World Cup 2018: Balls to the wall in Russia

The countdown to the world’s biggest sporting event has begun – who’s your money on?

Ke Nako. Feel it – it is here! Make the circle bigger. BaGhana BaGhana. And that Tshabalala screamer.

Those cherished memories of 2010 come flooding back whenever the World Cup comes around. It’s been eight years since the global footballing spectacle made its first stop in Africa, but I, like many other South Africans, have divided my life into pre- and post-2010 eras.

World Cup 2018 begins at Moscow’s storied 80 000-seater Luzhniki Stadium tomorrow. Robbie Williams has been wheeled out to hit the high notes with Russian soprano Aida Garifullina shortly before Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off in game one of 64 at 5pm, SA time. They will be joined by Brazilian legend and World Cup-winner Ronaldo, who thankfully won’t be singing.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding hosts Russia in the lead-up to the event – political machinations, hooliganism and racism all contributing to feelings of foreboding – so it will be gratifying to see football finally take centre stage.

Granted, the opening game isn’t one that will inspire much excitement. Russia’s squad has been shorn of the stars who featured in that famous Euro 2008 run and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is the only real name of note, but backed by vociferous home support, they should edge a game Saudi outfit. The Saudis have recently allowed women to drive, so I’ll be throwing my weight behind them in the name of progress.

There are a few cracking games to look forward to over the weekend, though. On Friday, Spain battle Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in what will be a fiercely contested Iberian derby at 8pm, with Morocco and Egypt also in action earlier in the day.

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On Saturday night, nattily dressed Nigeria battle Croatia for early supremacy in the Group of Death and the following day, defending champions Germany and Mexico face off in a tasty afternoon encounter.

So who is your money on to lift the trophy?

Well, Germany and Brazil should be your first port of call. The Germans are unbeaten in eight World Cup fixtures and last lost to Spain in the 2010 World Cup semi-final stage and the Neymar-inspired Samba Kings will be eager to reclaim their traditional position as the world’s foremost proponents of the Beautiful Game. The Spaniards should also be in the mix come July.

There is a lot of hype about Belgium and France squads in the build-up to Russia 2018, blessed as they are with an abundance of youthful talent. However, I don’t reckon they are ready just yet to earn the honours and need more experience in tight situations. England should do well, but will ultimately go down in a blaze of glory and controversy.

I’m backing Portugal, mostly because I like a tenacious underdog and Italy failed to qualify. What I’d like to see most of all – as unlikely a prospect as it may be – is an African side make the semi-finals for the first time. Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and Sadio Mane’s Senegal look to be in with the best chance of cracking the nod.

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Whatever the result, here’s to a glorious month of the world’s most popular sport captivating billions around the world. To whet your appetite and fill in the longest 24 hours of the sporting year, check out the official World Cup song, featuring alleged Manchester United fan Will Smith: