The 8 group games we're most excited about at World Cup 2018
A new seeding system means that in comparison to recent World Cups, this year’s group stage promises fewer bouts between bona fide heavyweights. That doesn’t mean, though, that Russia 2018 will be without its fair share of cracking first-round matches. Including...
Egypt vs Uruguay
Friday June 15, 1pm (UK time)
With all due respect to Russia and Saudi Arabia (the amount due being ‘not very much’) this is the game to properly kickstart the World Cup. After a pair of the tournament’s worst teams trip over confetti from the opening ceremony, Day Two opens with a clash that features not just stars – Mo Salah (we hope), Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani – but stories.
Oscar Tabarez is one of the most important figures in Uruguayan football history, despite never playing for the national team. He coached La Celeste on previous occasions and has now been their manager continuously for over 12 years, encompassing more games than any other manager has ever overseen with one national team. In that time he’s taken them to a World Cup semi-final, won the Copa America and shaped a generation of footballing talent. Now El Maestro is finally preparing to step down, having somehow carried on his good work while battling Guillain-Barré Syndrome for two years; a muscular disorder which has forced the 71-year-old to use crutches or a wheelchair.
Egypt, meanwhile, have been one of African football’s dominant forces over the past 25 years and yet haven’t played at a World Cup since 1990. Inspired by Salah’s rise, the entire country has been whipped into a frenzy of excitement, and their opening match should see a serious outpouring of emotion among fans and players alike.
Plus, if captain Essam El-Hadary gets on the pitch (and he did play in most of Egypt’s qualifying games), then the 45-year-old goalkeeper will set a new record as the oldest player in World Cup history.
Portugal vs Spain
Friday June 15, 7pm
As well as Egypt vs Uruguay, the World Cup’s first full day of action offers one of the group stage’s few genuinely star-studded contests.
It’s Friday night football and it’s the reigning European champions taking on the 2010 world champions in Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, only the second venue in history to host a World Cup match and the Winter Olympics (the other being Turin’s Stadio Olimpico).
Keep that inevitable hangover within reasonable limits, however, because the following day has four fixtures and an early start. Yep, June 15 is a good day for a sickie. We feel bad for not mentioning Morocco vs Iran at 4pm now. Power nap?
Argentina vs Iceland
Saturday 16 June, 2pm
This tantalising tie follows France vs Australia at 11am on a special day of four games being played back-to-back-to-back-to-back. It precedes the ‘iconic kit derby’ of Peru vs Denmark and then Croatia vs Nigeria, when you’re good and drunk. If you’re not at an all-day barbecue on this Saturday, you’re doing the World Cup wrong.
Iceland’s stellar performance in the European Championship and impressive qualification for this tournament (they topped a group of six that featured four teams who’d qualified for Euro 2016) means that no media outlets should treat this match-up as a ‘Leo Messi taking on some Sunday League fishermen’ novelty. Plenty of them still will, of course.
This should be a corker. Argentina are overwhelming favourites and yet so vulnerable, having required a Messi hat-trick on the final day of qualifying to get here. Iceland are very capable and yet have a defence made up of players from the Championship, Scotland, Denmark and Iceland itself. But then, Argentina have Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, and yet somehow scored the second-fewest goals in South American qualifying (three more than Bolivia).
In short: anything could happen.
Belgium vs Panama
Monday June 18, 4pm
This is a chance for England fans to see what future opponents Panama are all about, a couple of hours before the Three Lions kick off their own campaign against Tunisia, but it’s also – on paper – one of the World Cup’s biggest mismatches. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku & Co. will do battle with a nation attending its first ever World Cup, and who just lost 6-0 to Switzerland.
Panama are here on merit, though, and this is their first opportunity to prove that… or become the first team to lose a World Cup finals match by 10 or more goals.