across RTE, BBC and ITV. You can also follow the majority of games on our Irish Times liveblogs, which should prove particularly handy when you’re stuck in the office but really want to follow Colombia versus Japan.
Who’s in it?
Russia - the tournament’s lowest-ranked side - earned their place by virtue of being the host nation, meaning 31 sides had to slug it out for qualification over two years. There are plenty of familiar faces - Brazil, Germany, France, Spain, England etc - while Panama and Iceland are making their World Cup debuts. You can get to know every side taking part here.
Who isn’t in it?
In case you haven’t realised by now, Ireland missed out on qualification again - the Boys in Green last graced the biggest stage with their presence in 2002. A few heavy-hitters are also conspicuous by their absence, particularly Italy and the Netherlands. The USA, Chile, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also spectating.
Well if Ireland aren’t there, who should I support?
Ireland reached a World Cup play-off where they were hammered 5-1 by a Christian Eriksen-inspired Denmark. Should the Danes improbably go on to win the tournament it would mean Ireland were only denied their place by the world champions, which would make it easier to forget about that sobering night last November.
If you fancy an underdog, then Iceland have a population of just 330,000 and are the smallest nation ever to appear at the tournament - plus they knocked England out of Euro 2016. Get practising your Viking-clap.
Other options could include Belgium and France - both have squads stacked with exciting talent who are maybe on the verge of coming good - while the more sartorially-minded might plump for Nigeria, who have already won the unofficial award for the tournament’s coolest kit.
Or you could stick to the habit of a lifetime and support whoever England are playing.
Speaking of England, they’ve been unusually quiet?
England are usually swept to the World Cup on a jingoistic tidal wave of hope and expectation - with certain players then made scapegoats when it inevitably blows up in their faces.
It’s all a bit different this time, though. Gareth Southgate has slowly and steadily built a likeable side which seems to have a clear plan - and a number of exciting young players.
Well if England aren’t winning it, who are?
There isn’t really a standout side this summer - but there’s the cast of usual suspects who will all be in with a chance. Brazil are the bookies favourites closely followed by defending champions Germany. Spain, France and a Lionel-Messi inspired Argentina are all expected to go close.
All my mates keep moaning about VAR, what is it?
This World Cup will be the first to use Video Assistant Referees (VAR), whose role is to try and help on-field officials make certain decisions - and more importantly prevent them from making crucial mistakes.
Well it works for other sports, what’s the problem?
VAR has been trialled around the globe with some fairly farcical results, and uninitiated referees are likely to be learning on the job this summer. Purists would also argue the concept of video technology ruins part of football’s allure in the first place - what would we have to talk about if Diego Maradona’s Hand of God had been disallowed?
Any players I should keep an eye on?
Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are among those set to dominate the headlines again this summer. However, you can get to know 32 players - one from each nation - a bit better with our players to watch guide.
Who’s going to be top scorer?
Brazil’s Neymar is the bookies favourite closely followed by Messi and then France’s Antione Griezmann. Uruguay’s Edison Cavani and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku could both make hay in the group stages and head home with the golden boot.
I fancy a bet, any tips?
While being far from a banker, the combined tournament winners/top scorer market offers some real value. Spain to win the World Cup and Griezmann to win the golden boot is 100-1, while Brazil to lift the trophy and Cavani to top the scoring is 125-1.
Putting the football to one side, violence in France during Euro 2016 - coupled with the fractious political climate surrounding Russia - have led to fears this tournament could be remembered for all of the wrong reasons. However, as Ken Early writes, Russia hope this World Cup will lead the rest of the globe to see the nation in a more positive light.
“The 2022 World Cup is being held in Qatar, in the winter, meaning the next proper tournament will soon be eight years away. I must embrace this blessed summer with every fibre of my being.”
“I’m entirely confident Phil Jones will score this deciding penalty of the quarter-final shootout, sending Southgate’s heroes past Germany and into the last-four.”