FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks at the end of the FIFA congress in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. The United bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States won the vote against Morocco to host the 2026 World Cup. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
FIFA President Gianni Infantino spoke at the end of the FIFA congress in Moscow, Russia on Wednesday.
Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

HAYDEN BIRD

Your guide to the 2018 World Cup

On Thursday in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the 21st FIFA World Cup will get underway. The Russian hosts face Saudi Arabia in the first of 64 soccer games that will culminate with the crowning of a champion in the July 15 final.

Around the world, billions of viewers will tune in to watch 32 teams from six continents vie for one of the most coveted trophies in sports.

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For United States fans, the tournament initially spotlights a conspicuous (and embarrassing) reality: The Americans failed to qualify, and for the first time since 1986 will be absent from the World Cup. Still, there will be plenty of excitement for even casual soccer fans to tune in for.

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Here’s a guide:

Yes, the World Cup is in Russia

For the first time in World Cup history, the tournament will be hosted by Russia. Twelve stadiums will host games across 11 cities. For several reasons, FIFA’s decision to select Russia as host is controversial, including that the Russian World Cup bidding process was accused of being corrupt. In 2015, the former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, told a Russian news outlet that the vote to give Russia the 2018 tournament was fixed beforehand.

Formal investigations into the bid produced no tangible proof of corruption, although the report bluntly noted that Russian computers used for the bid had been systematically destroyed.

Russia is also only months removed from a particularly awkward moment on the world stage at the Winter Olympics. After International Olympic Committee investigators confirmed a state-sponsored doping program during the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, the Russian Olympic team was formally banned from the recent Pyeongchang Games.

Instead of the Russian team, a smaller group of athletes who passed drug tests were allowed to compete as “Olympic Athletes From Russia.”

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England head coach Gareth Southgate, receives the traditional Russian greeting of bread from a woman in traditional costume before the start of the first training session for the England team at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Spartak Zelenogorsk stadium, Zelenogorsk near St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
England head coach Gareth Southgate received the traditional Russian greeting of bread from a woman in traditional costume before the start of the first training session for the England team at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Spartak Zelenogorsk stadium, Zelenogorsk near St. Petersburg, Russia on Wednesday.
Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Aside from the bidding controversy and its Olympic scandal, Russian fans have developed an inglorious reputation. Russian hooliganism, for which rural brawls have recently received attention, was on full display at the 2016 UEFA European Championships in France. Fans were deported after instigating violence.

Russian fans have also been consistently cited for racism. The most recent example came in May, when the Russian Football Union was fined just $29,500 for racist chants against French players Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembele, and N’Golo Kante. Zenit St. Petersburg, a top Russian club, was recently ordered to (again) play in an empty stadium because of racist taunting of players.

Related: World Cup scoreboard

Why exactly isn’t the US in it?

The dominant subject for US fans heading into the tournament is why the men’s team isn’t in the field of 32.

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Fans under the age of 30 (a demographic for whom the game is increasingly popular) have never known a World Cup without the US team. Even in 1998, when the American men finished dead last in what was undeniably a fiasco, they at least qualified.

In 2018, the US wasn’t so lucky. While the women’s team is the world champion, the men struggled through qualification in the CONCACAF region. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who presided over the US team’s run to the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, was fired in November 2016.

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Former US coach Bruce Arena, who led the men’s team to one of its best World Cup runs in 2002, was brought back in. Going into the final qualification game in Trinidad and Tobago, the US team would’ve avoided elimination in 26 of the possible 27 scenarios. Yet by losing 2-1, and with wins coming from Panama and Honduras, the Americans were stunningly out.

In the aftermath of the failure, there have been various targets of blame. Arena was fired, and the team is currently operating with Dave Sarachan as interim coach. Carlos Cordeiro was elected as president of the United States Soccer Federation, though the reception has been tepid.

Mexico's Rafael Marquez, right, trains with his teammates during a training session of Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Mexico's Rafael Marquez (right) trained with his teammates during a training session of Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow.
Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

While American fans might complain about a lack of enthusiasm for this summer’s World Cup, one popular voice in the US game recently voiced his opinion on why tournaments without your home country can still be worth watching.

