As we’re writing this, the biggest event in sports has just kicked off! That’s right, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has officially begun. This soccer showcase (or football feast if you will) promises great goals, controversy, backs to the wall defending, fingertip saves, and Germany winning on penalties. Join us as we break down the tournament, including the teams to watch, the stadiums and cities to take note of, and more!
What is the World Cup?
Held every four years, the FIFA World Cup is THE premier competition in international soccer (expect to see both soccer and football written throughout this post, whichever I think sounds better really). While tournaments like the Euros or Copa América feature teams from one continent or confederation (though the latter does invite guests), the World Cup is open to every registered national team in the world (hence the name).
A rigorous qualification process lasts for more than two years, with a total of 32 teams qualifying for the finals. This will be expanded up to 48 by the time 2026 rolls around, but for now this remains a slightly more exclusive event.
Where is the World Cup?
Russia has the honor of hosting the 2018 World Cup, with matches played throughout a total of 12 stadiums in 11 cities. This ranges from Moscow to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad to the Asian border. Scroll down towards the bottom to find our stadium and match guide.
When is the World Cup?
The World Cup begins at 11am on Thursday, June 14th (by the time we finished this article, the first match had finished with a Russian victory). The final will take place on Sunday, July 15th with kickoff at 11am. That’s right…it’s a whole month of soccer!
Who is participating in the World Cup?
Plenty of the usual suspects are here as you will see, though there are some notable and surprising omissions. The Netherlands failed to qualify for their second major tournament in a row, while four time winners Italy lost out to Sweden in the qualifying playoffs. On this side of the pond the United States failed to qualify for the first time since 1986, shocking pundits and fans. Chile, who won their continental cup (Copa América) the last two times, won’t be there, while Africa’s usual suspects, Ivory Coast and Ghana, also missed out. But enough about the teams staying at home; who will you be able to watch on the field over the next month?
- Group A: Russia (host), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
- Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
- Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
- Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
- Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
- Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
- Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
- Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
How does the World Cup work?
Each team will play the other three teams that are in their group. Once each team has played these three matches, the top two teams from each of the eight groups will advance to the knockout round. The knockout round includes round of 16 matches, quarterfinals, semifinals, a third place match, and the final. Win a knockout round match and you advance, lose and you go home. The winner of the final will be your 2018 World Cup champion!
Group stage matches will not include extra time (think overtime) and will end after 90 minutes of play (plus a few minutes added on for stoppages) even when tied. A win is worth three points, a draw is worth one, and a loss is zero. Tiebreakers will be used to separate teams on the same amount of points. Knockout round games will go to an extra 30 minutes if tied after 90, following which penalty shots will take place if the teams are still level.
Teams to watch
Unfortunately we don’t have the time to go through every team in the World Cup. Indeed, almost every nation has something to watch about them – whether they be a favorite, a Cinderella story, or an un-fancied side. Below are a few teams you might want to keep your eye on. Just keep in mind this is by no means a definitive list! You should also note that the FIFA rankings attached don’t always tell the full or even accurate story of the teams, so take them with a huge grain of salt.
Russia (Rank: 70th)
First off, we’ll begin with the host. To put it lightly, hopes were not very high for this Russian squad going in. They have some talented youngsters and some wily vets, however the team is simply not on the level of the very best from top to bottom. Can the Russians prove wrong doubters at home and abroad? Well as I’m writing this, they have just finished a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the first match (though we should say the latter was dreadful throughout). While this is certainly a promising start, they will need to perform against better teams if they hope to make it to the knockout round and beyond.
Brazil (Rank: 2nd)
For gamblers, Brazil has been the odds on favourite to win it all this year according to most bookies. Having won more World Cups than any other nation (five total), the Seleção have earned their spot at the top of the soccer pantheon thanks to a mixture of results and entertaining, flashy play. That being said, no Brazilian (or any soccer fan for that matter) has forgotten what happened in the 2014 semifinals at home against Germany. With a spot in the final on the line, the Germans tore Brazil apart en route to a 7-1 win. The specter of this stunning home defeat will haunt Brazilian football for decades.
