The world’s single greatest sporting event, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, is already proving to be dramatic and unpredictable.
The planet’s best teams and players — including Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi — have descended on Russia to play on soccer’s biggest stage. It’s a tournament where legends are born, hearts are broken, and, when all is said and done, a team is crowned the World Cup champion: the pinnacle of the world’s most popular sport.
At least half the world will tune in to the competition, even if most Americans probably won’t. That’s in part because the US national team didn’t qualify, but that’s not the whole story. Ahead of the last World Cup in 2014, which featured Team USA, 87 percent of Americans said they knew little to nothing about soccer, and around 67 percent had no plans to watch.
Here’s my plea: Continue to watch the World Cup even without the US in it. I bet you’ll start to enjoy soccer and the tournament as the rest of the world does. “Soccer is the working man’s ballet,” Simon Kuper, co-author of Soccernomics, which was updated for this World Cup, told me. “You can see beauty and genius right away. It’s hard to appreciate the genius of Einstein, but one can easily appreciate the beauty of Messi.”
If you’re on the fence about whether to tune in, in part because you don’t know much about the World Cup, don’t worry. What follows is a guide that helps answer all the most embarrassing questions you wouldn’t want to ask out loud. At least, that’s the goal (get it?).
Let’s get this ball rolling.
1) What is the World Cup, and how does it work?
Simply put, the World Cup is the single most beloved sporting event on the planet.
“The World Cup brings together the most people on the globe,” Grant Wahl, the author of Masters of Modern Soccer, told me. “More countries care about this sport and this tournament than any other event.”
The first World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930 after soccer became a popular event at the Olympics. FIFA, soccer’s governing body (more on this group below), wanted to stage an international competition where professionals — instead of amateurs at the Olympics — could play and draw big crowds.
It has since turned into a global phenomenon that enthralls soccer fans every four years. It is the world’s most-watched sporting event and generates billions of dollars from sponsorships, ticket and shirt sales, broadcasting licenses, and much more.
Here’s how the World Cup works: All the world’s 207 national teams are split up into six regions. Over a roughly two-year period, they compete in regional qualifying tournaments to earn one of the 32 spots at the World Cup. The host of the tournament — in this case, Russia — receives an automatic spot, even if it doesn’t have a particularly good squad. (Sorry, Putin.)
The qualifying 32 teams are then put into eight groups of four — labeled Groups A through H — by a random, though seeded, draw. After the draw, the group that is deemed the hardest to win, meaning that all four teams are fairly evenly matched, is called the “Group of Death.” This year, however, there is some debate as to which one deserves that title.
Once the group stage begins, the teams compete in a round-robin format, where each country plays the other three in the group just once. A win is worth 3 points; a tie, 1 point; and a loss, 0. The two teams with the highest point totals at the end of those three games move on to the knockout rounds.
That’s when the World Cup gets really fun — and soccer fans’ blood pressure rises to unhealthy levels. In the group stage, a team could tie a game, or even lose, but still play on. But in the knockout rounds, the losing team is eliminated from the entire tournament while the winner goes to the next round.
Recall that soccer has two halves, each 45 minutes long, for a total of a 90-minute game (plus “stoppage time” for injuries and substitutions, at the referees’ discretion). If the scores are tied at the end of those 90 minutes, the knockout game goes into a 30-minute overtime; if both sides remain tied after that, they go to penalty kicks.
The win-or-go-home nature of the knockout rounds makes every pass, every slide tackle, every save, and, yes, every goal matter even more.
There’s a round of 16, which then turns into a quarterfinal, which becomes a semifinal, ultimately leading to the biggest game in all of soccerdom: the World Cup final. It’s like Game 7 of the World Series and the Super Bowl all rolled into one, but the entire world cares about it.
You can tell how much winning the final means to players and fans just from Germany’s celebrations after it won the last World Cup in 2014. The country held a huge party when the players returned home.
(Quick note: The losers of the two semifinal games play each other before the final to determine who comes in third place. It’s technically part of the tournament, but it’s more about making the almost-finalists feel good, I guess.)
2) Where is the 2018 World Cup?
FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, chooses where it will hold its quadrennial flagship tournament based on bids (and maybe some bribes) from countries. In December 2010, it made a startling decision: Russia would host the 2018 competition. (It also tapped Qatar for the 2022 tournament, but more on that later.)