“It’s more fun to watch a World Cup when you’re not nervous about your own team,” podcast host Michael Davies said in the “Men in Blazers” World Cup preview show.

England, Davies’s country, missed the tournament in 1974, 1978, and 1994 (when it was played in the United States).

“These were the greatest World Cups,” said Davies.

Who is (probably) going to win it?

Though the tournament is a festival of the world’s game, the World Cup trophy has been the property of an elite few since the inaugural event in 1930.

Eight nations (Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Uruguay) have accounted for all 20 World Cup wins, with Brazil’s five titles leading the way.

The host nation has won its own tournament six times, but that doesn’t appear likely in 2018. Russia enters the tournament ranked dead last among the 32 teams (and 70th in the world). It is winless in its last seven games heading into the World Cup opener Thursday.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by PETER POWELL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9714867o) Alan Dzagoev Russia training, Moscow, Russian Federation - 13 Jun 2018 Russia's Alan Dzagoev (R) and his teammates attend their training session in Moscow, Russia, 13 June 2018. Russia will face Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2018, the group A preliminary round soccer match on 14 June 2018.
Russia's Alan Dzagoev (right) and his teammates attended their training session in Moscow.
PETER POWELL/EPA/Shutterstock

The front-runners are Brazil, France, Spain, and defending champion Germany. Given the tournament groups, it’s possible that all four could reach what would be a savory set of semifinals.

World superstars Lionel Messi (of Argentina) and Cristiano Ronaldo (of Portugal) are present for what could be their final World Cup. Each still possesses the prowess to guide his nation deep into the knockout stage.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi smiles as he sits on a ball during a training session of Argentina's national football team at the team's base camp in Bronnitsy, near Moscow, on June 11, 2018 ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONGFRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi smiled as he sat on a ball during a training session.
FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images

The groups

Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain

Group C: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru

Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

Group-stage games to watch

From June 14-28, teams will compete in the group stages. The 32 nations have been broken into eight groups of four teams each. Every team will play its fellow group members once, with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the knockout round (which begins June 30).

About three to four games will be played per day over that two-week span. Some days, games are at 8 a.m. 11 a.m., and 2 p.m.; other days the kickoff times are 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.

Host cities Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, Kazan, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Saransk, and Nizhny Novgorod are seven hours ahead of the East Coast while other host cites are in different time zones still: Kaliningrad is six hours ahead of the East Coast, Samara is eight, Yekaterinburg is nine.

The groups were drawn in December, and while many games undoubtedly will produce unforeseen drama, here are several to keep an eye on:

Friday, June 15, 2 p.m.: Spain vs. Portugal. On the tournament’s second day, powerhouse Spain will meet reigning European champions Portugal in a struggle for Iberian bragging rights (and vital group-stage points).

Saturday, June 16, 9 a.m.:Argentina vs. Iceland. Despite possessing some of the best attacking talent in the world (including Messi), Argentina’s national team organization has been frequently labeled a “disaster.” Contrast that with the impeccable system in Iceland, which has more top-level coaches per capita than any other nation in the world. The result has been the island nation becoming the smallest by population to ever qualify for a World Cup. Could this be a recipe for an upset?

Sunday, June 17, 11 a.m.:Germany vs. Mexico. The defending champions are aiming to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to repeat as World Cup winners. Mexico, arguably CONCACAF’s best hope to make a run in the tournament, will be hoping Hirving “Chucky” Lozano seizes his chance on the big stage.

Thursday, June 21, 11 a.m.: France vs. Peru. Like Germany, France has an absolute embarrassment of talent, though it managed only a 1-1 draw in its final pretournament friendly against a youthful US team. Peru, which eliminated Brazil from the 2016 Copa America at Gillette Stadium, hasn’t lost a game since November 2016.

Thursday, June 28, 2 p.m.: England vs. Belgium. While it’s entirely possible that England will continue to underwhelm at international tournaments, it’s equally likely that the two European nations in Group G will be fighting it out for first place on the final day of opening-round matches.