Germany seek back-to-back titles
After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany hope to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15 and become the first repeat champion in more than a half-century.
The soccer world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia, starting Thursday, for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the host Selecao 7-1 in the 2014 semi-finals, then left Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina on Mario Goetze's 113th-minute goal.
The United States will be missing from soccer's showcase after seven straight appearances. Four-time champions Italy will be watching from home for the first time since 1958, its streak
of 14 consecutive appearances ended by a playoff loss to Sweden. The Netherlands, which lost the 2010 final to Spain, missed out after slumping to third in its qualifying group. And Chile failed to qualify after consecutive Copa America titles.
Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutantes, Peru is back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt ends an absence dating to 1990.
Germany and Brazil are the pre-tournament favourites, and France are fancied behind them with a young roster. England will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning its only major title on home soil in 1966. Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri opens against Germany and its likely second-round opponent is Brazil.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have split the last 10 FIFA Player of the Year awards, and this is likely their last chance to win a World Cup. Messi turns 31 on June 24, two days before Argentina finishes the first round against Nigeria, and has lost four finals with the national team. Ronaldo, 33, helped Portugal win the 2016 European Championship for its first major title.
Brazil's Neymar, England's Harry Kane, Egypt's Mohamed Salah, France's Antoine Griezmann and Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne are stars who could lift themselves into Player of the Year contention with stellar World Cups.
Italy in 1934 and '38, and Brazil in 1958 and '62 are the only teams to win consecutive World Cups. Germany was 10-0 in qualifying, the only European team with a perfect record, and outscored opponents 43-4.