World Cup Preview: Argentina v Iceland

Who? Argentina - Iceland
Where? Otkritie Arena, Moscow
When? June 16, 15:00 (CET local time)

Argentina (Yossi Medina)

Argentina loves to play against debutants. In 1998 they played in an all-debutants group with Jamaica, Japan and Croatia, and they played also against Ivory Coast in 2006 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014. Usually, their experience was enough to give them advantage against these teams.

In 2018, it's not so sure that Argentina is prepared well for the World Cup. They made only one warm-up game against Haiti and their second scheduled match against Israel, another weaker team, has been canceled after a large geo-political controversy. With such a poor preparation, Argentina arrived to Russia and hope to make it through.

Argentina suffered also injuries to two key players during the last weeks. The goalkeeper Sergio Romero had a knee injury and left the team with three goalkeepers that played a combined number of just 9 international caps. It seems that Jorge Sampaoli will choose Willy Caballero, who had a lot of experience in his club career but is a part of a World Cup squad for the first time in his career.

The second missing player is Manuel Lanzini. West Ham United midfielder left over after a knee ligament injury. The midfield has some great players such as Ángel Di María and Javier Mascherano but they will need to work hard to stable their line.

With all these problems, a whole nation will cheer for their Albiceleste heroes, hoping to see them lifting a trophy for the first time since 1993.

Iceland (Eden Roitfarb)

Welcome back Iceland! The Nordic Cinderella are back for their first ever World Cup, and by doing so they became the smallest ever nation to qualify with a population of only 350,000 people.

Yet, it’s those colorful characters that helped Iceland capture the hearts of the neutral fan in Euro 2016. Whether it was the powerful Viking Thunderclap performed together by the players & fans and that has been since adopted by many  teams, or whether because of commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson who famously screamed out his voice in games vs Austria and England (while even taking a jab against the Brits for Brexit), Iceland became the public’s number one darling that summer.

A new exciting prospect in Icelandic football is PSV Eindhoven’s Albert Guðmundsson, who is part of a family with rich footballing history. Albert scored a hattrick in a friendly vs Indonesia in January and became the fourth member of his family to score for the national team. His great-grandfather, who held the same name, played for Arsenal and AC Milan in the 1940’s and was later Minister of Finance. And his father? Well, that’s no other than memorable commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson who once was considered a big talent and played for the national team as well. Talk about a small world!

Perhaps it is time for Iceland to make even bigger headlines, as they start with the biggest challenge possible – a date with Argentina and Lionel Messi in Moscow. It would be interesting to see which Iceland we would see: The side that dominated a tough World Cup qualifying group, or the one that is struggling since and hasn’t won a single preparation friendly. One thing is definite, they would give it all and make life difficult for the best player in the world and his crew.

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World Cup Preview: France v Australia

Who? France - Australia
Where? Kazan Arena, Kazan
When? June 16, 12:00 (CET local time)


One of the tournament favorites is kicking off their campaign, wishing to end it with the second ever title. Their coach, Didier Deschamps,  has done it once in 1998 and wants to be part of this glory once again.

It was always a challenge for France to make the group of talented players to a team. Many remember the failure of Domenech in 2010, which ended with a completely horrible tournament. Deschamps succeeds in making the players a united group and the results are significant with a quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup and finishing as runner-ups in Euro 2016.

Another challenge for the French team is the fact that many players are related to several tranfer rumors. Antoine Griezmann made a weird statement about his next season in Atletico Madrid, Thomas Lemar also have some issues with a possible transfer and many other players are on the usual headlines.

If these players could focus on the mission they have, France my be one of the best teams in tournament. In any other case, the French may find themselves struggling with players who don't to be part of this trip to Russia. That's where Deschamps will need to show his skills as the players' mentor in order to make them concentrate.


Australia made a long journey since the end of the qualification campaign. The Socceroos were one goalpost away from being eliminated in the Asian playoffs, but since then they had a complete change in the squad. The main one was in the manager position, when Ange Postecoglu resigned and replaced by Bert van Marwijk.

The Dutch coach made few changes in the squad and there is one player you can't miss. Daniel Arzani is the youngest player in the World Cup, born in January 1999. Arzani got his first senior call-up during the pre-World Cup preliminary squad. He impressed in both of his first two caps, including scoring a goal within a minute after he was substitute in.

Arzani will enjoy the guidance of one of the oldest players in tournament, Tim Cahill, which will be the first Australian to appear in four World Cup tournaments. Cahill is the last player left from 2006 World Cup squad, who made the best ever achievment for Australia, reaching the round of 16.

Australia knows that they are much weaker than the French team, but they hope that the spirit of their fans will follow them to Kazan. The Australian fans are well known as noisy and they will support their team until the final whistle.

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World Cup Preview: Morocco v Iran

Who? Morocco - Iran
Where? Krestovski Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? June 15, 17:00 ?(CET local time)

The opening whistle of the 2018 World Cup is getting closer, and Group B seems like the most interesting group in the tournament. With Spain cutting coach Julen Lopetegui who signed for Real Madrid, the whole scene looks different now. Morocco, and Iran, will look to snatch their chance for a second round spot, as the match between them on Saturday will be a crucial one.


Morocco is coming in a good shape to this match and is counted as a slightly favourite over the Asian Cheetahs from Iran. Both nations have sent massive amount of fans to Russia. “I came from Morocco, and met here many Moroccans from Belgium, Holland and France”, says Ayoub Fajri, a Moroccan fan from Aghadir. “In Morocco we are excited for this tournament for a long time now”, he continues, “For months now that Casablanca is decorated with World Cup signs. I believe that you will see around 30,000 Moroccan fans here in Russia. Between 8 or 10 thousands arrived from Morocco, the rest from Europe”.

Morocco enjoy the fact that 15 players on the squad are born and raised in European countries, growing up in few of Europe’s best academies. “For me it’s not important whether a player has been born in Morocco, Holland, India, or if he is Jewish or a Muslim. If he loves Morocco, feels Moroccan and he is a good player - we love him and want him on the team”.


Despite having 18 players playing in European clubs - a record in Iranian football history - the Iranians have experienced quite a difficult preparation for the World Cup. The US sanctions regime against the country. The friendlies against Greece, Kosovo and Italy were all cancelled, and the Iranians have only had a chance to play against Uzbekistan and Lithuania - not a great gauge of the skill levels of their rivals in the powerful Group B.

In addition, Nike, the sports brand that represents eight players on the Iranian squad, have reportedly asked their representatives not to wear the company's shoes during the tournament - as part of the US-led sanctions. When politics get involved in football, it's always a complete madhouse - the United States couldn't even qualify for the tournament, but Trump's presence is felt here in Russia.

In any case, the Iranian fans are filling Russia and their positive presence is well felt. Queiroz and his players will receive their support, and hope to beat their direct rival for the group’ surprise. With Alireza Jahanbaksh, the Dutch League top scorer in the line-up it might actually happen.

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World Cup Preview: Egypt v Uruguay

Who? Egypt - Uruguay
Where? Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
When? June 15, 14:00 (CET local time)

Egypt (Uri Levy)

The past three weeks in Egypt seemed like eternity. Since Mohamed Salah has dislocated his shoulder the entire nation got into a post traumatic shock. Everyone was horrified with their star player’s future & his chances to take part in the World Cup matches against Uruguay & Russia.

On Thursday afternoon Egypt received the encouraging news they all were waiting for. Coach Hector Cúper declared that Mohamed Salah will take part in their first match against Uruguay, after being almost 100% fit, only three weeks after his injury.

While the majority of the Egyptian fans are terrified of the thought of their team playing without Liverpool’s Egyptian king, the Pharaohs’ fans should put their beliefs in the likes of Mahmoud Trezeguet from Kasimpasa, Abdalla Said from Al-Ahli Jeddah, Mahmoud Kahraba and Marwan Mohsen. None of them is a big name in Salah’s scale but they all decent footballers indeed.

Egypt will look to grab a point against Uruguay, what will be counted as a huge achievement for the Middle Eastern nation. With Salah on the field, and support of 100 million Egyptians worldwide, the Pharaohs will look to make the unexpected - take points from one of the world’s top teams.

Uruguay (Yossi Medina)

Oscar Tabárez knows what is the World Cup better than anyone else in the Uruguay national team. This is his fourth World Cup and he would like to keep his perfect record of qualifying to the knockout stage.

In this group, Egypt may be the only team to challenge Uruguay in terms of international players. With four players that made more than 100 caps and two more that may join them during the group stage (Luis Suárez and Fernando Muslera), Uruguay is fielding a well experienced team that will be the favourite in such clash.

Even the players of Uruguay knows how strong their squad is. In the last press conference before the match, Diego Godin said that the Uruguayan preparation for the match does not depend on a single player. Except from the leaders, watch out for some younger and talented players such as Giorgian De Arrascaeta, 24-years-old midfielder who plays for Cruzeiro and impressed at the friendly match against Uzbekistan.

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Saudi Arabia

Who? Russia - Saudi Arabia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? June 14, 17:00 (CET local time)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

Here we go again! 4 years of anticipation are finally over and suddenly we stare in the eyes of the World Cup opening match. If the football world has waited long for this day, more so have the Russians, that will host a major tournament for the first time. That was officially announced in December 2010 and handed Russia more than 7 years to prepare efficiently.

But are they ready? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so. Despite being drawn in a comfortable group (which always seems to be the case for host nations), Russia are projected to struggle to qualify further. Only a decade ago they were Euro semi-finalists, but much has changed. To understand that, it’s enough to look at their recent friendlies form that is counting 7 games without a win.

The main problem of the Russian football is the absurd amount of money spent by owners in the local league in previous years. Although this helps to attract foreign stars and improve the football level, there is a major downside for the drive and competitiveness of the Russian footballers who can earn very high wages at home and stay in their comfort zone. Alan Dzagoev, for instance, has never left CSKA Moscow even though he was considered a wonderkid on a global level. Similarly, Yuri Zhirkov did tried his luck in England but returned to the homeland quickly. Evidently, only two squad players earn their living abroad. This type of career management has led to stagnation in the development of the Russian footballer and directly damages the national team. 

However, coach Stanislav Cherchesov might hope experience would provide an x-factor – the Russian squad is one of the oldest this summer with average age of 28.8, and he knows a win on Thursday can change the whole narrative of the Sbornaya.

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

"I'm very optimistic. No one gives us a chance, our players had a disappointing year with their loan deals in Spain, but the truth is that Russia can be surprised in the first game”, said Khaled Abdel Rahman, A Saudi fan with a huge smile outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow at Monday afternoon. “The Russians are a weak and fearful team, and against Egypt? Well it's an Arab derby, so everything is open”, he added.

Khaled’s thoughts are not there for granted. Not because of his team's ability, the opposite - the Saudis doesn't have much to lose in this World Cup. The betting agencies give them the lowest chances to win alongside with Panama, and, as Khaled mentioned, this was not a good season for the big stars of Saudi Arabia.