In the lead up to this tourney however, Brazil looked to have exorcized the demons (see a theme?) of the last World Cup by topping South American qualifying easily. Superstar forward Neymar is the biggest name on the team (he missed the semi against Germany with an injury). One of the biggest names in sport, he is also the ‘most expensive player of all time’ on the back of a massive €222 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. He’ll look to make his mark and put himself closer to the untouchable modern day stature of Messi and Ronaldo. A team isn’t just one player however, and Brazil has a good keeper in Roma’s Alisson, top defenders such as Marcelo and Thiago Silva, midfielders of both the defensive and attacking variety, and more. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s a reason so many experts are picking Brazil to go all the way.
Germany (Rank: 1st)
Rule number one of soccer is ‘never bet against the Germans’. The defending champs (thanks to this Mario Götze goal) have not gotten any weaker in the last four years, and will hope to become the first repeat winner since Brazil in 1962. Perfect in qualifying (10 wins in 10), the Germans have a scary collection of attacking and defending players. Thomas Müller enters his third showcase, having scored five in each of his last two, while forward Marco Reus finally gets his chance gets to play in a World Cup after injuries forced him to withdraw twice previously. Bayern Munich duo Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels anchor the defense, with young star (and club teammate) Joshua Kimmich making the right back position his own.
One unusual question mark however is the goalkeeper. The number one (and captain of the team) is Manuel Neuer – commonly rated as one of, if not the best keeper in the world. However after missing most of the season to injury, there are questions about his fitness and focus. Waiting in the wings is Marc-André ter Stegen, the number one for Barcelona who would start for most other countries in the tournament. It should be noted that their recent form in pre-tournament friendlies hasn’t been great, but it can folly to read too much into this. Despite the keeper question and recent results, it’s safe to say that Germany will be a major player throughout and could win it all once again.
Spain (Rank: 10th)
Along with Germany, Spain has been the pick of the European teams in the lead up to the World Cup. They have one of the top keepers in the world with Manchester United’s David de Gea, while players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, and other top teams make up much of the outfield squad (including Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué at centre-back, while 2010 winner Andrés Iniesta, Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara and Manchester City’s David Silva are just a few names from a stacked midfield).
However, just yesterday Spain shocked the world by sacking manger Julen Lopetegui two days before their opening game against Portugal (he agreed to take over Real Madrid following the tournament, evidently without telling the Spanish federation). Regardless of the politics and reasoning, a change in manager on the eve of what is probably the highest profile match of the group stage could be bad news. Spain won’t want to start their tournament the way they did last time (a 5-1 defeat to the Dutch signaled an end to the ‘golden era’ of Spanish football that had resulted in three major championships in a row from 2008 to 2012). So uncertainty is the order of the day, but the massively talented squad could still make up for any issues in the backroom.
England (Rank: 12th)
Poor England has been unlucky of late when it comes to major tournaments. After failing to advance out of the group stage in 2014 (in what was an admittedly tough draw), the Three Lions were upset by tiny Iceland (more on them later) in Euro 2016. The birthplace of football has only seen one major tournament victory, the World Cup in 1966 which they hosted.
England comes to Russia with a new look team that is among the youngest in the tournament. Striker Harry Kane (of Tottenham) leads the line and is the country’s one true world class player. He’ll hope to build on another great season in the Premier League. Promising and young (yet sometimes inconsistent) players such as Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, and Raheem Sterling will support Kane, along with Jesse Lingard (who’s coming off a surprisingly great season) and workhorse Jamie Vardy (who led the line when Leicester City achieved the impossible and won the league). England may not have the same quality of some of Europe’s other heavyweights, but there’s a certain sky is the limit mentality to this upstart squad. Still, this team has to compete with everything including the weight of expectation, previous tournament failures, its own press, and a pessimistic outlook. It’s hard to say what to expect from England, though with a squad that looks promising for the future, this World Cup could be a chance to make their mark early.
