The summer can often feel like a lifetime for football fans as they struggle to fill their weekends in the absence of the beautiful game. World Cup years, however, are always the exception.
This showpiece event, watched by millions around the globe, has the power to stoke passions in even the most placid person, make or break careers and even unite nations. This year will be no different and promises to be an enthralling watch.
Who will win?
Reigning champions Germany will be confident of retaining their crown after winning ten out of ten in qualifiers and looking every bit the part.
While the side no longer has the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm or Miroslav Klose, Germany’s new generation has the potential to be even better than four years ago, with the side now built on a solid defensive unit.
That said, in the bookmakers’ eyes, the favourites are five-time winners Brazil. Like Germany, Brazil also cruised qualifying and now have strength in depth, especially in attack. Their squad, which includes superstar Neymar, is a far cry from the one thrashed 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals by Die Mannschaft.
As was the case two years ago when they won Euro 2016, Portugal again will be outsiders. Their squad, albeit spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo, is not of the same level of the favourites, which incidentally includes the side they defeated in the final, France.
With an embarrassment of riches in his squad, the biggest dilemma for coach Didier Deschamps will be how to fit them all in. The team is well-stocked in attack, with Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembélé and Olivier Giroud all vying for a starting berth.
Argentina are another side that must be in the mix after reaching the final in Brazil. What’s more, any team containing Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Paulo Dybala must be taken seriously. However, it’s at the other end where there is cause for concern.
And what about Spain?
The 2010 champions remain third favourites even after the head coach fiasco which saw Julen Lopetegui sacked just a day before the start of the tournament.
His replacement, Fernando Hierro, however, is regarded as a safe pair of hands and knows the squad well and should have no problem slotting into Lopetegui's shoes, according to Sky Sports' Rob Palmer.
Having underachieved at the previous two tournaments, Lopetegui had overhauled the squad, replacing the old guard with youth, with strength in depth across all areas. Central to his new project is Benalmádena-born Isco. The Real Madrid star will be La Roja’s man to watch as he aims to orchestrate Spain’s second World Cup triumph.
Who could cause an upset?
Alongside Portugal, Group G opponents Belgium and England will be looking to upset the odds with experimental squads loaded with young players.
Boasting two of the world’s best playmakers, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium coach Roberto Martínez must find the illusive tactical formula to help his budding stars get the success their talents deserve.
Likewise, England’s Gareth Southgate will try to replicate his nation’s success in the under-17 and under-20 World Cups by implementing the same playing style and promoting a number of players from the youth categories. But given the inexperience of both these squads, both managers should be content with earning much-needed tournament experience.
A fairytale on the cards?
There are a number of candidates. Remember Iceland? After reaching the quarters at the Euros two years ago, the tiny nation now find themselves at their first ever World Cup. Despite fielding a side littered with semi-professionals, underestimate them at your peril.
Elsewhere, given that host nations often go further than expected (see South Korea in 2002), Russia, who have picked mostly home-based players, will be hoping that the passionate support will give them a desperately-needed boost. Their 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia on Thursday was the perfect start but with tougher fixtures to come (against Uruguay and Egypt), will they be able to keep it up?
Speaking of Egypt, after the heartbreak of missing out on the Champions League with Liverpool, wouldn’t it be the ultimate fairytale if Mohamed Salah returned from injury to lead his Egypt side out of the group stages?