Though, in the last preparation friendly against Germany, although the Saudis conceded twice in an early stage, but looked solid altogether, made it very difficult for the Germans to score more and even got one goal back. “Honestly, I was surprised by the ability," Khaled added. "The goal came as a result of a good pressure, exactly like it came against Italy. These things weren’t happening in a Saudi national team before. When I saw that, I said that perhaps the time in Spain did something good eventually,” he laughed.

After a short period, it seems that Juan Antonio Pizzi is starting to leave his mark on the Saudi players. It is true, they are not favorites in Group A, but they have no pressure and what is certain is that Pizzi will do everything he can to prevent a humiliation in this World Cup. If it is up to him, the 0-8 against Germany & Miro Klose in 2002 will be a foregone memory. Pizzi's Saudi Arabia is a more combative team than what appears on paper.

But will they be able to steal the show in the opening game of the World Cup?
If you ask Khalid, he will tell you: “I told you man, everything is possible!”

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Vai Brasil!

The all-time title leader. With five World Cups, this is what Brazil is seeking to defend in Russia, while Germany is behind them with four titles. After the shame in 2014 World Cup, many expect that Brazil will be better and they can even win the title.

Brazil is perhaps the country that had the greatest number of football legends. Besides the greatest of all, Pelé, several others like Ronaldo, Romário, Garrincha and Ronaldinho Gaúcho enchanted several generations, always with  beautiful soccer based one dribbles. That kind of football made many fall in love in this game.

In 2018 World Cup, Brazil will seek to regain this status. Without winning the tournament for 16 years, this may be the best squad since the last winning squad in 2002. Managed by the giant Tite, one of the best managers the country has ever had and currently one of the best in the world, A Seleção comes strong for the World Cup.

The team is full of great players: from Alisson and Éderson the goalkeepers, through Marcelo and Thiago Silva in the defensive line, with Casemiro, Paulinho and Phillipe Coutinho in the midifield and a front line with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. This year's squad is undoubtedly much better than 2014 squad: the national team has great options in all positions and showed much better football since the arrival of Tite.

The Brazilian people are very excited about the possible journey for hexacampeonato, the sixth title. The future of Brazil is very uncertain and football can be a way out from everyday problems. Winning the title can bring so many joy for a lot of people, even if it is for a single moment.

As a young man who previously did not care much about the Brazilian team and cared only about Palmeiras, I can say that today I'm in love with Brazil national team. We are giants and although we have been humiliated four years ago and many have made fun of us, our history will never be erased. We produce some of the best players in the past and I can assure you: Brazil future will be the same. If we will win the title or not, I can say that our greatness will continue for a long time.

Vai Brasil! Make everyone remember who you really are. The biggest and best of all.

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World Cup Nostalgics: Best 5 Repeats at the Group Stage

The World Cup always brings us the feelings of great memories. Many games during the group stage will remind an old-fashioned World Cup clashes with the same teams. Here are some of these best repeats.

Sweden - Germany
1958 Semifinals 3:1 / 2018 Group F

In 1958, Germany was the reigning World Champions and they were two wins away from winning the title once again. 1:0 lead by Germany didn't made any change for the hosts feeling. Sweden managed to equalize during the first half and scored twice in the last with goals of Gunnar Gren and Kurt Hamrin. Sweden made history and qualified for their only final in the history. Can Sweden upset Germany once again?

Morocco - Portugal
1986 Group Stage 3:1 / 2018 Group B

In hot summer day at Guadalajara, Morocco and Portugal met while they knew that the winner will qualify for the next stage. Portugal were the favourites, but they didn't believe that Morocco will be in one of its best matches ever. Abderrazak Khairi scored a brace in the first half and Abdelkrim Merry added one more. The Atlas Lions won and Portugal found themselves being eliminated too early.
Portugal are once again on the lead, but will it be enough to defeat Morocco?

Brazil - Costa Rica
1990 Group Stage 1:0 / 2018 Group E

Costa Rica World Cup debut was a memorable campaign with wins against Scotland and Sweden and reaching the knockout stage. Nevertherless, one of its well known performances was actually at the defeat 0:1 against Brazil. In this match Costa Rica played with an unusual black and white shirts. The local crowd in the mythical Delle Alpi in Turin thought it a gesture for the local team, Juevetus, and it was enough to make Costa Rica as one of the most beloved team in the tournament.
May Costa Rica have another performance that will be enough to get support?

Argentina - Nigera
1994 Group Stage 2:1 / 2018 Group D

Argentina and Nigeria will meet for the fifth time in World Cup group stage, but none of the previous matches was as amazing as the first meeting in 1994. An early lead with a goal scored by Samson Siasia made the Argentinian a bit shockes. Only Claudio Caniggia could save the day for the Albiceleste and he scored twich before the half time whistle. These goals gave Argentina the win, but later both of the teams qualified for the knockout stage.
In 1994 they qualified together and it happened once again in 2014. What will be in 2018?

Spain - Portugal
2010 Round of 16 1:0 / 2018 Group B

Another Portuguese lost, this time against the eventual World Cup winners in that year, Spain. The only goal scored by David Villa was enough for a win in the Iberian Peninsula derby and to qualify for the quarterfinals. The interesting name in the list is Portugal manager in this match, Carlos Queiroz. In 2018, he will make a double repeat while he will meet Spain and Portugal as the head coach of Iran.
With tons of emotion, what will be the end of the Queiroz-Portugal-Spain trio in the next World Cup?

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The New Fighters

As a fan of La Celeste I'm in unknown territory a few days before the 2018 World Cup. This feeling is probably shared with many Uruguayos today, maybe apart from those who watched football before the 70's. The heroic performance in the 2010 World Cup and winning the Copa America a year later, strengthened the believe that La Celeste can achieve almost everything with the character and stability shown under the legendary Maestro Tabarez's guidance. This time the level of optimism is even higher and Uruguay is marked as the favorite team in Group A and more than usual is referred to as a team who will reach the final stages. I think it's because the current squad has more talent than the ones who did so great before. Alongside this new talent, Uruguay has more depth in the squad, and various options to mix formations and style of play.