Belgium (Rank: 3rd)
Many point to the mid-2000’s as the ‘Golden Generation’ of English football that was sadly wasted with early exits on penalties. Now it’s Belgium that are experiencing their own apex in talent. On paper, the Red Devils (as they are known) are one of the best teams in the tournament. Kevin De Bruyne is up there with the world’s best midfielders while tricky attackers like Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens will support the big man (Romelu Lukaku) up top. They have three great defenders (as long as Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany stays healthy) and a top keeper in Thibaut Courtois.
But World Cups aren’t played on paper. After losing in the quarterfinals to Argentina last World Cup and underdog Wales in the Euros, many feel that Belgium’s own Golden Generation is running out of time. Following this year, the talented squad will likely start to decline. With the window to international glory closing fast, Belgium’s superstar squad need to show they can perform as team under the highest of pressure.
France (Rank: 7th)
France right now can claim perhaps the best depth of footballing talent in the world (particularly in attack). Indeed, you could make a full team out of players that didn’t make the World Cup squad and they would be the envy of most other countries. Walking transfer rumor Antoine Griezmann will look to build on Euro 2016 (where he was the leading scorer), 19 year old Kylian Mbappé is perhaps the most exciting and highly rated teenage footballer in the world, Paul Pogba is one of the world’s most talented midfielders (though his struggles with consistency are well noted), while Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti inhabit the center of the defensive line.
After falling short at home in Euro 2016 (thanks to a surprising 1-0 extra-time loss to Portugal in the final), there’s a sense of all or northing for France. The talent on display is undeniable, but they haven’t always come together as well as they could have in recent matches. Expect France to be a force for years to come, but this could just be a bridge to far right now. If this team sorts out their chemistry issues however, there are very few countries that could hope to stop them.
Portugal (Rank: 4th)
Portugal were, shall we say, somewhat uninspired winners of Euro 2016. After sneaking out of the group stage without a win, Portugal made it all the way to the final on the back of a penalty win, an extra-time win, and a slightly more convincing 2-0 win against Wales in the semifinals. When talisman Cristiano Ronaldo went down injured early in the final, all hope looked lost against hosts and heavily favored France. After defending well for 90 minutes, up popped substitute Eder with a winner in extra-time.
Now in Russia, Ronaldo (at 33 years of age) is back and ready to claim the one major piece of silverware that’s eluded him. We don’t mean to do a disservice to Portugal by just mentioning him however, as they do have good players in almost every position. It’s just hard to see them going on another run like in 2016 (though not many predicted that either). The importance of their first match against Spain is huge, as it will likely set the tone for what could be an early exit or another famous cup.
Iceland (Rank: 22nd)
The little country that could. With a population of around 350,000, Iceland is by far the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup. Two years ago, they burst on to the international scene with a 2-1 victory over a stunned England in the round of 16. Now in Russia, you can bet Iceland’s opponents will be taking them seriously. They’re in a tough group this year, with 2014 runners-up Argentina, a talented Croatian squad (who Iceland did finish above in qualifying), and Nigeria. Can Iceland repeat their heroics of 2016 with the whole world watching? If they do, expect to see the famous viking clap throughout the tournament.
Uruguay (Rank: 14th)
A popular ‘dark horse’ pick, this could be the most complete Uruguayan team yet (at least since their famous victories in the first World Cup in 1930 and in Brazil 1950). They have a solid keeper, some good young players coming in, and Atlético Madrid teammates Diego Godín and José Giménez at the back. All eyes however will be on Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez up front. Together, they are probably the most dangerous attacking duo in the tournament. Cavani (who plays for PSG in France) was the top scorer in South American qualifying while Barcelona’s Suárez remains one of the best strikers in the world. If this team can find their rhythm and Suárez can stick to the prescribed diet, Uruguay could possibly even improve on their semi-final appearance in 2010.
