The big day is almost here! However, while Russia and Saudi Arabia prepare to kick off the World Cup on Thursday, the buildup has been overshadowed by events away from the opening game. Spain have a new coach(!), while North America is celebrating …
The big story
* The reign in Spain ends mainly in pain … for Julen Lopetegui, at least. In the first “What. Just. Happened?” moment of the 2018 World Cup, La Roja axed their head coach on the eve of the tournament and less than 24 hours after he was named as Zinedine Zidane’s successor at Real Madrid. Given that England have been trying to copy the Spanish model for years, should Gareth Southgate be worried?
Video of the day
Bolton Wanderers legend Fernando Hierro says managing Spain is a “beautiful challenge.”
* Possibly offering some comfort to Spain is the news that Portugal have problems of their own ahead of Friday’s Iberian showdown. In a chaotic end to the season at Sporting Lisbon, the team missed out on a Champions League place, were attacked by a 50-strong mob at their training ground and lost to minnows Aves in the domestic cup final. Add to that a public spat between the players and club president Bruno de Carvalho, and it’s little wonder that five members of the squad have decided to terminate their contracts.
With that quintet including national team stars Rui Patricio, William Carvalho, Bruno Fernandes and Gelson Martins, Portugal boss Fernando Santos will be hoping the crisis doesn’t affect his World Cup preparations.
* It was a tale of joy and despair at the vote for the 2026 World Cup hosts on Thursday. Joy for the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and despair for Morocco and those of us who sat through the full five hours of the FIFA Congress. There’s plenty to get excited about ahead of the 2026 tournament, though, including the thought of a 41-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo turning out for Portugal and a shot at redemption for Diana Ross after that penalty miss in 1994.
Tweet of the day
Here’s ESPN’s Jack Lang with some wordplay gold. Join him on Sunday’s live blog for all the red-hot action between Germany and Mexico.
Not all Hierros wear capes
— Jack Lang (@jacklang) June 13, 2018
W2W4 on Thursday
Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, 4 p.m. UK / 11 a.m. ET
* It all kicks off on Thursday, just three years, 11 months, 17 hours, 24 minutes and 18 seconds since the final whistle was blown in Germany’s triumph over Argentina. Not that we’ve been counting. In living rooms and bars around the globe, on timelines and television sets, the sense of anticipation is palpable. What can we expect from the 2018 World Cup? Who will be crowned champions? Who will cause the greatest upset? What will Luis Suarez do this time? The greatest show on earth is about to begin.
* There is a sense that Russia aren’t quite ready, however. The hosts haven’t won in seven matches and managed only one shot on target in their last two games against Austria and Turkey. Can Saudi Arabia cause a shock at the Luzhniki Stadium? The atmosphere in the Russia camp on Wednesday certainly didn’t convey a mood of optimism, with manager Stanislav Cherchesov and his players facing a huge challenge to get out of the group.
— Artur Petrosyan (@arturpetrosyan) June 13, 2018
* What mayhem can we expect next? We’ve already seen Argentina’s preparations thrown into disarray following their cancelled friendly against Israel; Nike withdraw Iran’s boot supply; Real Madrid announce the appointment of Lopetegui; Spain announce the dismissal of Lopetegui and install Hierro as his replacement … and all before a ball has been kicked in anger. Stay tuned, as there’s bound to be plenty more twists and turns.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger