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Ronaldo to start World Cup campaign as Bale looks on

media The hand made plaster models of the real 18-carat gold trophy that will go to the winners of the month-long World Cup hosted by Russia that starts on 14 June 2018. AFP/Nhac Nguyen

Two spectacular overhead kicks defined the 2017/2018 Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunner for Real Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final against Juventus was ultimately eclipsed by Gareth Bale’s pyrotechnics to give Madrid a 2-1 lead during the Champions League final against Liverpool.

Of the two stars, Bale will be among the hundreds of millions watching proceedings at the World Cup while Ronaldo will be in the thick of the action with his Portugal side.

His European champions will start their Group B campaign in Russia on 15 June against Spain at the Stade Ficht in Sochi. Matches against Morocco and Iran will follow.

Just over 24 hours before Portugal launch their attempt to add a first world crown to their trophy cabinet, hosts Russia will play the opening game of the competition in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The same venue will stage the final on 15 July.

No one expects the Russians to be in that showdown. “Hosts tend to overperform at tournaments,” said Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard. “But it’s very hard to see something like that in this Russia team.

"There’s something very weird about seeing Sergei Ignashevich coming out of international retirement at the age of 38 to make up for a shortfall in centre backs. So in a kind of ghoulish way, I’m looking forward to seeing him to see if he can still move whereas all the evidence from his club side CSKA Moscow is that he can’t move any more.”

But there are teams with men who can burn up the turf. Lionel Messi will be under the spotlight yet again. Can the Barcelona star inspire his Argentina side to the ultimate national team prize? Can Neymar lead the redemption of a Brazil side so efficiently humiliated 7-1 in the semi-final by the Germans during the 2014 competition?

The Paris Saint-Germain striker has his work cut out. Last August he moved from Barcelona to the French outift for 222 million euros. The PSG executives preened themselves over such a dazzling coup. Along with the teenage starlet Kylian Mbappé and veteran striker Edinson Cavani, here was a 500 million troika constructed to strike fear into the defences of Europe’s leading sides.

They certainly ripped up the Ligue 1 back lines. But they weren’t assembled to gorge on brioches like that. The triumvirate - along with other gleaming jewels such as Marco Verrrati -were gathered to triumph in the Champions League. Yet again, it did not happen for PSG in the competition. Real Madrid eliminated them in the last 16 while Neymar was sitting out the second leg with an injured foot.

The 26-year-old appears to be on the road to recovery. He started and scored in Brazil’s 3-0 win over Austria on 10 June. And though Brazil coach Tite has surrounded him with midfield talents such as Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Chelsea’s Willian, Neymar will - for better or worse - be the focus of attention. “I think that will be the problem with Brazil,” Wilson added. “He is such a celebrity figure and it appears to have got worse since he went to PSG. He will insist that everything is about him and that could be destabilising psychologically for the squad and tactically.”

Germany go into the tournament as one of the favourites. Die Mannschaft - as they are known back home - are remorselessly formidable. A team shorn of their 2014 World Cup winners sauntered to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

That curtain raiser, though only involving eight teams, highlighted Russia’s readiness for the main event in 2018 from a technical point of view. Culturally, however, the question marks still loom over the population’s ability to cope with an influx of an estimated one million visitors to the 12 venues throughout the land.
In an embarrassing vignette in March, the World Cup organisers, Fifa, fined the Russian Football Union 25,000 euros because of racist chanting during Russia’s friendly match against France at the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg where four group stage matches and three knockout fixtures will be held.
 France’s Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembele and N'Golo Kante were subjected to racist jeers during the match.

Danny Rose, the England defender, has told his family that he does not want them to travel to Russia to watch him play in the tournament. He fears they would be upset by abuse he suspects will be directed towards him and other black players.

Numerous incidents over the years give weight to his concerns. Yet a World Cup would not be a World Cup without some kind of crisis issue. In 2014 in Brazil, it was furrowed brows over the violence that would snake down from the favelas. In 2010 in South Africa, it was just the pure lawlessness. In 2006, it was the fear over the re-emergence of German nationalism.

Fifa says it has a zero tolerance approach to discrimination. But what else could it say?

Its executives have given the tournament to Russia and the world is watching. The 32 teams will play for the big prize. Everyone knows the script: oodles of bunkum as well as bags of brio and brilliance. And then the grief and the glory. ’twas ever thus.

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