The BLANK guide to the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Breaking down the groups, why you should care despite no USMNT involvement and places in Knoxville where you can watch

Photo courtesy of FIFA

By Matt Rankin

Every four years, the world gathers for a month in order to crown a champion of its most popular sport, soccer. The 2018 FIFA World Cup, the 21st in the tournament’s history, will be taking place for the first time in Russia from June 14 to July 15. Eleven cities spread across the massive country will host matches, making travel difficult for supporters and players alike. Nearly 2,000 miles and four time zones separate Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, the westernmost and easternmost participants, respectively. Likewise, Egypt is slated to cover the most ground of any team during the opening round of matches, traveling well over 7,300 miles as it moves between its training camp in Grozny and group-stage fixtures in Yekaterinburg, Saint Petersburg and Volgograd.

Such distances likely will do little to quell the fervor surrounding the action, however, and the play on the pitch promises to be exhilarating, as well. In order to simply make it to Russia, 31 of the 32 teams (the host country always receives an automatic bid) had to endure marathon qualification processes in their respective regional confederations for the better part of the last three years. As a result, all of them already are battle-tested and ready to put national pride on the line in hopes of securing the greatest trophy in sports.

The 2018 edition of the World Cup is almost as notable for its impressive roster of powerhouse squads (Germany, Brazil, France, etc.) as it is for who is conspicuously absent. After what can be described only as a disastrous CONCACAF campaign, the United States failed to qualify for the finals of the tournament for the first time since 1990, dumbfounding longtime fans and possibly setting player development back a generation due to lack of exposure. Along the way, it was marred by lackadaisical play, minimal effort and/or passion, questionable leadership from veterans and the highly controversial firing of Jürgen Klinsmann. Few bright spots emerged from the experience, but a necessary second coaching change at least has led to an influx of young, talented players earning caps in international friendlies and thus gaining experience ahead of the run-in to Qatar in 2022.

But the U.S. is far from being the most prominent footballing side to miss out on Russia. Italy, which has won the tournament more times (four) than it has failed to qualify for it (twice), was shocked 1-0 by Sweden over two legs of a playoff, keeping them from the finals for the first time since 1958. Albeit a small country with a population of a little more than 17 million people, the Netherlands pioneered the concept of ‘total football’ and has produced a staggering number of top players since the early ‘70s. However, its current roster of aging stars couldn’t make up for the depletion of talent plaguing its youth ranks, and the team finished third in its UEFA qualifying group behind France and Sweden, placing it outside of playoff consideration. Chile, too, couldn’t make it out of the CONMEBOL region – regarded by many to be the toughest on the planet – despite having won the last two Copa América titles and being aided by the likes of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal. Lastly, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, holders of the African Cup of Nations and historically the continent’s most successful squad at the World Cup, failed to qualify after a dismal finish to their campaign.

The fact that the U.S. won’t be represented in Russia is bitterly disappointing for domestic enthusiasts of the world’s game, from casual fans to registered American Outlaws. Corporations with business interests in the growth of soccer in this country also are feeling the pinch. However, the national team’s absence from this World Cup doesn’t mean that you should ignore or dismiss the tournament this time around.

Firstly, it is the most widely watched sporting event in the world. A television audience consisting of more than a billion people tuned in four years ago to watch Germany defeat Argentina in the final in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and an estimated 3 billion people in total watched at least part of the tournament. To put that in perspective, this year’s Super Bowl drew just over 103 million viewers. Missing out on the World Cup is akin to skipping the Olympics; anyone with even a passing interest in athletic competition should watch just to keep up with the rest of the world.

Secondly, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, ensuring that virtually everyone can find a secondary or tertiary team to support simply by tracing their bloodlines. In fact, Fox Sports, which will be airing the World Cup on its family of networks, is attempting to capitalize on this angle by making genome-testing firm 23andMe a featured broadcast sponsor and by initiating an advertising campaign titled “Root for Your Roots.” To be fair, Fox paid $200 million for the TV rights under the assumption that the U.S. would be involved and likely is desperate to recoup some of that expense. However, DNA kits are all the rage these days, and it’s a brilliant bit of cross-promotional marketing that just might wrangle quite a few additional viewers.

Thirdly, after decades of being heralded as the ‘next big thing,’ soccer now actually seems to be on the verge of mass acceptance – if not full-blown popularity – in the U.S. Major League Soccer is adding franchises at breakneck speed, other domestic leagues are pulling in fans in high numbers and supporter groups for well-established professional clubs from Europe are popping up all over the country. Knoxville alone boasts several groups that pull for particular English Premier League teams. (We’ll explore those more fully closer to the beginning of the league season.) Appreciation and knowledge of the game is at an all-time high, and this edition of the World Cup will allow fans to see players they’ve watched perform on weekends and the occasional weekday attempting to progress through the greatest sporting event on Earth.

Finally, the first and last time that the U.S. presented the World Cup was in 1994. However, late breaking news confirms the fact that the U.S., Mexico and Canada won in their joint bid to host the 2026 tournament. Those unfamiliar with the beautiful game had better do their homework before then because it requires a good amount of planning to throw the biggest party in the world. Being knowledgeable about the sport will only help in that endeavor. Also, although Knoxville did not make the list of 17 cities being considered for hosting duties, Nashville, Atlanta and Cincinnati did. Given their close proximity, it is entirely possible that Neyland Stadium could serve as a training-camp location for one of the teams that year. Even if that were not to happen, given that Knoxville is situated at the convergence of two major interstate systems, East Tennessee certainly will receive an influx of international travelers – potentially a huge boon for tourism in the city, county, region and state.

Despite the time and distance separating Russia and the U.S., the schedule for matches won’t seem too dissimilar to anyone accustomed to waking up early to watch European league action. The majority of opening-round fixtures will begin at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (EDT). In order to maintain a competitive edge, teams in the same groups will play their last matches concurrently, at either 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. Round of 16 games and the quarterfinals will occur at 10 and 2, too; semifinal matches are set for 2; and the final will take place at 11 a.m. on July 15. (The third-place matchup will occur the day before at 10 a.m., but, honestly, that game is the equivalent of kissing your sister – even for fans of the teams involved.)

No matter your level of interest in the sport of soccer, there is no denying that the World Cup is a very big deal. As Russia prepares to welcome the world inside its vast borders, BLANK has you covered with the following breakdown of each group of four, as well as a list of places that will be showing matches. (Some of them will open even for the early games.) Enjoy the action and relish the experience; it comes around only once every four years.

Breaking down the groups

Photo courtesy of FIFA

Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

It is difficult to see two teams clearly emerging from this group. Given its history and excellent form in qualifying, Uruguay should come out on top, but just one slip-up could cost it. Russia is a solid squad, and it should get a giant boost from playing at home, but its roster doesn’t scream continued success after the group stage. Egypt boasts what probably is the best player in the entire group in Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who broke the single-season goal-scoring record in the English Premier League this past campaign (but who also will be returning from an injury he sustained in the Champions League final). Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa) and Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal) have proven themselves across the pond, as well, and should help the Africans push the host nation for the runner-up slot. Saudi Arabia played surprisingly well in qualifiers, but it was against weak competition; don’t expect the team to challenge the favorites.

Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain

Following its shocking Euro 2016 win, Portugal shouldn’t be taken lightly. Regardless of how ugly it looked in securing that trophy, any team featuring Christiano Ronaldo in its attack is dangerous, even if at age 33 he has begun to exhibit signs of slowing down for his club side, Real Madrid. Spain is the standout team in the group, though, and will be out for blood after having crashed out at this stage in 2014. La Roja is stacked from front to back and should do some major damage this time around. Morocco fields a squad full of players with experience in some of Europe’s top leagues, but it is hard to envision it surpassing either Iberian nation. Iran, too, is a massive longshot to advance out of this top-heavy group, although it has a proven and organized manager in Carlos Queiroz.

Group C: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru

France features an immensely talented and athletic squad, and it should have absolutely no problem making it out of this group. Just how much further it can advance past that point, however, is up for debate. Les Bleus have looked sluggish in tune-up matches leading up to Russia, including salvaging only a draw against a U.S. team exposing its youngest players to international football. And although it certainly is capable of making a deep run this summer, things are shaping up for France to really contend for a title four years from now in Qatar.

Australia isn’t exactly a non-factor, but the Socceroos are nowhere near as strong now as they have been at other times during the last two decades. Denmark’s Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) is a world-class finisher who alone can make a difference in tight matches, and he is buoyed by a solid contingent of outfield players, as well as a proficient keeper in Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City). As was previously mentioned, South American qualifying is incredibly tough, so Peru shouldn’t be taken lightly. But while the country exploded in celebration when its association qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1982, chances are it won’t have too much to cheer about in Russia.

Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

This is where things start to get interesting. Argentina is a world power in soccer and narrowly missed hoisting the trophy four years ago, but it struggled mightily in qualifying and has looked lost when talisman Lionel Messi has been out due to injury. Depth is a concern everywhere except in attack, where the trio of Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) and Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli) will prowl. But surely such offensive firepower can and will compensate for a shaky defense and midfield. With a world-class midfield and forwards capable of pumping in goal after goal, Croatia should be considered a threat to the Argentine favorites. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is a proven star, and those aforementioned strikers are young and hungry to make their marks internationally.

However, lurking in the periphery are Iceland and Nigeria, two dark-horse teams that have the ability to stun unsuspecting opponents. Iceland as a nation is tiny, but the current generation of players has made a huge impact in the last few years, far surpassing expectations in Euro 2016 and qualifying for this tournament for the first time. Teamwork is its strength, each player relying on the next for shape and stability. Individually, Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton) is a bona fide talent, is dangerous leading the attack and could break out as a major star with a good showing this summer. Nigeria is relatively weak on the defensive side of things but is frontloaded with talent. Leicester strike partners Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho will suit up for the Super Eagles, with Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) and Victor Moses (Chelsea) also running in attack.

Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

This is another difficult group to predict. In theory, Brazil should run away with it; following a crushingly disappointing fourth-place finish while hosting the competition in 2014 and saddled as always with exceedingly high expectations, this excellent crop of players nevertheless should perform well and exact some measure of revenge for its 2014 failure. Glancing through the team sheet yields a veritable who’s who of bright young stars and crafty veterans, and this could be the year the Seleção adds to its five World Cup championships.

Things get murky when you begin to look elsewhere in this group, though. Switzerland is positioned sixth in the world by FIFA, but those rankings are misleading for a lot of reasons too numerous and complex to explain here. Still, it is a quality team, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it advance out of the group. Standing in the way of the Swiss, though, are two unpredictable teams in Costa Rica and Serbia. The former shockingly advanced to the quarterfinals in 2014 behind outstanding goalkeeping from Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) and timely counterattacking goals; the latter is a well-balanced and experienced squad that defends well as a unit and is surprisingly lethal moving forward. Neither is likely to supplant Brazil at the top of the group, but both are equally likely to usurp Switzerland as the second representative from Group E.

Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Reigning World Cup champions Germany, in a preview of this year’s tournament, racked up another piece of silverware last summer when it won the Confederations Cup – with a squad composed almost entirely of second and third-string players. And it did so in fine fashion, winning all but one match en route to the final, where it rectified that blemish by defeating Chile, the team it had tied. The dominating performance highlighted the strength of the youth-development program in the country and proved that the Germans have the mettle not only to repeat as champions in Russia, but also to be a continuing force in the sport as the next generation of athletes progress through the system. Their showing in tune-up matches has been subpar, but expect them to regain focus once the results actually matter.

Mexico, having been soundly beaten 4-1 by Germany in that Confederations Cup, will be hungry to atone for the drubbing, and it won’t have to wait long for the chance: The pair square off in the first group-stage match for each team on Sunday, June 17. Mexico has a good chance to advance, too, with creativity in the midfield having led to a wealth of goal-scoring opportunities in recent matches. Sweden (minus the towering figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, sadly), should vie for second place with the Mexicans. Although Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is a firecracker whose pace and finishing ability are game changers, it is doubtful that the rest of the roster is good enough to challenge the other teams in this field.

Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

If there’s such a thing as cut and dry regarding group play in 2018, this should be it. Belgium is riding an unprecedented wave of talent into Russia and is the closest thing to a lock to advance as possible. Solid in every aspect of the game, the small Western European country is poised for a deep tournament run. While it has a long history of not living up to expectations on this stage, England clearly is the next most-talented team on deck and should advance with ease. With its first two matches coming against England and Belgium, respectively, it can be reasonably assumed that Tunisia will not be able to secure enough points to advance. And had the U.S. not botched its final qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama wouldn’t even be in this conversation. But hey, this is a competition in which anything can happen …

Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

Speaking of which, it would not be surprising to see any combination of these teams emerge victorious from group play. Colombia and Poland certainly are the favorites to advance, but the spread between these four teams is razor thin. With speedy Sadio Mane (Liverpool) leading the Senegalese attack and Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli) anchoring the back line, the African nation could make major waves in just its second appearance in the World Cup. Individual stars dot Japan’s lineup, as well, most notably Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa and Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki. The two will have to find themselves on the scoresheet more often than they did in Brazil in order for Japan to leapfrog the favorites, particularly if Bayern Munich teammates James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandoski are able to build on notable previous World Cup appearances for Colombia and Poland, respectively.

