The World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event!
After waiting four years for this moment, the time has finally come.
The world’s biggest stars will face off against one another in an action-packed tournament featuring eight new superstadiums in Russia.
With so many stars and new countries in the tournament, here are a few storylines to keep an eye on heading into Thursday’s opener game.
FIRST APPEARANCE: Iceland and Panama will be making their World Cup debuts. Iceland will be back in the spotlight after coming off an amazing quarterfinal run at the 2016 European Championships. Panama finished third in CONCACAF qualifying, scoring a late goal against Costa Rica to advance. The last time the World Cup had multiple first-timers was back in 2006 when six countries made their debuts (Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, Ivory Coast, Togo,Angola and Ukraine).
BACK-TO-BACK: Can anybody stop Germany? The Germans come in as the favorites after destroying everyone in 2014. But it won’t be easy for the defending champs. Since 1962, no team has repeated as champions. The only other time was when Italy took home the title in 1934 and 1938.
NOW OR NEVER: Is this finally the year? If there’s one country that has the best chance of winning its first World Cup, it’s Belgium. No doubt about it! Belgium, which eliminated the United States four years ago, brings back nearly everyone, including stars Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. With the “golden generation,” if Belgium is ever going to win the World Cup, now is the time.
MOST TITLES: Brazil? Yup, you guessed it. The soccer powerhouse leads the way with five titles. Only eight different countries from two continents have won a World Cup. Germany and Italy have won four and Argentina and Uruguay have two. England (1966), France (1998) and Spain (2010) all have one.
HOME-CONTINENT ADVANTAGE: After hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2014, Russia is back in the spotlight as the country hosts its first-ever World Cup. It also marks the 11th time the tournament has been played on European soil. So what’s the big advantage? The only time a South American side has won the tournament in Europe was back in 1958 when Brazil won it all.
STAYING HOME: The United States isn’t the only other star country that’s staying home and watching games from the couch. For the first time since 1958, Italy will be left out. The Netherlands and its high-powered offense, along with Chile, the 2015-16 Copa Americas champions, did not qualify either.
EASIEST DRAW: It’s no secret. Russia ended up with one of the easiest draws with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A. The Russians are the lowest-ranked country in the 32-team field at No. 70 in FIFA’s latest rankings, three spots behind Saudi Arabia. The only time a host country didn’t advance to the Round of 16 was South Africa in 2010.
TOUGHEST DRAW: Unlike the Russians, those in Group C have the opposite problem. France is the highest ranked team (No. 7) followed by Peru (No. 11) Denmark (No. 12) and Australia (No. 36). The Danes impressed in Saturday’s warmup game with a 2-0 home victory over Mexico.