MOSCOW, June 13 (Agencies): The soccer world gathers in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting Thursday for a 32-day, 64-match championship.
The United States will be missing from the World Cup-the greatest show on earth-- after seven straight appearances. Four-time champion Italy is out for the first time since 1958. Chile won consecutive Copa America titles as the top South American team, but failed to qualify.
Iceland - the smallest country ever in a World Cup - qualified for the first time.
Defending champion Germany and Brazil are the favourites, and France is fancied behind them with a young roster.
The 2018 World Cup starts as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. In front of the 80,000 seat arena is a giant statue of Lenin who looks down on the stalls and stands set out by a litany of FIFA sponsors. The soccer tournament is a giant event on and off the field.
It is 16 years since the same feeling that is now felt in the Russian capital was felt in Seoul. Then, on that warm Friday night, Senegal shocked defending champion France. The weather changes in Moscow but inside the stadium, the atmosphere is sure to be plenty hot enough when kick-off comes, Thursday afternoon local time.
South Korean fans will be focusing on events in Group F and the opening game against Sweden on June 18, then the subsequent tests with Mexico and Germany, but there is much more going on besides. Germany is the defending champion and for many, also the frontrunner this time around.
There is no Italy or the Netherlands this time but Brazil is always one to watch.
The South Americans famously lost 7-1 to Germany in the 2014 semifinal on home soil but have regrouped under coach Tite and with star striker Neymar fit and firing then the five-time winner has a real chance though much depends on the golden boy in the attack.
The South Americans should find their group not much of a problem and will be ready to get going in the knockout stage.
France also has a roster packed full of big-name talent such as Manchester United's Paul Pogba, Antoine Greizmann of Atletico Madrid and Paris St Germain's Kylian Mbappe just to name a few.
If coach Didier Deschamps can get the best out of his men, and there are worries that the coach may be the weak link, then France can go all the way.
Spain may not quite be the power that dominated the 2010 World Cup and then won the European Championships either side of that event, but there is still plenty of experience and ability on the team but after those top four, there is something of a gap before the rest.
Argentina reached the final last time but may be over-reliant on the world's best player Lionel Messi. Belgium's 'golden generation' is still around though it remains to be seen if the right mentality and coach are in place.
Then come the real dark horses such as England, Portugal, Uruguay and Croatia. All will be satisfied to reach the quarterfinals but none really believe that their hands will be on the golden trophy a month from now.
Russia may be host but is not about to go too far in the tournament, earning a place in the last 16 would be enough.
Then there are Korea's Asian colleagues/rivals. Japan has been in terrible form and changed its coach in April, Saudi Arabia is appearing at its first World Cup in 12 years while Iran is the continent's best but is stuck in a tough group along with Spain and Portugal. Australia has been looking better than most but will still have to negotiate past some tricky fixtures.
There are sure to be some surprises though and if Korea can make a few of its own then so much the better.
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