That was somewhat surprising; other candidates angling for the tournament included a joint Belgium-Netherlands bid, a solo England bid, and a joint Portugal-Spain bid. At the time, those options seemed more attractive to soccer fans because, well, they have great soccer facilities and cultures — and are also not run by an autocrat like Vladimir Putin.
There were some irregularities with the vote. A member of Russia’s World Cup lobbying group sent a painting to a FIFA executive, for example. And three weeks before the tally, news broke that FIFA had suspended two voting members for accepting bribes in exchange for votes. However, a commissioned FIFA report cleared Russia of any “undue influence.”
Awarding authoritarian countries with top global sporting events is actually a trend. As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem pointed out, fewer countries now want to host the Olympics because of how costly it is. But dictatorships that don’t have to worry about financial accountability to citizens remain interested in hosting big sporting competitions.
The same is true for the World Cup. “The World Cup became very overpriced,” said Kuper, who is also a columnist for the Financial Times. He noted that Germany upped the ante when it hosted in 2006 by having top-of-the-line stadiums and facilities, spending roughly $4 billion to host the competition.
There were other instances of countries going all out to win the bid. In 2002, South Korea and Japan built 16 total stadiums, and refurbished four others, to host the tournament. Brazil spent around $15 billion to host the 2014 competition.
That upped the ante for hosting the 2018 World Cup. So far, it looks like Russia has reportedly spent — wait for it — $12 billion total to host the World Cup, with nearly 60 percent of that money coming from the country’s federal budget.
That massive spending total includes building the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg. It cost about $1 billion, seats around 70,000 fans, and is now the second-largest stadium in the country. As you might imagine with a project like this — and because it’s Russia — there was a lot of corruption surrounding the stadium’s creation. One prominent example: A Russian deputy governor received around 50 million rubles, or $800,000, in kickbacks from the subcontractor who built the scoreboard.
“It’s a systemic problem. You can’t build something legally, safely and sensibly in Russia without constant cost overruns, corruption, and mismanagement,” Lyubov Sobol, a researcher at the anti-Putin Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told the Financial Times in 2016.
But FIFA likely won’t mind. Russia (and Qatar) effectively told the organization, “Look, whatever you want, we’ll spend the money — we don’t care because we’re not accountable, really, to our population,” Kuper told me. Having lavish facilities, frankly, makes the World Cup aesthetically pleasing, which in turn reflects well on Russia and FIFA.
Here’s one thing that might make both Russia and FIFA look bad, though: Russia’s notorious hooliganism. There is currently a disturbing rise in neo-Nazi soccer fans in Russia. During a European soccer tournament in the summer of 2016, Russians attacked English fans — cutting one person’s Achilles’ heel and lodging glass into another person’s neck.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” a British police officer told Sky News. “The Russians came with serious intent to carry out barbaric violence. They were highly organized, very effective. We saw football hooliganism on a different level.”
Russian soccer fans are also known for their rampant racism. FIFA even fined Russia around $30,000 in early May for failing to stop bigoted chants from supporters during a game against France. (The French team has a lot of black players.)
So the World Cup may look aesthetically pleasing thanks to Putin’s heavy spending, but the Russian fans could make the tournament look really ugly.
3) What is FIFA?
We’ve talked a lot already about this soccer governing body known as FIFA. What the heck is it, and why is the World Cup called the FIFA World Cup, anyway?
FIFA stands for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. It’s the soccer organization that runs the World Cup and has a super-French name because, well, it was founded in Paris in May 1904. It runs other big tournaments worldwide too, but the World Cup is its main showpiece.
It’s best to think of FIFA as the global administrative hub of soccer that aims to regulate and promote the sport worldwide. Oddly, it runs like an actual global political body. It has a president who leads the entire organization, a Congress that passes dictates for the game, and even committees that provide strategic guidance and oversight.
FIFA is also made up of six semiautonomous regional bodies that help govern their respective areas. These regional bodies administrate all things soccer for their areas, including the six different qualifying tournaments for the World Cup. Soccer in the United States, for example, is governed by the the Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football — known more commonly as CONCACAF.
Like most large international bodies, FIFA has had its share of major scandals.
Here’s the most recent big one: In 2015, the US Department of Justice indicted nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives for racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, and wire fraud as part of “a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.” It’s worth noting that FIFA is technically a nonprofit, even though it makes billions of dollars.
Two charged members included Alfredo Hawit, then the president of CONCACAF, and Juan Ángel Napout, formerly the South American region’s chief. The scandal eventually led Sepp Blatter, then the head of FIFA, to resign.