The defence is tough as usual with Atletico Madrid's duo Godin and Josema Gimenez forming a formidable defence no striker would like to play against. The frontline is packed with heavy artillery as Suarez and Cavani leading the line and a backup from Stuani and young Maxi Gomez, both tired of scoring goals in La Liga this season. But a formidable defence and lethal strikers are not new for Uruguay in the last decade, although it's rare to see so many players in optimal conditions, so what has changed? Almost the entire midfield from the last World Cup has changed, with Cebolla Rodriguez the last survivor, and the new players to lead it are much more exciting talentwise. It's Bentancur, Torreira, De Arrascaeta, Nandez (my personal favorite), Laxalt (option for both fullback and winger roles), under the guidance of more experienced Vecino, that makes me believe Uruguay can achieve even more.

Yet, I'm a little bit concerned. maybe because I'm not use to this "favorite tag" or expectations to play "good" football and not only bring good results. Uruguay's greatest achievements in my lifetime weren't as a result of superior football as it was for character, toughness, togetherness. You can sum up it in one local term missing the ness ending, explaining the winning against all odds, the Garra Charrua. Most of the players in the squad were like el Ruso Perez rather Forlan. Now this is shifting and while mostly regarded as positive, I'm slightly worried that the talented youngsters will not be able to achieve what the former squad, with less talent but a lot of this Garra Charrua fighting spirit, achieved. Or maybe it's just me, wanting to be the underdog again and idealizing the past…

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World Cup Warm-up: Austria v Brazil

Who? Austria - Brazil
Where? Ernst Happel Stadion, Wien
When? June 10, 16:00 (CET local time)

On June 8, 1958, the Brazilian national team faced the Austrian in the first match of the World Cup. Back then, Brazil made a great 3:0 win, with two goals by striker Mazzola, who has a resemblance to another striker that currently is part of the Brazilian squad.

Mazzola and Gabriel Jesus, both played and became well known in Palmeiras. Both also played for European giants: Mazzola made it as AC Milan player, while Gabriel Jesus doing it today in Manchester City.

Gabriel Jesus is one of the most promising youngsters in this World Cup. Four years ago, he was painting the streets of his neighborhood for the 2014 World Cup. In 2018, he will be be part of the biggest football competition in the world, so he finished his career as a painter. However, Jesus keep helping people to paint, as he made a contribution for amazing portrait of him in his neighborhood, Jardim Peri.

The 21-year-old was the Canarinho's top scorer in the qualifiers and he was one of the key players in maintaing the World Cup appearances streak of Brazil. This is not a small achievement. It's even bigger when it comes from a boy who four years ago only thought about cheering for Brazil, but ended up being disappointed of his team performance.

Mazzola scored the first goal against Austria in the 1958 campaign, which ended with the first title of Brazil. Gabriel Jesus will probably be in the first XI, and after a weak performance against Croatia, all he needs is to score goals to gain confidence. Even if it's just a friendly, the feeling is that the competition has already begun. So, if Jesus will have a great performance, we can already expect big flights from Brazil in the World Cup.

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World Cup Warm-up: Denmark v Mexico

Who? Denmark - Mexico
Where? Brøndby Stadion, Copenhagen
When? June 9, 20:00 (CET local time)

At the beginning of the millenium, Mexico had one of its best teams ever. In 1999 Mexico won the Confederation Cup after beating Brazil at the Final and in 2001 they reached the 2nd place in the Copa America, after defeat against the hosts Colombia. That team Created a lot of expectation going into the World Cup in 2002, only to lose against the US in the round of 16. During this era, most of the players used to play at the domestic league and only few left to play abroad.

Since then, the concept has changed a lot. At the next World Cup, for the first time in its history, Mexico will send a mostly European based team. 17 out of 23 are playing outside of Mexico. 3 of them are in the MLS, the Dos Santos brothers & Carlos Vela, but those 3 left Mexico while they were young and spent most of their careers in European teams.

Another notion is that this time the players insisted on playing all of their preparation games against European teams instead of having US based Friendlies against the local team or South American teams.

There is a big debate about the process of the “Europeanization” and if it is the formula that at least will help Mexico to excel in the World Cup. For the current squad and the administration of the national team there is a clear answer: Europe is the way. Having played only against European teams, Mexico will have one last test before the real deal. This time it will be against Denmark in Copenhagen.

Denmark will have a tough group in the World Cup, playing against France, Peru & Australia. Australia might not be the biggest hurdle, but Peru and of course France won’t be easy games for the Scandinavians. Apart of their biggest star, Christian Eriksen, they have a solid team with names like Kasper Schmeichel as a goalkeeper, young Andreas Christensen as well as Simon Kjær in the defence. Alongside with Eriksen you can find names like Lasse Schöne, Thomas Delaney or the veteran Michael Krohn-Dehli. Another player to keep on eye on is obviously Pione Sisto that can mix up the defences with hisspeed.

With all the respect to South Korea, Denmark will be the perfect test for Mexico just before they meet the real challenges: Germany and Sweden.

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World Cup Warm-up: England v Costa Rica

Interestingly, Costa Rica has a very good record against British national teams in 2018. On March 23rd, Costa Rica defeated Scotland 1-0, and on June 3rd, Costa Rica defeated Northern Ireland 3-0. It is possible that the Costa Ricans feel comfortable on British soil due to the fact that some of the most important players in their squad have strong connection to British football. To name a few, Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica’s captain, had a spell in Fulham, Joel Campbell is still registered as an Arsenal player and Cristian Gamboa, the experienced right back, has played in West Bromwich Albion between 2014 and 2016.

But from all Costa Rican players, maybe the one with the strongest ties to British football is Bryan Oviedo. Oviedo was one of the most important players for Everton between 2012 and 2017 before his move to Sunderland where he currently plays. In a way, the upcoming match against England is a closure for Oviedo.

On January 25th, 2014 Oviedo broke his leg during a FA Cup match while playing for Everton. This injury made him miss Costa Rica’s best campaign ever, in which they almost reached the Semi Finals of the World Cup in Brazil, when the Netherlands eliminated them only after a penalty shootout.

Oviedo is fit and is part of the final squad of Costa Rica for Russia 2018. The upcoming match against England can present an opportunity for Oviedo to start his small journey towards private redemption on British soil, towards maybe a possible reproduction of Costa Rica’s sensational campaign from 2014, on Russian land.

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World Cup Warm-up: South Korea v Bolivia

Who? South Korea - Bolivia
Where? Tivoli Stadion, Innsbruck
When? June 7, 14:10 (CET local time)

Being a talented youngster can always make problems for a player. You find yourself in a constant chase for reaching goals that others think you need to achieve, not necessarily close to your skills.

Many wonder kids have been in this place. The next World Cup will be the first chance for one Korean boy to show his skills and maybe try to be a real key player. It will be the 20 years old winger, Lee Seung-Woo.

Lee has been marked as one of the future stars of the Korean football when he was 12 years old. Today it is too common to see teenagers that leave their home early for playing in prestigious academy abroad. Lee got an offer to join Barcelona and he was part of the youth teams until the last summer.

Like many other of La Masia alumni, Lee failed to be part of the senior team and almost did not get a chance in Barcelona B. Yet, his potential was enough for him to find a new future in Hellas Verona. It was his debut season in a senior top-flight and it was not bad – 14 appearances and 1 goal.

In the last weeks, Lee Seung-Woo made his first caps for the senior team. In his debut against Honduras he played in the first XI. Few days later he entered as a substitution against Bosnia and Herzegovina, as he replaced Hwang Hee-Chan, one of the leading Korean footballers today. In both of the matches, he impressed the local fans and got their support.

The Korean national team will have a mixture of talents. It a mixture between experienced players like Son Heung-Min and the talented players that won the bronze medal in 2012 Olympic Games. Lee Seung-Woo nee to show now that he can join these players and not get lost as a former wonderkid.

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The Russian Paradox

With 10 days remaining for World Cup opening match, the Russian national team's troubles are flowing. The hosting country's team is considered as one of the weakests in the tournament, with miles of potential being wasted and promising players who disappered throughout the years. Although it has been majorly talked about the lack of centre-backs in the hosts' squad after recent Berezutski brothers' retirement, lest it be forgotten that most of other positions are not much better.

A quick review of the squad reveals that only 3 out of 28 players play abroad – third-choice goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), naturalized Roman Neustader (Fenerbahce) and Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal). A squad which is based on the local league players may definitely be an advantage, improving the players' comprehension, but not when the league is as weak as the Russian Premier League.

The truth is there are no Russian players who are good enough, physically and mentally, to play abroad. Anderi Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko playing in the English Premier League are a distant memory, whilst players who were expected to lead the national team failed to do so. Alan Dzagoev, who was marked as a future star, spent all of his senior career at CSKA Moscow. Although he is one of the Armeitsy's best players, he could have played in a better league and become a better footballer. Artem Dzyuba was also marked as a possible key player but got loaned out from Zenit St. Petersburg to middle-table Arsenal Tula. These are just two examples of this disturbing phenomenon.

The main reason for that is the desprate will to make Russian Premier League more attractive by signing foreign players. Nowadays, the best way to convince a player to move to a non-top league is usually a high salary, and this is what the major Russian clubs did. The results were devastating. If Hulk, Axel Witsel and Willian raised the Russian League level, most of the foreigns fell short of expectations or simply were past their peak. For some reasons they were preferred over local players, who  stayed on bench and stopped improving. The few Russians who kept playing became indispensable for their clubs since they had no replacement, regardless of their performances' quality. Considering their astronomical salaries, moving abroad meant less money received and more efforts required. And so a Golden Cage was created.

Another aspect of the issue is the absence of a new generation of young players. Aging Berezutski brothers played alongside Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who quitted national team long ago. Instead of investing in young players promotion, Russia chose the easier way and used the old generation players as long as possible. Sadly for them, the they've lost their shaped in the worst timing.

As for today, only three youngsters could make an immediate impact – the Miranchuk twins, Aleksei and Anton, and Aleksandr Golovin, 22 and 20-years old respectively. The Miranchuk brothers took massive part in Lokomotiv Moscow's fantastic season, becoming unexpectedly champions, and Golovin helped CSKA to finish second. It is to be said that Anton Miranchuk started playing first team football only the past season, previously being plying his trade in the Estonian League. He took to chance and have produced high quality performances. Maybe now young players will get more chances, following his case.

Russia will start the tournament against Saudi Arabia, whom they can and ought to beat. At least one of the other teams - Uruguay and Egypt - will lose points, which may give the hosts an advantage before the next two games. Although stopping Luis Suarez and Mohamed Salah with no center-backs is not an easy task, a successful opening game along with massive support from the tribunes may help the locals in advancing to the next stage. With two brothers in squad again, this time attacking players, Russia might manage to avoid early exit from the tournament they are hosting. After all, the famous phrase says that the best defence is a good offense. The Russians will have to count on that. 


