Who will be the big movers and shakers at the 2018 FIFA World Cup? Sportsnet presents 18 newsmakers who will define this summer’s tournament in Russia.

18. Gianni Infantino

This World Cup marks the first of the post-Sepp Blatter era — Blatter oversaw the previous five tournaments before being forced to step down as FIFA president in 2015. A Swiss lawyer by trade, Infantino will be front and centre in Russia, as most FIFA presidents have been in the past, to take in the action.

But it won’t be all fun and games — he has some work to do, too. He’s already overseen the FIFA Congress meeting in Moscow that saw the joint bid between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico win the right to host the 2026 World Cup.

17. Björn Kuipers

Regarded as one of soccer’s best referees, the Dutchman has taken charge of some pretty big games, including two Europa League finals, the 2014 UEFA Champions League final, and the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup final. He’s previously reffed games at the World Cup, but never the “big one.” That could change, though. With the Netherlands not competing in this year’s tournament, Kuipers could be in line to handle the final in Moscow on July 15.

16. Zabivaka

The tradition of official tournament mascots dates back to 1966 when a lion named World Cup Willie graced the competition in England with his presence. Since then we’ve had such colourful characters as Pique (a jalapeno pepper sporting a moustache and wearing a sombrero) at Mexico ’86, and Fuleco the Armadillo in Brazil four years ago. This time around, it’s a wolf who goes by the name of Zabivaka, which means “The goalscorer.” You’ll probably forget all about him after the opening ceremony. Still, it’s fun for the kids.

15. Iceland’s fans

Iceland will compete at its first World Cup, which is good news for everybody else in Russia because its fans sure know how to party. Icelandic supporters won widespread praise for their friendliness, outgoing nature and pure passion at Euro 2016 in France, perfectly symbolized by their amazingly powerful “Viking clap” during and after games. Considering Iceland’s dull and defensive style of play, the show put on by its supporters in the stands far exceeds the spectacle produced by the team on the pitch.

14. Belgium

This is arguably the best Belgian team of all-time, buoyed by a collection of “golden generation” players who ply their trades at some of the biggest clubs in the world. Four years ago, Belgium was talked about as a possible dark horse. This time around, it has to be considered a legitimate contender to win it all.

Kevin De Bruyne is one the best playmakers in the sport, and was a key figure for an all-conquering Manchester City that swept all before them in the Premier League this season. This is a deep side, with quality all over the pitch, from the back to the front: goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, defender Jan Vertonghen, midfielder Mousa Dembele, wingers Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens, and forward Romelu Lukaku.

13. Andres Iniesta

One of the greats will take his final bow for Spain this summer. Iniesta, 34, has said he will most likely retire from the national team following the World Cup in Russia, bringing to an end a sparkling international career. With over 100 caps to his credit, the FC Barcelona star has been an integral part of the national team since making his debut in 2006.

He played prominent roles in helping Spain win Euro 2008 and 2012, and he scored the winner in extra time of the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands. Renowned for his elegant style of play, the classy midfielder has long imposed himself upon important games with his sublime possession skills and visionary passing ability. The World Cup won’t be the same without him.

Icelandic supporters won widespread praise for their friendliness, outgoing nature and pure passion at Euro 2016 in France

12. Achilles the Cat

Achilles is a white cat who has been chosen as the tournament’s official oracle. When he’s not busy with his day job — chasing mice from Russia’s famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – Achilles will predict the winners and losers of World Cup matches by choosing between two bowls of food, each marked by the flag of a national team.

It’s a role he fulfilled at last summer’s FIFA Confederation’s Cup held in Russia. Achilles will no doubt be looking to do better than Paul the Octopus, who accurately predicted 12 out of 14 matches at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

11. Essam El-Hadary

The veteran goalkeeper will more than likely become the oldest person to play in a World Cup match when Egypt takes on Uruguay in its opening contest in Russia. Should El-Hadary take to the field against the South Americans — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, considering he played in all but one of Egypt’s qualifiers — he’ll make his World Cup debut at the tender age of 45 and eclipse the record set by Colombia goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who was 43 when he played at the last World Cup in Brazil.

10. John Helm

You’ve probably never seen John Helm, but you’ve likely heard him, and you’ll hear him again this summer. The 76-year-old Englishman has provided play-by-play commentary on the international TV feed for every World Cup since 2002, his dulcet voice an integral part of the competition. He’s called some of the biggest World Cup moments in recent memory, including Andres Iniesta scoring Spain’s extra-time goal in the 2010 final, and Zinedine Zidane’s red card for head-butting Marco Materazzi in 2006.

9. Tite

Every Brazil manager faces pressure. The soccer-mad country expects the Selecao to win, and nothing short of lifting the World Cup trophy at the end of each tournament will suffice. So, you can just imagine what must be going through the mind of Tite, who was hired as Brazil’s new manager two years ago in the aftermath of the team’s shocking 7-1 loss to Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, and its poor performance at the 2016 Copa America, when it bowed out of the South American championship at the group stage for the first time since 1987.

Brazil has been revitalized under Tite, having won seven straight games to become the first nation to qualify for this World Cup. But can he keep that momentum going to guide Brazil to a record sixth World Cup title?

8. Thomas Muller

Muller ranks as the active top scorer in World Cup history with 10 goals (more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo combined), just six behind the all-time record holder, countryman Miroslav Klose. Muller has scored five times in each of the last two World Cups, and at 28, he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Muller is expected to feature prominently for a Germany team that is considered one of the pre-tournament favourites in Russia, so don’t be surprised if the Bayern Munich forward eclipses Klose’s mark. If not, there’s always Qatar in 2022!