FIFA’s corruption has caused some prominent soccer fans to wrestle with their love of the World Cup. Look no further than John Oliver: In 2014, he worked through his conflicting anti-FIFA and pro-World Cup feelings during the early days of his show Last Week Tonight.
It’s worth your time to watch, if for no other reason than you’re going to need a laugh before the next section.
4) Is the USA in the World Cup 2018?
If you’re not sitting down while you read this, grab a seat. It’s about to get rough.
Here’s really all you need to know: America didn’t qualify for the tournament, even though it should have. (The women’s national team, it should be noted, is the best in the world and won the last Women’s World Cup in 2015.)
The US, like every other country, went through regional qualifying in order to make the World Cup. The United States, because it’s in North America, competes in CONCACAF.
There are multiple rounds in CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament, but the fifth and final one sees the six best teams compete in what’s called the “Hexagonal,” known colloquially as “the Hex.”
In that round, each team plays the others twice — home and away — for a total of 10 games. The top three teams with the highest point total automatically make it to the World Cup, while the fourth-place team has to go into a playoff with an Asian runner-up to qualify. (Again, a win gets a team 3 points; a tie earns 1 point; a loss means a team receives no points.)
The United States made it to the Hexagonal. That meant America had to place among the top four teams in a group consisting of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago to make it into the World Cup.
As you can tell from the results list below, the United States didn’t perform well in the round. It lost its first two games against Mexico and Costa Rica, and then struggled mightily to work its way back into the fold.
Ultimately, the US ended up in fifth place after a disastrous 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the final game on October 20, 2017. But had America won, the team would be at the World Cup.
That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy. Trinidad was by far the worst team in the group and hadn’t won any of its previous nine matches — with the US beating Trinidad 2-0 about four months earlier.
What’s worse, Panama and Honduras had to respectively beat Costa Rica and Mexico, the two best teams in the Hexagonal, to knock out the US if it lost to Trindad. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. That meant Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama would automatically qualify, leaving Honduras to play Australia for a World Cup spot (Australia won, knocking out Honduras).
Let’s be clear: The United States is by no means a world soccer power, but it is a major force within its own region alongside Mexico and Costa Rica. America had played in every World Cup since 1990, often comfortably making it into the tournament through the regional qualifier.
But now you won’t see the United States in Russia because of its tragically poor performance. “It was one of the greatest failures in the history of American sports,” Wahl, who also writes about soccer for Sports Illustrated, told me.
There are tons of rants from former US soccer professionals about what happened. I particularly recommend this one from Alexi Lalas, a Team USA legend who now serves as an analyst for Fox Sports 1. Let’s just say he speaks for me as he goes off on how poorly the US played throughout the Hex.
5) Who’s favored to win the World Cup?
If you follow soccer, the tournament favorites won’t surprise you: Based on soccer mathematician David Sumpter’s model, they are (in order) Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, and Argentina.
That makes sense: All those teams are ridiculously stacked with talent, and each has won at least one World Cup.
There are good reasons to think those countries will perform well. Germany won the last World Cup in 2014, and many of the same players from that squad are back for 2018. Brazil has won five World Cups — the most in history — and features one of the world’s best players in Neymar. Brazil is also arguably the most complete team in the tournament.
France is a perennial world soccer power and conceivably has one of the easiest paths to the final, especially since it was placed in a relatively easy group with Peru, Denmark, and Australia. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and is full of wily tournament veterans that know how to win.
But each of these teams has its problems that could keep them from glory.
Germany, for example, has a new crop of young players that still don’t mesh well with the older players who lifted the last trophy. Brazil underperformed in the last tournament, even though the competition took place in Brazil. The team embarrassingly crashed out with a 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals and now seeks redemption.
France was riddled with personality clashes in the past and lately has failed to rise to the big occasion, Wahl told me. For example, France made it to the finals of the European championship two years ago, but lost 1-0 to an inferior Portugal side.
Spain’s best players — primarily midfielder Andres Iniesta — are quite old and there are questions about who, exactly, will score goals for the team. And finally, Argentina has lost four straight finals in major competitions, including falling to Germany in the last World Cup.
Of course, there are still other great teams in the tournament like Belgium, Croatia, and Uruguay. With so many talented squads vying for the top prize, this could be a World Cup to remember.
6) Who are the best players at the World Cup?