Where to watch

Photo courtesy of Manchester United Knoxville

Along with soccer’s increased visibility in the U.S. has come amplified viability. Four years ago during the World Cup in Brazil, watch parties were scheduled and well attended at various spots across Knoxville. Impromptu gatherings of soccer fans popped up seemingly everywhere in the city, as well, making for one exciting month. Four years before that … not so much. Supply and demand were different then. Jokes about vuvuzelas were more abundant than places that opened to accommodate folks wanting to meet up to watch some footy over a pint or three.

In the intervening years between Brazil and Russia, something even more special has happened. Bars and breweries around town have attracted soccer fans in droves, each locale serving as a hub for a specific team (although of course supporters of other clubs and non-fans alike are welcome at any such establishment). A couple of these places – first Hops & Hollers and now Alliance Brewing Co. – have served as central meeting spots for all fans.

As we now are on the cusp of the 2018 World Cup, BLANK reached out to known soccer-friendly businesses to see what they have in store for the next month. Keep in mind that the first few days of the tournament coincide with Knoxville Craft Beer Week, so there might be even more on tap (both literally and figuratively) at these places. Also, if you know of any other locations that will be serving up a side of soccer with their food/drinks, let us know so that we may add them to this list. Presented alphabetically for quick referencing:

Alliance Brewing Co.

The central hub for Premier League action and the home base for several specific fan groups will aim to open early for as many matches as possible. In keeping with its inclusive vibe, it “will not be a home base for any team but a place for all footie lovers!” In addition, anyone wearing a soccer kit/shirt will receive $1 off his/her beer.

Hops & Hollers

The chosen bar of the Knox Gooners, Arsenal’s local fan club, also will remain neutral in spite of the England connection. Explaining that the side comprises players from several different countries competing at this year’s World Cup, management says that fans of all stripes are welcome to take in the action during regular business hours (beginning at 2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sundays), noting that, starting with the round of 16, they will adjust their hours to game times based on demand. Matches will fall during happy hour, meaning that draft beers will be $1 off.

Merchants of Beer

Home to Manchester United Knoxville, MoB also plans on opening for as many matches as possible, including some of the earliest ones. They, too, expect a large Three Lions following because of the Premier League connection but will welcome other fans with open arms, as well. Although they still are in the process of finalizing drink specials and special events, they promise to offer “drink specials for each match and/or day of the World Cup.” Also, for the England-Belgium match (2 p.m. on June 28), a Duvel representative will be on hand to teach and certify patrons on how to do a perfect pour.

Please be aware that this is a 21-and-up establishment, but do consider making it here for a match or two if you meet that benchmark. On a personal note, as a member of the Man U group, I personally can attest to just how accommodating and attentive the staff here has been to the collective over the last year.

Schulz Bräu Brewing Co.

As a traditional German brewery owned and operated by actual Germans, Schulz Bräu naturally will be a home base for German supporters, although it, too, welcomes all fans of the sport. It will open at 9 a.m. on June 14 for the opening ceremony and will remain open for the first match, which follows at 11. The castle will be open for all of Germany’s opening-round matches, as well as for all games in the knockout phase of the tournament. The brewery might offer drink specials but hasn’t decided on any as of yet.

Some other options

Soccer Taco is a no-brainer for catching a lunchtime match, but be aware that both locations can fill up rather quickly. Union Jack’s is a traditional English pub, has been around seemingly forever, is now smoke-free and has aired games from time to time. Sugar Mama’s welcomes Chelsea supporters; don’t be surprised to see some matches playing on the screen there. Scruffy City Hall aired several matches on its huge projection screen in 2014 and could follow suit this year. Central Flats & Taps has been known to show games, as has Crown & Goose. Last but not least, Cool Beans opens every day at 11 a.m. and has been a hangout spot for a good number of soccer fans over the years.

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