Argentina (Rank: 5th)
As one of the two names (along with Ronaldo) that has dominated football discussion for a decade, Lionel Messi will once again lead Argentina into the World Cup. A loss to Germany in extra-time in 2014 was followed by back to back finals losses on penalties to Chile in Copa América. After going 0/3 in the last four years, can Argentina make it back to another final and (more importantly) get the job done this time?
There is no denying the strength of their attack. Messi (many people’s pick for the best player of all time) is joined by Paulo Dybala, Sergio Agüero, and Gonzalo Higuaín up top, while there remain a couple standouts in midfield. Beyond this though, Argentina is a mixed bag defensively and between the posts, while their tumultuous qualification campaign illustrates their inconsistency (sneaking in on the final day thanks to, who else, Messi). Betting against Messi often doesn’t go far and he alone gives them a shot. But can the supporting cast rise to the occasion or will it be another international disappointment for La Albiceleste?
There are so many other teams and players we didn’t get around to mentioning, all of whom are eager to make their mark on the World Cup. Egypt starts play against Uruguay with star Mohamed Salah coming off an unforgettable season at Liverpool (where he was the ‘Premier League Player of the Season’). A strong Denmark is led by Tottenham star Christian Eriksen and could surprise. Croatia has some of the world’s best midfielders among their ranks. Mexico is the top team out of the North and Central American confederation, though their habit of going out in the round of 16 is well known. Finally, both Poland (with Munich striker Robert Lewandowski) and Colombia (who’s number 10 James Rodríquez also had a great season in Munich) face off in Group H, with both of them eyeing a knockout round run.
Who we think will win it all: Germany
Stadium and Match Guide
Note: All match times in Eastern Standard Time (EST). Most match start times range from 8am to 2pm (with some exceptions). Check out the official match schedule for a day by day breakdown.
Moscow: Luzhniki Stadium
- June 14 (11am) – Russia vs Saudi Arabia – Group A
- June 17 (11am) – Germany vs Mexico – Group F
- June 20 (8am) – Portugal vs Morocco – Group B
- June 26 (10am) – Denmark vs France – Group C
- July 1 (10am) –Winner Group B vs Runner-up Group A – Round of 16
- July 11 (2pm) – Semi Final
- July 15 (11am) – Final
Saint Petersburg: Saint Petersburg Stadium
- June 15 (11am) – Morocco vs Iran – Group B
- June 19 (2pm) – Russia vs Egypt – Group A
- June 22 (8am) – Brazil vs Costa Rica – Group E
- June 26 (2pm) – Nigeria vs Argentina – Group D
- July 3 (10am) – Winner Group F vs Runner-up Group E – Round of 16
- July 10 (2pm) – Semi Final
- July 14 (10am) – Third Place
Nizhny Novgorod: Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
- June 18 (8am) – Sweden vs Korea Republic – Group F
- June 21 (2pm) – Argentina vs Croatia – Group D
- June 24 (8am) – England vs Panama – Group G
- June 27 (2pm) – Switzerland vs Costa Rica – Group E
- July 1 (2pm) –Winner Group D vs Runner-up Group C – Round of 16
- July 6 (10am) – Quarter Final
Kazan: Kazan Arena
- June 16 (6am) – France vs Australia – Group C
- June 20 (2pm) – Iran vs Spain – Group B
- June 24 (2pm) – Poland vs Colombia – Group H
- June 27 (10am) – Korea Republic vs Germany – Group F
- June 30 (10am) – Winner Group C vs Runner-up Group D – Round of 16
- July 6 (2pm) – Quarter Final
Samara: Samara Arena
- June 17 (8am) – Costa Rica vs Serbia – Group E
- June 21 (8am) – Denmark vs Australia – Group C
- June 25 (10am) – Uruguay vs Russia – Group A
- June 28 (10am) – Senegal vs Colombia – Group H
- July 2 (10am) –Winner Group E vs Runner-up Group F – Round of 16
- July 7 (10am) – Quarter Final
Sochi: Fisht Stadium
- June 15 (2pm) – Portugal vs Spain – Group B
- June 18 (11am) – Belgium vs Panama – Group G
- June 23 (2pm) – Germany vs Sweden – Group F
- June 26 (10am) – Australia vs Peru – Group C
- June 30 (2pm) – Winner Group A vs Runner-up Group B – Round of 16
- July 7 (2pm) – Quarter Final
Rostov-On-Don: Rostov Arena
- June 17 (2pm) – Brazil vs Switzerland – Group E
- June 20 (11am) – Uruguay vs Saudi Arabia – Group A
- June 23 (11am) – Korea Republic vs Mexico – Group F
- June 26 (2pm) – Iceland vs Croatia – Group D
- July 2 (2pm) – Winner Group G vs Runner-up Group H – Round of 16
Moscow: Spartak Stadium
- June 16 (9am) – Argentina vs Iceland – Group D
- June 19 (11am) – Poland vs Senegal – Group H
- June 23 (8am) – Belgium vs Tunisia – Group B
- June 27 (2pm) – Serbia vs Brazil – Group C
- July 3 (2pm) – Winner Group H vs Runner-up Group G – Round of 16
Ekaterinburg: Ekaterinburg Arena
- June 15 (8am) – Egypt vs Uruguay – Group A
- June 21 (11am) – France vs Peru – Group C
- June 24 (11am) – Japan vs Senegal – Group H
- June 27 (10am) – Mexico vs Sweden – Group F
Saransk: Mordovia Arena
- June 16 (12pm) – Peru vs Denmark – Group C
- June 19 (8am) – Colombia vs Japan – Group H
- June 25 (2pm) – Iran vs Portugal – Group B
- June 28 (2pm) – Panama vs Tunisia – Group G
Volgograd: Volgograd Arena
- June 18 (2pm) – Tunisia vs England – Group G
- June 22 (11am) – Nigeria vs Iceland – Group D
- June 25 (10am) – Saudi Arabia vs Egypt – Group A
- June 28 (10am) – Japan vs Poland – Group H
Kaliningrad: Kaliningrad Stadium
- June 16 (3pm) – Croatia vs Nigeria – Group D
- June 22 (2pm) – Serbia vs Switzerland – Group E
- June 25 (2pm) – Spain vs Morocco – Group B
- June 28 (2pm) – England vs Belgium – Group G
Tickets and Watching Matches
While many tickets have been sold, you can still find some available on a first come, first served basis at FIFA.com. Watching on TV in Canada instead? You can find all the games on CTV and TSN, as well as RDS for French language coverage.
Safety at the 2018 World Cup
It is obviously of paramount importance to stay safe if you plan on traveling to Russia for the World Cup. This can be achieved (as many fans will be making their way there for the tournament), but you must remain vigilant. A high degree of caution is recommended throughout the country, with violence due to both terrorism and hooliganism a concern. Be sure to read through everything on the official Canadian government travel advisory for Russia.
Enjoy the Matches!
So you know who to watch and where/when to watch them. Now it’s time to enjoy some soccer! Pick a team if you haven’t already and cheer them on. Have fun!
Learn more about the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at the official website.
Plan your ultimate World Cup getaway with our Russia Travel Guide! You can also check out our Currency Spotlight for more on the Russian ruble. Once you’ve done that, we’ll be happy to help you get some of your own online at FXtoGO™ or at your nearest branch.
If you’re interested in reading a bit more about the beautiful game, see what we picked as our 11 most iconic soccer stadiums around the world! You can also relive past glories with our pre-tournament guides to Euro 2016 and Copa América Centenario.
Stay informed. Stay Current.