Until 2006, the tradition was for the World Cup holders to open the next tournament but a change of tact from FIFA allowed the hosts to take centre-stage.
Defending champions Germany are in the comfortable position of sitting back and watching many of their rivals for the title play before kicking their campaign off against Mexico on June 17.
We preview Group F, giving you the rundown on the quartet of sides looking to reach the knockouts.
Four years ago in Brazil, Die Mannschaft went largely unnoticed, with focus largely on the hosts, Argentina, and Colombia, plus the failings of other major European teams like Spain, Italy and England.
But their semi-final destruction of the Seleção revealed their World Cup-winning ability and soon enough Philipp Lahm had his hands on the trophy following a 1-0 win over Argentina in the final.
In Russia they are very much front and centre in the conversation as to who can realistically win the title as Joachim Löw as successfully overseen a rebuild of his world champions following the retirements of experienced lynchpins Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger coupled with the emergence of a truly gifted generation of players.
So rich is Löw in options, he left Manchester City star Leroy Sané behind but the omission of the forward only emphasises not just the quality he has, but the coherent message and game-plan the coach wants his team to adhere to.
It is a strict method that bore deeply impressive results in qualifying as they romped through their group, winning a perfect ten from ten and scoring 4.3 goals per game. Of their fixtures, a 2-1 victory in Prague proved their only genuinely close contest.
That was achieved around last year’s Confederation’s Cup triumph in which a mixture of second-string and emerging youth talent won in some style on Russian soil. Germany remain a relentless winning machine.
As a result, Löw’s 2018 vintage contains health quota of key players from 2014 in Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and reported Manchester United transfer target Jérôme Boateng with the new school of Timo Werner, Joshua Kimmich, Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka.
They will take some stopping and, as ever, Germany expect nothing but absolute success.
Given how dominant they were throughout qualifying it’s no great surprise that Germany were ranked second in the world for total scoring attempts per 90 (22.4), first for big chances created (0.9) and second for passes per game (738.7).
What’s maybe most impressive is how all their goals were shared out. Müller and Bayern Munich backup Sandro Wagner (who didn’t even made the final 23) top-scored on five but beyond that a further nine players scored two or more goals.
Germany are an elite team without one defining individual, and at any given stage any one member of their starting XI or even substitutes’ bench can theoretically step up and deliver. Although it’s a collection of brilliant footballers, Löw preaches the collective.
But Kroos is perhaps the most integral figure as the glue which bides it all together. He led every player in qualification for passes per game (120.87) and it’s his setting of the tempo which makes Germany tick.
Eternally big fish in a small pond, in a football sense anyway, Mexico once again qualified with flying colours from CONCACAF but once again the question remains, are they good enough to compete with the very best?
Their relatively comfortable status in Central and North America has allowed them to remain a top 10-15 side in FIFA’s rankings for much of the century while it would be a considerable shock if they weren’t to make it to the World Cup.
That being said, you can only beat what’s in front of you and in reaching a seventh-straight World Cup, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side were professional and clinical in beating what opposition they could.
However, the next step needs to be made and that glass ceiling of the second round has to be shattered one day. Whether or not Osorio has the hammer to do it in Russia remains to be seen.
From El Tri’s point of view, Germany aside, they have a very agreeable group and although old warhorses and familiar faces like 38-year-old Rafael Márquez, Guillermo Ochoa, Carlos Vela, Andrés Guardado and West Ham United flop Chicharito are still there, Osorio has a smattering of young talent which could provide that much needed x-factor.
PSV Eindhoven winger Hirving Lozano was their top scorer in qualification with five and is a player of prestigious talent who can produce something out of nothing. Unfortunately, the 22-year-old, who has been subject of Everton transfer rumours, has the temper to match. But if Osorio can channel his ability, he could be a real force.
Márquez will be appearing in his fifth World Cup, matching the records of Lothar Mätthaus, Gianluigi Buffon and his countryman Antonio Carbajal. On each of his previous four trips the former Barcelona defender has been part of sides to bow out in the second round. Can this time be different?
As impressive as they may in their own confederation, Mexico’s output was moderate, in a global sense, across the board: 21st for total scoring attempts (14.06), 28th for passes (468.87), 15th for big chances created (1.62) and 23rd for scoring attempts conceded (8.93).
They do, however, hassle and press quite effectively allowing just 290.62 passes per game – fourth fewest in the world.
Guardado and Márquez are the steadying voices in the dressing room but everything that lifts Mexico beyond being just a competent side seems to lie with Lozano.
He was third in CONCACAF for successful takes on per 90 – 18th in the world with 2.05 – and can slice teams open while also providing a consistent attacking presence as a wide forward who loves to cut inside.
The figure of Zlatan Ibrahimović has dominated Swedish football since 2004 and even in retirement his figure cast a shadow over the team as, following their commendable play-off triumph over Italy, talk quickly turned to the prospect of the veteran striker coming out of retirement.
Thankfully, for both his legacy and the status of this team, that never transpired beyond entertaining hypotheticals because since Ibrahimović hung up his boots for the national side, they have had to undergo a change in identity.
The Italy victory spoke volumes for what Sweden are about as without individual icons such as Ibrahimović, Henrik Larsson or, going further back, Tomas Brolin and Kennet Andersson from USA ’94, Janne Andersson has installed the values of simple hard work.
Although the Azzurri were something of a tactical mess in the two legs, Sweden were resolute and produced two fine rear-guard actions to gain safe passage to Russia having missed out in Brazil.
It also came after they ground through a tough-looking group also containing France, the Netherlands and Bulgaria, with an impressive 2-1 victory over Les Bleus in Stockholm which had them momentarily dreaming of topping the group.
RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, reportedly an Arsenal transfer target, is the only player within Andersson’s regular XI capable of anything approaching the unorthodox and they are largely a collection of modest and understated but committed individuals, all dedicated to the cause.
Journeyman striker Marcus Berg bagged an impressive eight goals in qualifying but now plies his trade in the UAE with Al Ain while Andersson’s second main attacking option is fellow veteran Ola Toivonen who went scoreless in 23 Ligue matches for Toulouse last season.
As a result, expectations back home aren’t particularly lofty, especially with the presence of a superpower like Germany in their group.
It says a lot about this team that across every major metric – scoring attempts per 90 for and against, passes and passes allowed, big chances created for and against, tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries – Sweden fall outside the top 30 in the world.
The only attribute they do produce a telling number is headed clearance per 90 (14.91, ninth in the world) and set-piece goals scored (0.58, sixth). If the ball is in the air, a Swedish header will likely be on the end of it.
His late runs into the penalty area will provide support to Berg and Toivonen while his ability to carry possession at pace can provide a threat in transition. He’s the one member of this team who can do something a little different.
Memories of 2002 have faded and while South Korea are firmly established as an Asian heavyweight and regular attendee of World Cups, any ambitions of matching that run to the semi-finals seem a long way off.
In the easier of the two final Asian qualifying groups, South Korea made hard work of earning an automatic spot as a pair of goalless draws against Iran and in Uzbekistan guaranteed their path to Russia.
It was endemic of a qualifying campaign where they struggled in the final third, despite all coach Shin Tae-yong’s best players being forward-focused, with just 11 goals in ten games. And their defensive record of ten conceded in as many matches wasn’t much to get excited about, either.
The Taegeuk Warriors appear neither a good attacking side or an exceptionally strong defensive one and coach Shin will have to work out which attribute he leans on in Russia quickly, or they could be eliminated before they even start.
He does have a good base to work with as Son Heung-min is a forward of genuine class, Ki Sung-yeung a clever and consistent midfield passer, his partner in the engine room Lee Jae-sung a potential breakout star while Hwang Hee-chan is a promising young forward.
However, Shin’s formation tinkering, flipping from a 4-3-2-1 to a 3-5-2 and now to a 4-4-2, shows he doesn’t know his best team, combination or what sort of side they should be. We will find out for sure on June 18.
Of the 31 teams to have qualified for the tournament, only Germany allowed fewer passes per match than the Koreans’ 283.2 but the Taegeuk Warriors also rank last for tackles per 90 with 11.5.
He is the team’s one and only true star and provides so much in terms of attacking threat and creativity. There is some concern, however, he may not relish the considerable pressure on his shoulders.
- South Korea