Every World Cup, there are players who go from unheralded to household, heroes to villains, and the dreaded penalty shootout makes even the most steely-nerved weak in the knees.
What adds so much to this spectacle unlike any other is the buildup to every match with the whole world watching, the storylines of whether or not players and teams will live up to the hype, and of course, the history that has built up between those players or countries to ramp up the narrative even further.
This year, there are several of those storylines to follow, and here is the guide you need to figure out which matches will peak the interest of the footballing world and how they can happen:
The battle for the Ballon d’Or
While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have created a rivalry that will be nearly impossible to match, Salah has added a level of intrigue with his spectacular 2017-18 season. Ronaldo and Salah squared off in the Champions League final with the Portuguese taking the edge, but a World Cup clash could turn the tide if the two were to meet face-to-face once again.
The pair also faced each other in a friendly on March 23, when Salah opened the scoring in the 56th minute only for Ronaldo to stun Egypt with two goals in injury time to give Portugal a 2-1 victory.
Option A: Portugal finishes first in its group, requiring Egypt to finish second in its group. This certainly makes things easier for the African side to live up to their end of the bargain, but the Portuguese finishing ahead of Spain would take some serious work when they face each other in their first group game.
Option B: Portugal place second behind Spain and Egypt finish first in Group A. The odds would be against the Egyptians, with Uruguay the group favourites and Russia playing home soil, but with the way this year has gone, is there anyone still willing to bet against Salah?
Revenge for 7-1, World Cup 2014, and Euro 2016
Brazil was one step away from the final in 2014, but the absence of both Neymar and captain Thiago Silva proved too much to overcome as Germany ran away with a shocking 7-1 victory in the semifinals. It was the heaviest defeat in Brazil’s storied World Cup history, and despite exorcising some demons in a 1-0 friendly win over Germany on March 27, a rematch on the biggest stage would give them a real chance at redemption.
Option A: Both teams top the group, which would mean they can only face each other in the final. Considering they are two of the favourites, there’s enough reason to believe it can happen.
Messi came agonizingly close to winning the last World Cup when his Argentina side lost to a Mario Gotze extra-time winner that gave Germany their fourth world title. La Albiceleste, meanwhile, haven’t won the World Cup since 1986. They won’t have to worry about Gotze this time around with him having been left out of Germany’s squad, but considering the struggle Argentina had in just qualifying for the tournament, they will have their work cut out for them right from their first group game.
Option A: Argentina and Germany both finish atop their respective groups, lining them up to face each other in the semifinals. Spain could provide a potential roadblock for the South Americans in the quarterfinals.
Option B: Germany finish first in Group F and Argentina finish second in Group D to put a finals rematch on the cards.
France looked the cream of the crop at Euro 2016 in their backyard, but strangely came undone in the final as Portugal came away with a laborious 1-0 victory in extra time despite losing Ronaldo to injury. The last time the two sides met in the World Cup was in 2006, when Zinedine Zidane scored a penalty to lead France to victory in the semifinals.
Option A: France top Group C, Portugal finish second in Group B, putting the two sides in position to face each other in the quarterfinals.
Option B: Both teams finish first in their respective groups, ensuring they can face each other no sooner than the final.
England vs. Germany
There’s just something about these two teams facing each other on the world’s biggest stage. Their numerous World Cup battles on the pitch have created a level of disdain between the two nations that always adds that little bit extra.
This fixture has provided England’s proudest moment in the sport, the 1966 final in which they defeated West Germany 4-2 after extra time. Their last encounter was a crushing 4-1 result in favour of the Germans in 2010, but there was plenty of controversy courtesy of Frank Lampard’s first-half goal that wasn’t given and could have tied the game 2-2. The Germans, of course, will claim it as just reward for the goal that counted for England in 1966 when in fact the ball never crossed the line.
Option A: Germany wins its group, England finish second in its group, thus setting up a potential quarterfinal showdown. Germany would play the runner-up of Group E (Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica) in the second round and England would play the winner of Group H (Poland, Colombia, Japan, Senegal).
Option B: England and Germany both win their respective groups, ensuring the possibility of the two teams facing each other no sooner than the final.
Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
Saying the world would stop for this occasion wouldn’t be an overstatement. Easily the most anticipated potential matchup, both Messi and Ronaldo are looking to add the World Cup to their illustrious trophy cabinet. With Portugal in Group B and Argentina slotted with Iceland, Nigeria and Croatia in Group D, here’s what you need to hope happens to make this dream a reality:
Option A: Portugal and Argentina both finish second in their respective groups, leaving the former to face the winners of Group A (Uruguay, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) in the round of 16, while Argentina would have to get past France.
Option B: In the more unlikely event that both teams top their respective groups, then Argentina would face the second-placed team from Group C (France, Denmark, Peru, Australia), and the runners-up of Group A would play Portugal.
Option C: Both Portugal and Argentina qualify in different slots, i.e. one finishes first and one finishes second in their respective groups or vice versa. The two teams would be placed in opposite sides of the knockout bracket and would have to navigate a few more obstacles before facing each other in the final. You’re the high-risk, high-reward type if you’re banking on this happening.