There’s no way to do an exhaustive list here, as there are too many top players at the World Cup to count. Still, it’s worth mentioning a few names.
All lists like this must start with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. One of these two players have won the Ballon d’Or — the world’s best player award — every year since 2008, each earning the title five times. (In 2007, Ronaldo was named the second-best player in the world, and Messi third.)
Crucially, neither player has won a World Cup, hurting each man’s chances of being considered the best player in soccer history. Messi came the closest after leading Argentina to a World Cup final in 2014, but ultimately lost to Germany. Ronaldo, at least, won the European championship in 2016 with Portugal.
But there are other world-class players in this tournament. Brazil’s Neymar is seen as the heir apparent to Ronaldo and Messi, angling to snatch the world’s best player award from them soon (he was named the world’s third-best player in 2015 and 2017). France’s Antoine Griezmann was 2016’s third-best player and could potentially lead his country to World Cup glory.
Spain’s Andres Iniesta is arguably the best midfielder on the planet even at 34 years old. This will be his last World Cup, though, and he’ll surely want to win a second trophy before he retires from international competition. But Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne will want to prove that he’s the new creative force on the global stage.
What’s also fun is that every World Cup heralds the global discovery of relative unknowns because of how well they play. In 2014, for example, Colombia’s James Rodriguez surprised global soccer by netting six goals, earning him a coveted place at the soccer giant Real Madrid after the tournament.
Here’s who could become this year’s Rodriguez: Egypt’s Mohamed Salah had a record-breaking season playing for Liverpool in England, and nearly singlehandedly led his team to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. He’s arguably already an elite player. That’s all the more special because he comes from the Middle East, a region that rarely produces top talent.
France’s 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe is shockingly talented for someone so young. He could use the World Cup to show that his prodigious gifts are for real and help lead his team to a title.
Finally, Sweden’s Emil Forsberg is a very skilled midfielder who has already made a name for himself playing in Germany. The problem is world recognition has eluded him and he has yet to become a household name. That could all change with a string of great performances if he helps his team beat expectations and go far into the knockout rounds.
Don’t forget the goalkeepers! No, they won’t strike wonder goals, but they could stop them with miraculous, lightning-quick reflexes and acrobatic dives. Five keepers in particular stand out among the talented throng: Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Spain’s David De Gea, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, France’s Hugo Lloris, and Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois. You can expect these goalies to make game-winning saves when it matters most.
7) Is there an official World Cup song?
This year’s is called “Live It Up,” and it’s performed by Nicky Jam, Era Istrefi, and — I can’t believe I’m typing this — West Philadelphia-born-and-raised Will Smith. The song was produced by Diplo, the mastermind behind some major hits.
Take a listen:
It’s undoubtedly a catchy jam, but that hasn’t stopped a controversy from brewing about a World Cup song. One of the major critiques is that the song has, as some have argued, a “Latin American feel.” That vibe, critics on social media say, doesn’t make much sense since the 2018 World Cup takes place in Russia. That’s led some to wonder why a Russian group — or at least an Eastern European musician — didn’t take the lead on the anthem (though Istrefi is from Kosovo).
Let’s be real: A World Cup song hasn’t been a perfect representation of the host country since 1994. That’s when Daryl Hall (sans Oates) performed “Gloryland” for the competition held in the US.
And when South Africa held the tournament in 2010 — the first time an African country hosted the competition — the song “Waka Waka (Time for Africa)” was performed by ... Shakira.
(There are more examples, like when Pitbull sang the song for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — yes, really — but you get the idea.)
Many people wanted an African musician to sing the 2010 tournament’s official song instead of the Colombian pop star. But Kyla-Rose Smith, a member of the South African band Freshlyground, didn’t think FIFA choosing Shakira was such a big deal.
“I think that the World Cup is a global event but it’s also a business, a huge marketing exercise,” she told PBS in 2010. “FIFA requires a musician of a certain global reach to appeal to all the different kinds of people who are involved and witness and watch the World Cup. So I understand the choice of someone like Shakira.” (Freshlyground did get to perform in the background for “Waka Waka.”)
FIFA eventually offered some music slots to African artists, like Somali hip-hop star K’naan (a personal favorite of yours truly), as part of its sponsored music content.
But it’s likely the official World Cup song will stir up controversy every four years until FIFA chooses an artist that better represents that competition’s host nation.
