The 2018 FIFA World Cup gets under way today (Thursday) when hosts Russia face Saudi Arabia following an opening ceremony at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Football’s showpiece event features 32 teams, including holders Germany, competing in 64 games over 32 days.
The 21st edition will be played out in 12 stadiums, across 11 cities, spread over 1,800 miles.
England, winners in 1966, are the only team from the home nations to qualify and start against Tunisia on 18 June.
Germany, who defeated Argentina in the 2014 final, are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since 1962, while Brazil seek a record-extending sixth world title.
The month-long tournament is expected to attract one and a half million fans to Russia and an estimated global television audience of over three billion viewers.
There are eight groups, each containing four teams, with the top two advancing to the last 16. The final takes place at the 81,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium on 15 July.
World Cup holders Germany, five-time winners Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, 2014 runners-up Argentina, Belgium, Poland and 1998 winners France are among the eight seeded teams.
Hosts Russia are also seeded, even though they are the tournament’s lowest-placed team – 70th – in FIFA’s world rankings.
England, who have won only one of their past eight World Cup matches, are unseeded, as are 2010 champions Spain.
Germany have reached at least the semi-finals in each of the past four editions of the competition and, after being the only team to progress through European qualifying with a 100% record, are expected to be in the shake-up again. They are in Group F with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
“Germany will be hunted like never before,” said head coach Joachim Low. “Only us, as world champions, have anything to lose.”
Brazil are the only nation to have appeared at every single World Cup but they have not won the tournament since 2002, while you have to go back to 1958 to the last time they won it on European soil.
Yet the Brazilians will fancy their chances, particularly as Neymar, who cost a world record £200m when he moved from Barcelona to Paris St-Germain in August 2017, has returned to action after a broken foot.
Spain feature several Champions League winners from Real Madrid in their squad as they look to recapture the magic that saw them crowned world champions eight years ago and European champions in 2008 and 2012.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping for a first World Cup winners’ medal after helping Portugal win Euro 2016, while Lionel Messi is hoping to win a first major trophy with Argentina. – BBC.