7. Harry Kane

Fresh off a career, 30-goal season in the Premier League – his fourth consecutive campaign in which he bagged at least 20 goals – the unassuming Tottenham forward heads to Russia as one of the hottest players in the world. Kane is off to a great start in his international career, with 12 goals in his first 23 appearances. But he has a point to prove after a poor showing at Euro 2016, where he made more headlines for his poorly taken corner kicks than his goal-scoring prowess. Kane is regarded as England’s great hope, but can he help erase 52 years of hurt for the Three Lions?

6. Neymar

The world’s most expensive player appeared to be out of the World Cup when he suffered a foot injury in February while playing for Paris Saint-Germain. Neymar, 26, has slowly recovered after undergoing surgery, and he was named to Brazil’s World Cup squad. Before the injury, Neymar was having a sensational season for PSG. In calling up Neymar for duty, Brazilian coach Tite referred to him as one of the top three players in the world, but insisted his team doesn’t entirely depend on him.

“We will be much stronger with Neymar doing well, but for him to do well the rest of the team has to be well, too,” Tite stated. Still, there’s no question all eyes will be on Neymar this summer, especially after Brazil’s amazing capitulation on home soil four years ago.

5. Vladimir Putin

Global politics and the World Cup have been intertwined ever since 1934 when dictator Benito Mussolini used the competition to showcase Italy and trumpet his fascist regime to the world, while at the same time uniting the country behind the national team. Russia has lurched from one controversy to the next over the last few years, from its invasion of Crimea to accusations of interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.

At the centre of this turmoil has been Russian president Vladimir Putin, who ultimately failed in his attempt to bring his country and the West closer together when Sochi hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. This summer’s World Cup is another diplomatic opportunity for Putin to shine a positive light on his homeland and convince the world he is part of the mainstream. This is his chance to Make Russia Great Again.

4. Mohamed Salah

Who’s the best player in the world at the moment not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? That would be Mohamed Salah (see photo at top), the Egyptian forward who set a record for most goals (32) in a 38-game Premier League campaign during his debut season for Liverpool in 2017–18. Salah took the English topflight by storm in his second go-around – he barely played over two season for Chelsea in his previous stint in England – winning the player of the year award, and guiding Liverpool to a top-four finish and an appearance in the UEFA Champions League final. Such was his impact for the Reds that he is already being touted as the leading candidate to win the Ballon d’Or, the award given to the world player of the year.

Salah has now set his sights on the biggest stage of all as Egypt prepares to participate at the World Cup after a lengthy absence. Egypt have been champions of Africa on seven occasions, more than any other nation. Success at the World Cup has been harder to come by — they’ve qualified only twice, with their last appearance coming in 1990. If this modest Egyptian team is to make some noise in Russia — or at the very least get out of the group stage – Salah will have to be at his best, and his nation’s hopes rest mostly on his shoulders.

The unassuming Tottenham forward heads to Russia as one of the hottest players in the world

3. The Video Assistant Referee team

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be front and centre at the World Cup for the first time this summer. The VAR system has been used in MLS, Serie A, the Bundesliga and several other domestic leagues around the world. But the reviews from critics have been mixed, mostly because it slows up the game, and a lack of communication – fans in the stands and watching on TV are left guessing as to what’s going when VAR is reviewing a play.

How does it work? The referee on the pitch will continue to officiate the match as normal, while the video assistant referee team will watch the match from a centralized video operation room in Moscow. It is entirely up to the VAR team to tell the match official that a potential mistake has been made. Unlike in the NFL, where coaches can challenge plays, World Cup coaches have no such luxury. Once alerted by the VAR, the official on the field can either accept the recommendation, or watch the replay from a sideline monitor to decide for himself whether to overturn or uphold his original decision. Either way, the referee on the pitch has the final say, not the VAR.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo

At 33, Ronaldo is likely going to be playing in his fourth and final World Cup in Russia. Ronaldo is riding high, fresh off a third consecutive UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid, and still basking in the glory of Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory in which his team upset hosts France in the final.

Like Messi, Ronaldo has put his national team on his back on countless occasions in the past. And again, just like his great rival, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to lead his country to the ultimate prize. Portugal bowed out early in the last two World Cups, but there is a sense that the Selecao will be able to contend this time around, namely because of their captain, who was in outstanding form this season, scoring 44 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions. Messi and Salah will have something to say about it, but Ronaldo is already one of the leading contenders to win a third consecutive Ballon d’Or, the annual world player of the year award. A strong showing by Ronaldo in Russia, capped off with lifting the trophy, would almost certainly clinch it for him.

1. Lionel Messi

Messi turns 31 on June 24, which means this very well could be his last chance to win the World Cup. For all of his success at club level, the FC Barcelona star hasn’t hit similar heights with the national team. His strike rate is impressive, with 64 goals in 124 appearances, but he hasn’t done what Diego Maradona did – lead his country to World Cup glory. It’s just one of the reasons why Maradona is far more revered in Argentina than Messi, even to this day.

Not that he hasn’t come close. Messi was named World Cup MVP in 2014 after Argentina lost to Germany in extra time in the final. That was followed by a pair of losses in the final of the 2015 and 2016 Copa America. The loss in 2016 was especially bitter for Messi, who missed a penalty in the shootout, leading him to announcing his international retirement after the game. Thankfully, he reversed his decision, allowing us the opportunity to watch him on the sport’s biggest stage one last time. Messi doesn’t need to win the World Cup to cement his status as one of the greatest players of all time.

But there’s no doubt that the absence of a World Cup title on his impressive resumé of accomplishments rankles him. Look for the Argentine ace to pour every ounce of effort he can muster into guiding his country to its third World Cup this summer.

Photo Credits

Nigel French/PA via AP
Brynjar Gunnarsson/AP
AP Photo/Matt Dunham