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World Cup Warm-up: Serbia v Chile

Who? Serbia - Chile
Where? Merkur Arena, Graz
When? June 4, 21:00 (CET local time)

Towards the end of the 2015 – 2016 season, Wigan Athletic fans dedicated a song to their prolific striker Will Grigg. To the tunes of “Freed from Desire” by Italian artist Gala, “Will Grigg’s on Fire” became a worldwide sensation during Euro 2016 as Grigg mostly sat on the Northern Irish bench. Unbeknownst to most, this song was originally sung to Aleksandar Mitrovic by Newcastle United supporters, who still claim “Mitro’s on Fire” was stolen by the Wigan faithful, and have always seen the Serbian as a cult hero in St James Park.

Regardless of this debate, there is one thing that is very clear - Just like the song states, defenses should be terrified of the Serbian forward. After falling down the pecking order in Tyneside, Mitrovic was offered a lifeline by compatriot Slavisa Jokanovic who brought him in January to high flying Fulham from the Championship. It was a match made in heaven: Mitro scored 12 goals in 20 games and played a vital part for the Cottagers as they finished the season strong and qualified to the Premier League through the grueling playoffs.

The Serbians are delighted to be back in the front stage, as they qualified for their first big tournament since the 2010 World Cup. Mitrovic has played a huge part in making that happen as well: 6 goals in 6 straight games, which made him the top scorer in a tough qualifying group that included Wales, Austria and Ireland. Additionally, he scored twice in a friendly win vs Nigeria in March. With that in mind, it is very likely Mitrovic will lead Mladen Krstajic’s attack in the tournament

It will be incredibly interesting to see how the emotional and passionate Smederevo born striker will perform, and whether he can “ignite” the Serbian team to glory this summer.

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World Cup Warm-up: Saudi Arabia v Peru

Who? Saudi Arabia - Peru
Where? Kybunpark, St. Gallen
When? June 3, 20:00 (CET local time)

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

Saudi football will never forget the 2017/2018, and from different justified reasons. The country held its first football matches with female audience, 10 Saudi internationals has signed in Spanish teams in an outrageous deal and the national team managed to qualify for the World Cup with three coaches in one year. Wait, what? Yes.

The Saudis have started the World Cup Qualification with the Dutch Brett Van Marwijk, who got sacked and replaced by Edgardo Bauza. Bauza himself was sacked after only three months later and was replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the current coach.

The man behind everything is one of the strongest figures in Middle Eastern football - Turki Al-Shekih, the Saudi Football Association President, and the brain behind the Spanish deal. He hoped for different results. Besides numerous minutes of Fahd Al-Muwallad and Salem Al-Dawsri at Levante and Villareal, none of the players involved in the deal gained the opportunity to get playing time in a European level.

This fact turned out to be a bit problematic, as a few of the national team’s most promising stars are arriving the World Cup after four months where they played only few minutes of pro football.

Meanwhile, the betting agencies positioned Saudi Arabia as one of the two worst teams in the World Cup. Though, in the past week against Italy, the Saudis produced a great second half, pressured the Italians to their own goal and even scored in a counter attack all made by their ‘Ex-Spanish’ players. Al-Muwallad pressed, Al-Dawsri stole the ball and founded Yahya Al-Shehri who played for Las Palmas, which went through Donnarumma and sent it in. 2-1 for the Italians at full time.

Against Peru, the Saudis will look to prepare themselves for Uruguay, and this is exactly why they brought a Copa America winner as Pizzi as coach. He knows what it takes to win a South American team.

Peru (Omri Tancman)

Two weeks before the World Cup and it seems that finally Peru can concentrate in creating stories on the field instead outside of it. To name some of the controversies that followed the Peruvian team on its way to Russia this summer, Peru lost to Bolivia 2-0 in September 2016 during the qualifications. However, in August 2017 a victory awarded for this game, after it was found that Nelson Cabrera, one of Bolivia’s players was ineligible to play.

Later, in the last game of the qualifications Peru and Colombia played each other. Both teams could benefit from a draw which would send Colombia to Russia and Peru to the playoffs instead of Chile. The match ended 1-1 with a bizarre own goal by Colombia’s goalkeeper, Ospina. Chilean press accused both teams for fixing the match, a claim that was boosted after Falcao was caught talking to some of Peru’s players, including Captain Paolo Guerrero, in order to calm down the game, according to Chilean accusations.

Finally, Guerrero himself was in the midst of another scandal when several weeks after qualification, he failed a drug test and was tested positive for cocaine. Guerrero was banned for 14 months and was supposed to be ruled out for the upcoming World Cup. In a dramatic fashion, on May 31st, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) decided to accept Guerrero’s appeal. The decision holds great importance for Peru who will now receive its captain and all-time top goal scorer back to the squad.

The game against Saudi Arabia will be a first test for the Peruvians to prove that they can create stories related only to football, although this might be somewhat boring, no?

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World Cup Warm-up: Brazil v Croatia

Who? Brazil - Croatia
Where? Anfield, Liverpool
When? June 3, 1600 (CET local time)

Brazil (Vitor Buratini Mendes)

In 2014, Brazil hosted the World Cup. The expectations were huge. Many believed that it would be the year that the “Seleção canarinho” will win its sixth title of the biggest soccer tournament in the world. However, the first minutes of the Brazil national team were not the best: in the 11th minute, Marcelo scored an own goal and began the scoring for the Croatian team. Brazil managed to win the game, however, this could already be a sign for the future in this tournament, that will be end with one of the biggest humiliations in football history.

