Five burning questions ahead of the World Cup

Brazil's Roberto Firmino, right, celebrates with teammate Neymar after scoring his side's second goal during a friendly match between Brazil and Croatia at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool, England, Sunday, June 3, 2018. (Dave Thompson/AP)

Like any major sports tournament, there are plenty of unknowns heading into the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

But over the next month, on the pitch and beyond, the questions that fans and pundits have mulling over for four years will finally be answered.

Let’s dive into a handful of the biggest questions that are out there as the World Cup in Russia draws close.

What impact will violence and racism have on the World Cup?

Two of the biggest concerns entering the tournament in Russia are violence and racism.

Fan clashes before and after a Russia-England match in Marseille during Euro 2016 sparked worries two years ago, and the prospect of violence towards visiting fans from around the world is an issue Russian authorities have reportedly been tackling in the lead-up to the tournament.

Racism towards players is an ongoing concern, and one that has not dissipated as the World Cup opener approaches. Just last month, Russia’s soccer federation was fined by FIFA after slurs were hurled at black members of the French national team.

With Russia already facing questions, all eyes will be on FIFA’s handling of fans who display such abhorrent behaviour over the course of the next month.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

Will VAR help or hinder in its first World Cup appearance?

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will make its World Cup debut this summer. And based on its application in domestic leagues across the world, we can almost guarantee there will be some sort of controversy surrounding VAR in at least one of the World Cup’s 64 matches.

What is VAR? FIFA has laid out all of the details of the World Cup’s use of the new replay system, but essentially the process includes a team of referees who will watch all games and will assist on-pitch officials to make rulings on controversial and game-altering decisions.

What could go wrong? Well … plenty.

Technical issues have been the main issue across most leagues, which included a missed offside on a goal that decided the A-League grand final in Australia.

Just last month, FIFA’s head of technology Johannes Holzmüller said via the Associated Press that officials “will have the best setup that is possible at the moment” in Russia but that “it is technology. It can fail.”

To be fair, it’s more than likely VAR will be used to overturn multiple missed calls during the next month of football. But fans should be prepared for some complications, too.

Hopefully, they’re not title-deciding complications.

Can Messi carry Argentina to a World Cup title?

Undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever play the game, Messi has been unable to lead Argentina to an international trophy in his almost 13 years with the senior team.

La Albiceleste have come heartbreakingly close on multiple occasions to capturing both the Copa America, falling 3-0 to Brazil in the 2007 final then losing to Chile on penalties in the 2015 and 2016 finals, and the World Cup, with Mario Götze’s 113th-minute winner shattering that dream in 2014. That loss in 2016’s Copa America Centenario capped a stretch of three straight finals loses that even led to Messi’s brief international retirement.

And despite boasting a talented attacking squad, Argentina was 90 minutes away from missing this year’s tournament entirely before Messi put the team on his back and saved the country from embarrassment.

So, can Argentina return the favour and finally get the monkey off Messi’s back? Unless manager Jorge Sampaoli’s team suddenly begins playing as a more cohesive unit in Russia, No. 10 will once again be forced to drag Argentina through to the knockout rounds and beyond.

Are defending champions Germany capable of repeating?

Four years after defeating Argentina for its first World Cup victory since 1990, Die Mannschaft has seen plenty of turnover in its roster. However, its chances of repeating are good: Germany are second favourites to lift the trophy come tournament’s end, according to OddsShark, behind only Brazil.

How good is this Germany squad? The Premier League’s Young Player of the Year, 22-year-old Leroy Sané, was left out of the 23-man roster. Sané scored 14 goals and added 17 assists for Premier League champions Manchester City. Yes, one of the best players on arguably the greatest team England has ever seen was left at home by manager Joachim Löw – a testament to the defending champs’ depth and skill rather than a detriment to Sané.

So, Germany brings a loaded roster to Russia and, lumped in a group with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea, are more than likely finishing top of the group. Doing so would mean entering a side of the bracket that could see round of 16 matchups against Poland or Senegal, quarterfinal matchups against England, Belgium or Colombia, and a possible semifinal clash with Spain.

It should be noted Germany is winless through three games in 2018, its longest such run in more than 30 years, and no tournament is “easy” to win let alone repeat as champs. But are they capable?

Most definitely.

Will Brazil redeem 2014’s embarrassing exit and challenge for a sixth World Cup?

Brazil enter the 2018 World Cup as slight favourites, according to OddsShark, over defending champions Germany. And with good reason.

The Seleção feature some of the world’s greatest attacking talent (Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Willian), a wealth of talented defenders (Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Marquinhos) and boast two world-class goalkeepers (Alisson and Ederson).

Oh, and their captain, Neymar, happens to be one of the world’s best players. Sure, the 26-year-old is coming off a foot injury that put his World Cup in question … although, he seems to be just fine.

But Brazil is also coming off the most embarrassing loss in the national team’s history. Yes, it was nearly four years ago that this side lost 7-1 to Germany in the 2014’s semifinals on home soil, but you’d be crazy to think redemption isn’t at the front of these players’ minds leading up to this tournament.

Rather than be a burden, though, Brazil’s humiliation could be its great motivator in Russia. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if this team lit the tournament on fire on the way to a finals appearance. Brazil undoubtedly has the pedigree.

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