El Gasico, Vikings and a Spanish inquisition

Star men: Igor Akinfeev, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andres Iniesta — all in action this week.

Can football triumph over World Cup controversies? Tonight the greatest show on earth kicks off as Russia takes on Saudi Arabia. We explore the deeper stories behind week one’s biggest games.

No World cup is without controversy, but the build-up to Russia 2018 has been rockier than most. Fifa corruption, fears of racist abuse, plus the host’s disintegrating relations with the West have all prompted serious concerns.

But tonight (for 90 minutes at least) disputes, gossip and speculation will stop. It is time for football to do the talking.

Here we explore week one’s most exciting matchups:

Russia v Saudi Arabia. Two fossil fuel superpowers, the match has been dubbed “El Gasico”. But as the competition’s lowest ranked teams, they are football lightweights. Nonetheless, much is at stake. For the hosts, only a win will satisfy their fans’ fierce patriotism. Meanwhile, the Saudi kingdom is on a quest to open up to Western culture — a mission that will be boosted by a winning Saudi team. Prediction: Russia to win 1-0.

Portugal v Spain. Rivalries do not come bigger than this. It all started in 1581. King Henry of Portugal had died, and two heirs battled for the throne: one Spaniard; one Portuguese. Spain won that day, and centuries of wars and fragile alliances ensued. They are firm allies now, but Spain dominates the football stakes — beating Portugal in every World Cup showdown they have shared. Prediction: Spain edge it 2-1.

Argentina v Iceland. A true David and Goliath match. Argentina’s population is over 100 times bigger than Iceland’s — the smallest nation ever to qualify for the finals. It’s GDP is over 25 times greater, and its 83,000 troops would make light work of Iceland’s 200 coastguards. What Argentina lacks? The Norse minnows’ “Viking spirit”. It was enough to beat England, but can it stop Lionel Messi? Prediction: 3-1 to Argentina.

England v Tunisia. These two last met 20 years ago. But the occasion was marred by bloody riots which left at least 32 fans injured. British police have already blocked 1,200 “thugs” from travelling to Russia to prevent hooliganism. Onlookers will hope the football makes headlines rather than violent fans. After all, England’s young lions may stand a chance. Prediction: England win 2-0.

Will the beautiful game take centre stage?


Of course, some say. Everything else is a sideshow. Once the football starts, it will be the focus, and rightly so. We need sport to remain untainted by politics, and allow ourselves to enjoy the World Cup for what it is: a showcase of extraordinary athletic talent and entertainment.

Don’t be so sure, others respond. Every football match stands for something deeper: whether it is regional political struggles or national pride. And we cannot allow football to distract us from the urgent issues of racism and corporate corruption that haunt the game — as well as society at large.

You Decide

  1. Who will win the 2018 World Cup?
  2. Does sport bring people together, or push them apart?


  1. Do you agree with the predictions in the article? Why/why not? Make your own predictions and discuss them with your classmates.
  2. Russia’s World Cup has split opinion among journalists and commentators. Read The Economist piece and Nick Cohen’s column using the links under Become An Expert. Which perspective do you agree with more? Why? Write your own opinion piece in response to this question: “Is it immoral to watch the World Cup?”

Some People Say...

“In the World Cup, anything can happen.”

Lionel Messi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Russia v Saudi Arabia is the first match of what will be a 64-game World Cup. It is the 21st instalment of the competition, which has seen eight different winners since the first tournament in 1930. Brazil has won the competition more times than any other nation with five victories. Germany and Italy are joint for second place with four triumphs each.
What do we not know?
Who will win the 2018 World Cup. Analysis by the Soccer Power Index has Brazil as the favourites, giving them a 19% chance of winning. Brazil is followed by Spain, Germany and France respectively. The same statistics give England a 7% chance of victory, while Russia have only a 1% chance.

Word Watch

Racist abuse
England defender Danny Rose made headlines after claiming he told his family to stay away from Russia to save them from racist abuse.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are the world’s top two oil producers, together producing over 20 million barrels per day (according to 2016 figures).
El Gasico
A pun on El Clásico, the name given to any match between rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Western culture
Recent reforms include overturning a ban on female drivers, allowing physical education for schoolgirls, and lifting a 35-year ban on cinemas.
Philip II of Spain was made king. He united the two nations, but the alliance only lasted 60 years.
Iceland has no standing army.
Viking spirit
During Euro 2016, Iceland’s fans thrilled the world with their unique “Viking clap”. Read all about Iceland’s remarkable journey in Become An Expert.
Young lions
England’s squad has an average age of 25.


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