Marcelo scored the only own goal of Brazil in the history of the World Cup. A terrible achievement that affect a player and even finish his part in national team. Coach Dunga, who came after Felipão's resignation, did not call up Marcelo. Furthermore, he was left out of the 2016 Copa América squad. After Dunga's failure, Tite was hired as the new coach to save the team and make it to the World Cup. One of his first steps was to get Marcelo back to the team.

Four years later, Marcelo has evolved a lot. At that time, he was already one of the best left backs of the world and today he may be considered as one of the best in history. He was very important this season, including two assists at the Champions League final and scoring important goals throughout the knockout stage against Bayern, Juventus and PSG.

Brazil's journey begins today in the friendly against Croatia. After all, it's the time to see whether Marcelo let behind the ghost of the own goal from 2014. Who know, maybe this time he would not score for Brazil?

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

Since becoming an independent country, the Croatian national team has qualified to 10 out of 12 possible major tournaments. Despite being a small and a relatively young country, Croatia are a very experienced and dangerous side. More than half of the Croatian squad from 2014 has been named in the preliminary squad for the 2018 World Cup - that includes include Champions League winners Luka Modrić and Mateo Kovačić, alongside runner up Dejan Lovren and other household names such as Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić.

Having been drawn in Group D alongside Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland - undoubtedly a top candidate for the “Group of Death” this tournament, Zlatko Dalic’s men would need to step up their game in order to advance through, in contrast to the big disappointment from the 2014 World Cup where the Balkan side failed to advance from the group stage.

Speaking of which, there is a familiar opponent ahead. Croatia will face Brazil on Sunday, in a rematch of the opening game from 4 years ago. The Seleção, won 3-1 that day in São Paulo, but the Croatians still feel injustice was done due to some questionable officiating. The game in Anfield might be less meaningful and fiery but serves as an important preparation for both teams. The Vatreni view Brazil as an opponent that most resemble South American powerhouse Argentina. Likewise, their next friendly will be against Senegal, who will take the role of fellow Africans Nigeria. And what about Iceland? Well, these two sides are familiar enough with each other after facing off twice in the qualifiers.

As Lovren will be able to testify, Anfield is one of the most unique stadiums in the world - and with all the big names both sides have to offer, we can expect a great afternoon of football.

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World Cup Warm-up: Mexico v Scotland

Who? Mexico - Scotland
Where? Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
When? June 3, 02:00 (CET local time)

August 11th, 2012, Wembley Stadium. Oribe Peralta just became a national hero in Mexico after scoring twice against Neymar & Brazil and led Mexico to the gold medal. Two years later, he was Mexico's starting XI striker at the World Cup, ahead of Chicharito. Rafa Marquez is a Legend and trying to find a highlight point in his career with Mexico will be a debatable topic that can take for the whole World Cup. Alongside to Peralta and Marquez, there is another veteran player, the goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona.

What is the common between these players? They will all retire from the national team at the end of the World Cup. For Rafa Marquez it will be also a retirements from football. The two others two will probably play one or two more years before the end of their career.

Before they will retire and pass on the team to the next Generation, they have one last objective: to lead Mexico to a successful tournament in Russia and to show for the youngsters in the team that they can achieve things against all the odds. Mexico is about to change and this World Cup will probably be the last one for a some of the players in the current roster. Several veteran players like Guardado, Ochoa and more might play at the next Copa America or Gold Cup tournament, but it is unlikely that they will “survive” until Qatar 2022. On the other hand, several youngsters are already an integral part of the team such as Hirving Lozano, Jesus Gallardo, Erick Gutiérrez and Edson Alvarez.

Back to Marquez, Peralta & Corona. In contrary to Carlos Vela’s story, they will have one last time to show their ability after a long service to their country. Tonight, Mexico will host Scotland in front of a sold-out Estadio Azteca. It will be a farewell match from the fans in Mexico before departing to Europe. For these three players, it will be also a farewell from the Mexican fans.

Those legends might retire from the pitch, but a successful World Cup in Russia will keep them in the Mexican hearts forever.

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World Cup Warm-up: Egypt v Colombia

Who? Egypt - Colombia
Where? Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, Bergamo
When? June 1, 21:15 (CET local time)

Egypt (Uri Levy)

Less than a year back, very few has believed that Egypt will qualify to the 2018 World Cup. When the Pharaohs promised their ticket to Russia against Congo Brazzaville, even fewer had believed that they’ll arrive to the World Cup with one of the top three footballers worldwide - Mohamed Salah. Everything seemed ready for Egypt’s comeback to the world stage, but Sergio Ramos had different plans.

On Saturday night, after a rough tackle from the Spanish defender in the European Champions League final, Salah has suffered a dislocated shoulder. For now he is likely to be sidelined between three or four weeks, until the group stage matches against Russia or Saudi Arabia. The reactions in Egypt and the Arab World to the injury included tears, sadness and a grieved atmosphere. This fact is changing the whole perception of the World Cup in Egypt.

Since that famous match against Congo, Egypt haven’t won a single match in 4 chances. In March, they dominated Portugal 1-0 and looked good, but after Salah was subbed, conceded two goals and lost. On Friday night, without Salah who was with Liverpool, Egypt trailed behind Kuwait in a friendly, only to finish in a 1-1 draw.

It’s no secret that despite having names like Essam Al-Hadary, Mahmoud Trezegut, Ramadan Sobhi, Shikabala & Abdallah Said, without Salah, Héector Cúper and Egypt tournament will be much harder.

Meanwhile, against Colombia, the Pharaohs will try to test their defence against a high quality South American side, in order to prepare well for June 15th; Their match against Uruguay on Salah’s 26th birthday. After this season, and the way it ended, his teammates definitely owe him a small present.