You can hear snippets of every official World Cup song since 1982 here:
8) Where will the 2022 World Cup take place?
Qatar. Yes, you read that right: Qatar.
In 2010, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to the tiny Middle Eastern nation, the first time a Mideast country will host the tournament. That’s noteworthy, but the Qatar selection has become a major controversy.
Qatar is an extremely authoritarian country that subjugates women and others based on their sexual or gender orientations, according to Human Rights Watch. The country’s human rights deficit extends into how it mistreats migrant workers who are literally building the subsequent World Cup facilities.
Qatar relies heavily on those laborers, which comprise about 95 percent of the total workforce, or 2 million people. Most come from places like Asia or Africa and work nearly 12 hours day and live in terrible conditions.
A 2013 report from the International Trade Union Commission estimated that 4,000 migrant workers would die between 2014 and the 2022 World Cup. “Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accident, heart attack (brought on by the life-threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same — working conditions,” the report concluded, using data from the Indian and Nepalese embassies.
Part of the problem is that the country is extremely hot and typically reaches temperatures above 100 degrees. That puts thousands of workers in life-threatening heat as they race to prepare facilities for the 2022 competition.
The Qatari summer heat is so bad that FIFA moved the World Cup to the winter, setting the final match for December 18, 2022, Qatar’s National Day. That’s a huge deal: All modern World Cups take place in the summer, in part so the event doesn’t interfere with regular season schedules for professional soccer leagues in England, Spain, or elsewhere.
That’s not all: FIFA president Gianni Infantino wants to expand the tournament to include 48 teams, 16 more than will compete in the 2018 World Cup. “I firmly believe in an enlargement because I am convinced that it is good for the development of football,” he told the BBC in April. That may be true, but it would certainly be good for FIFA’s wallet.
Having that many teams, though, would be a problem for Qatar. After all, it’s a very tiny country and is already struggling to have everything ready for 32 teams in 2022. If Qatar has to host 48 squads, it would likely exceed its capacity. That’s why there’s some talk of asking Kuwait to co-host the competition. Kuwait, for now, seems interested.
There’s nice symbolism in having the World Cup take place in the Middle East for the first time ever. But you have to wonder: Is giving the honor to Qatar really worth it?
9) Okay, so who will win World Cup 2018?
So after all that, who’s going to win, you ask. Well, I obviously don’t know, but I’m going to choose France.
Here’s why: France is in an easy group (Group C), and should — should — comfortably finish in first place. That means it would meet the runner-up of Group D in the round of 16, which I believe will be Croatia. Croatia is a very solid team, but France has the firepower to get past them.
In the quarterfinals, I believe France will play either Uruguay or Portugal (if pressed, I’d say Uruguay). France should dispatch either of those talented squads too. That takes the French team to the semifinals, where I think they will face off against Belgium, one of the strongest teams in the tournament. That would be quite the heavyweight fight, but I think France has a bit more experience and quality than the still-young Belgian side, as talented as it is.
Some eagle-eyed readers will ask why I think France won’t play Brazil, a top favorite, in the semifinals. Well, I have Brazil winning its group but losing to my projected Group F runner-up Mexico in a stunning upset. (Hey, you have to live a little with these brackets!) But if it’s Brazil and France in the semifinals, France still has a good shot of pulling out a win.
Beating Belgium would pit France against Germany — the reigning champions — in the final (in my bracket, at least). I think France ekes out a win there against a tiring German squad, wresting the trophy away from Berlin. Recall that France beat Germany 2-0 in the European Championship’s semifinal in 2016, and it might pull off similar magic again.
Of course, there’s a really good chance I’m wrong on a lot, or all, of the above. But you have to live dangerously sometimes, and I’m doing so by picking Spain’s archrival to win it all.
My mom, a die-hard Spanish citizen and fan, has probably just disowned me. (Sorry, Mom!) My sister-in-law, who loves the French squad, hopefully thinks I’m cool now. Meanwhile, my wife — who already can’t wait for World Cup month to be over — likely has her head deep in her hands. Still, she’ll root for Germany just to spite me.
I should say this: In my heart, I want Spain to win and for Iceland — the smallest nation ever to play at the World Cup that is already one of the tournament’s best stories — to go deep in the competition. But I’m trying to be as levelheaded as a huge soccer fan can be when thinking about the World Cup.
Once the whistle blows, all debates and subplots subside. At that point, you just have to sit back, watch, cheer, and enjoy the beautiful game.