A few metres from the Okhotni Ryad metro station in Moscow, Iranian fans lined up on Tuesday evening. “Iran! Iran! Iran!” coursed through Red Square as minutes remained for sunset.
Near midnight, their number had significantly increased and the chants, this time of a much wider variety, got louder. The Iran fans were soon joined by a few Russians.
With Iranian and Russian flags flying side by side, the camaraderie between the two sets of supporters was evident to all bystanders. “Russia, spasiba! (Russia, thank you!)” was heard loud and clear a few minutes later; the Iranians expressing gratitude to the World Cup hosts.
A few metres away, fans of Peru made themselves heard as they serenaded passers-by with praise of their national team.
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Four years after Germany triumphed in Brazil, the World Cup is back, this time debuting on Russian soil. And if one needs any reminding, a trip to the Red Square is enough to get one into the mood.
For the past few days, pubs in the area have been working overtime to accommodate the sudden, huge surge in customers. On most occasions, fans from various countries have been engaged in sing-offs and playful digs at each other.
Matters on the pitch will be far more serious as the curtain rises on Thursday evening.
Looking at the usual suspects
After the humiliation at home in 2014, Brazil return to the world’s grandest stage on the back of a near-flawless qualifying campaign. If they avoid early slip-ups, a meeting with Mexico is likely in the round of 16, following which England or Belgium could lie in wait in the quarters.
France, whom Brazil could meet in the semi-finals, face Denmark, Peru and Australia in the groups. A pre-quarter final clash against Argentina or Croatia will await the French if they win their group.
The winners of the last two editions, Germany and Spain, could clash in the semi-finals. That will, however, be easier said than done for both. More so for Spain given the circumstances in which coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked on Wednesday.
Brazil’s Neymar waves to fans during a training session in Sochi, Russia. (AP)
Spain are grouped with European champions Portugal, a very well-organised Iran team and Morocco. Winning it could book them a pre-quarter final game against Russia or Egypt, following which they could be up against men lead by Lionel Messi.
Germany are in an easier group but may have to face either Switzerland or Serbia, both potential banana skins, in the next round. And then it could be England or Belgium.
One of the youngest sides in the tournament, England aren’t being seen as a top dog but Harry Kane’s side will be more than comfortable with the relatively low expectations as they seek to end a 52-year-old title drought.
Belgium, meanwhile, have a far better billing among the top contenders. After flattering to deceive at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euros, hopes are high on Roberto Martinez’s boys. With the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, among others, Belgium’s golden generation will be looking to deliver on the big stage this time.
Portugal arrive in Russia as the reigning European champions. The Cristiano Ronaldo-led side faces a tough draw, with possible run-ins against Uruguay and France in the first two knockout rounds.
A Pharaoh called Salah
Messi and Ronaldo are the World Cup’s biggest names but this one will also be about football’s latest superstar: Mohamed Salah. He had a prolific season with Egypt and his stock has risen so high in Merseyside that Liverpool fans have dedicated, among other songs, a chant about wanting to be Muslim like him. The song’s gone viral in the Arab world and lent further credence to Salah’s status as one of football’s biggest stars.
Among the other African sides, Senegal can cause a few ripples in Russia, while Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco have been handed tough draws.
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For Nigeria, the World Cup so far has been more about their retro kit, which has been a major hit among fans. Nevertheless, they have a good mix of young talent and experienced stars who can give Argentina, Croatia and Iceland a fight.
Tough on Iran
Japan have a better draw in comparison to South Korea, Iran, Australia and Saudi Arabia. But they have been far from impressive in recent times and are rank outsiders to make it to the last-16. Iran, Asia’s best bet at the tournament, have arguably the toughest draw among the Asian quintet.
All eyes, for now, will be at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia.
“We very much expect – all fans and lovers of football in Russia – the team to play with dignity, for them to show modern, interesting football, and to fight until the end,” said president Vladimir Putin of the national team on Tuesday. No pressure, Russia!