Colombia (Idan Segev)

Colombia will face Egypt in what should be their last preparation match before the world cup, although the president of the Colombian association is still trying to find another opponent which may be Greece. To the national team camp in Italy joined the new staff member, former Argentine international and Inter Milan player, Esteban Cambiasso, who will assist coach Pekerman in Russia.

The biggest surprise regarding the Colombian squad was the removal of talented Boca Juniors midfielder, Edwin Cardona. He was a major factor during the qualifiers but his well-known discipline problems left him once again without a World Cup appearance. Cardona still have some hope, as Abel Aguilar injured and he is considered as reserve player.

The good news for the Colombians is the fact that striker Radamel Falcao will make his world cup debut. After he had to miss the tournament 4 years ago due to a serious injury, he is ready to take his last chance with both hands. ‘El Tigre’ scored 54 goals in 79 matches for Monaco in the last two years, and proved that he can still contribute in the highest levels.

The main figure of the national team will be, of course, James Rodriguez. The 2014 world cup Golden Boot winner managed to overcome his difficult time in Real Madrid and had a great season with Bayern Munich. Along with Juventus winger, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Colombia’s trio is ready to attack.

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The Lions of Taranga Roar Once Again

In modern football, there are a lot of golden generations of players. To mention a few, the Dutch national team of the 70’s, the Brazilian national team of 1982 and the French national team of 1998-2000 touched many supporters and were remembered long after their last match was played. In Senegal, the national team of 2002 is remembered as such.

The national team of 2002 is considered as the greatest in the history of Senegal. Its importance is marked by its achievements but nonetheless due to one remarkable game. This team managed to qualify to the quarter finals of the 2002 World Cup but its most memorable moment happened in the opening match of the tournament, which was also the debut match ever of Senegal in the World Cup.

Senegal played against France The French team, the reigning World Champions and European ChampionS at that time was a clear favorite against the unexperienced Senegalese squad. The inferiority of Senegal was a reminder to more than 250 years of French colonialism and subordination over Senegal.

Therefore, the surprising victory of Senegal, 1-0, was not only a simple victory of one team over the other. This victory was a symbol to the liberation of Senegal from French colonialism. For many people in Senegal winning this game was an opportunity to definitively overcome French colonialism and to revenge it. With this victory, many Senegalese saw themselves equal to French. One of the best illustrations to the importance this game had can be found in the words of the Senegalese President in 2002, Abdoulaye Wade, who said that “this day is a special day in the life of a nation.”

One of the most important figures of that team was Aliou Cisse. Cisse was the captain of the golden team but nowadays his importance is even bigger. Cisse is the current head coach of the Senegalese national football team. However, it seems that his role is not limited to team selection and tactical instructions. It is much more than that. In many ways, his role is to be the link between the current squad and Senegal’s golden generation, and with that link to establish solid foundations for Senegalese football for years to come.

Interestingly, the 2002 team is seen very much as a group and in many ways operates like one. For example, in 2012 when Cisse’s appointment to the national team was considered, El-Hadji Diouf, former star of the national team, stated that “the Senegalese football federation should begin to have confidence in its local resources like France has done with Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc.”

Cisse was eventually appointed as head coach. His appointment, combined with the talent of the current squad that qualified to the 2018 World Cup created constant comparisons between the current squad and the 2002 squad. There is also an interesting link and unique relationships between both generations.

The current squad offers several talents including world-class players such as winger Sadio Mane and central defender Kalidou Koulibali. Mane, who was the runner-up African player of the year in 2017, is described by many as the heir of El-Hadji Diouf, who won this title in 2001 and 2002. The connection between both players doesn’t stop here. Diouf himself has stated that Mane is his successor, and Mane named El-Hadji Diuof as his Premier League hero. The main reason, according to Mane, is the contribution Diouf had to the Senegalese football and especially his contribution to the campaign of Senegal in 2002, which inspired Mane as a kid.

The connection between generations is not limited only to Mane and Diouf. The staff itself is consisted of many former players from 2002, alongside with Cisse. Instead of relying on foreigners to share their wisdom with the local players, Cisse has chosen to surround himself with national football legends from Senegal’s golden era. Tony Silva, the starting goalkeeper of Senegal in 2002, is the current goalkeeping coach. Omar Daf, who was the starting defender, is the current assistant coach. Lamine Diatta, another pillar of that team, is the current team’s coordinator.

The presence of players from the golden generation is highly important, not only for their professional attributes but also since they can inspire the young generation with stories from the good old days. One example can be found in the fact that a day after the team has qualified to the World Cup, Ferdinand Colly, another great player from the golden generation, was invited to have a dinner with the squad and share his experience. Moreover, when interviewed after the qualification to the World Cup in Russia, Khalilou Fadiga, former attacking midfielder of Senegal in 2002 said in a very open fashion: “I am in contact constantly with Kalidou Koulibali and with Cheikhou (Kouyate) that calls me all the time, Keita Balde and Mbaye Niang. There is a lot of respect between both generations and the main reason Cisse is there is to help them over-achieve our accomplishments.”

These connections and special relationship between the current squad and the golden generation players seem like part of a larger plan that is meant to elevate Senegalese football. One of the main errors that the Senegalese association admits today is that it did not use the momentum and the funds entered after the success in 2002 to create solid foundations of football in Senegal. These foundations for the future are created in many cases by creating a link with the past and being inspired by it. The voices heard in Senegal, to encourage local football knowledge and not to rely on foreign wisdom can serve also as a lesson to other African teams. It should not be surprising that this voice comes from Senegalese football. After all, its greatest moment was a symbol for the final liberation of the country from foreign sovereignty in it. 


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