The matches, though, march on. And with the eight groups set, the first-round schedule in place and the pathway to the Moscow final laid out, the countdown to the 21st World Cup is underway.
For those who disconnected after the U.S. fiasco, and for the uninitiated in our audience, here’s a look at the 2018 tournament:
When will it take place?
The opener is June 14 in Moscow between the two lowest-ranked teams in the 32-team field, Saudi Arabia and Russia. The final is July 15 in Moscow. There are at least two matches daily during almost all of the 15-day group stage and games on 25 of the 32 tournament days overall. [The full schedule]
Are all the games in Moscow?
No, of course not. The World Cup isn’t the Olympics and must utilize numerous locations. There are 11 cities in all, spreading across four time zones from St. Petersburg in the north to Sochi in the south and Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east. Moscow is utilizing two stadiums and will stage 12 of the 64 matches. St. Petersburg will host seven, including a semifinal and the third-place game.
Most isolated: Kaliningrad, which sits on the Baltic Sea and is separated from the rest of the country. A 23-hour train ride from Moscow passes through Belarus and Lithuania.
Quaintest: Saransk, an isolated city of 300,000, which is about the size of Stockton, Calif. Campsites and new apartment blocks will stand in for an inadequate number of hotels.
Strangest: Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals where 12,000 temporary seats sit on a death-defying scaffold outside an open end of the stadium.
Are tickets available?
Yes. The second selling phase begins Tuesday via FIFA’s ticketing website. For the group stage, excluding the opener, the price range for non-Russia citizens is $105-$210. The cost goes up with each subsequent round, culminating with the final at $455-$1,100.
International demand accounted for 47 percent of applications in the first stage, led by the United States, Brazil and Germany. Despite the U.S. team’s absence, Americans will continue their trend of attending the World Cup in enormous numbers, regardless of rooting interests. Through diverse heritage, there are many U.S. citizens who support other national teams, most notably Mexico.
I’m not going to Russia, so how can I watch?
Fox Sports will carry the World Cup for the first time after outbidding ESPN, which had carried the tournament since 1994. (Fox will also show the subsequent two World Cups, as well as the 2019 and 2023 Women’s World Cup.) All matches will appear live and without commercial interruption on the national network, FS1 or FS2, plus digital platforms. Telemundo won the Spanish-language U.S. rights and will use Universo for some matches.
Because of the time difference, most matches will kick off at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Eastern United States.
Will FIFA finally use technology to help referees get the important decisions right?
That ruling will come in March whether to permanently implement Video Assistant Referee, which has been tested in, among other competitions, the Confederations Cup, Bundesliga and Major League Soccer. VAR is used only to review goals, penalty-kick decisions, red cards and cases of mistaken identity.
With players on club duty, when will national teams have time to prepare?
The only official FIFA window early in the year is March 19-27, allowing most teams to play two friendlies. They won’t reconvene until around May 20. Teams are in the process of finalizing training bases. (The Americans had secured Zenit St. Petersburg’s elite facilities, then relinquished them when they failed to qualify.) Expect a large number of friendlies all over the world in late May and early June.
Is there a Group of Death?
Yes, but because FIFA divided the non-top seeds by world ranking instead of by continent, it’s not as brutal as in the past. The consensus: Group F, with Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
What’s the weakest group?
Russia is in it. Go figure. The hosts are joined in Group A by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and 2010 semifinalist Uruguay. The Russians have not escaped group play since the Soviet Union broke apart but, after this favorable draw, they are well-positioned to reach the round of 16 and avoid the embarrassment of early elimination. Saudi Arabia has advanced once (1994), and Egypt has never done so.
Most intriguing first-round matches?
Spain vs. Portugal, Belgium vs. England, Germany vs. Mexico, Argentina vs. Iceland.
So who’s going to win this thing?
Tough question, but for now, we’re going with a Germany-France final.