MOSCOW, June 13 (AP): After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany hopes to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15 and become the first repeat champion in more than a half-century.
The soccer world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting Thursday for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the host Selecao 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals, then left Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina on Mario Goetze's 113th-minute goal.
The United States will be missing from soccer's showcase after seven straight appearances. Four-time champion Italy will be watching from home for the first time since 1958, its streak of 14 consecutive appearances ended by a playoff loss to Sweden. The Netherlands, which lost the 2010 final to Spain, missed out after slumping to third in its qualifying group. And Chile failed to qualify after consecutive Copa America titles.
Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutantes, Peru is back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt ends an absence dating to 1990.
Germany and Brazil are the pre-tournament favourites, and France is fancied behind them with a young roster . England will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning its only major title on home soil in 1966. Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri opens against Germany and its likely second-round opponent is Brazil.
There also has been a generational change within FIFA. Many of its leaders have moved from penthouses to prisons following indictments by the US Department of Justice that detailed kickbacks to be as much a part of soccer as free kicks.
FIFA's Congress votes June 13 on the host of the 2026 tournament, and a joint bid by the US, Mexico and Canada is competing against Morocco - where most of the infrastructure would have to be built - on a ballot that includes a none-of-the-above option.
Following the drug-testing scandal that engulfed the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, FIFA's medical committee chairman said no Russians will be involved in collection of urine and blood samples, which will be flown to Lausanne, Switzerland, for analysis.
VAR will be the acronym of the moment: video assistant referees in soccer-speak, instant replay for most viewers at home.
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