The wait is almost over – Russia 2018 kicks-off in exactly 48 hours when the hosts take on Uruguay at the Luzhniki Stadium in the capital city Moscow. With the month-long festival of football rapidly approaching, this is an opportune moment to analyse at some of the things to look out for:
This is the first time that the video assistant referee (VAR) will be used on the biggest stage. Having been trialled around the world, including in the FA Cup and 2017 Confederations Cup, the process has been shown to improve the accuracy of refereeing decisions, but it has not been without controversy.
The VAR is a current or former referee that is watching the game in real-time and has numerous camera angles to pick up on something that was missed on the field of play.
There are four types of decisions that can be reviewed by the referee. These are clear errors in either goals, penalties, red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. The process involves the referee being able to look again at something that they have missed having been alerted by the VAR and their three assistants. The on-field referee is then given the chance to review the incident on the pitchside monitor before choosing whether or not to take action.
Fans, particularly in the crowd, have complained about being left in the dark about what is happening – though the referee does give a rectangular signal when making a review decision – and it can affect the flow of the match. It will be intriguing to see how this plays out in the World Cup given the sheer number of games (64), so expect teething problems.
13 of the 16 venues have been built from scratch, with Russia having seven and a half years to get them ready having been awarded the tournament in December 2010. Given the sheer size of the country, fans will have to travel thousands of kilometres to support their team; from Kaliningrad in the west, to Yekaterinburg. The biggest venue of them all is the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which is hosting both the opening match and the final on July 15th.
Iceland and Panama are the two debutants this summer, with the former having built on their outstanding showing at Euro 2016, when they beat England in the last-16. Despite their population of around 350,000 the Nordic country have invested heavily in youth football and are now reaping the rewards.
Panama have been drawn in a very tricky group and will have to overcome European giants Belgium and England if they are to make it into the second round. The Central Americans are ranked 55th in the FIFA rankings, but should not be underestimated having beaten Costa Rica in qualifying and finished above the United States, who missed out.
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