WORLD CUP 2018 kicks off on Thursday – or as I like to call it at work Day 4 of the hostage situation.

Russia v Saudi Arabia hardly gets the blood pumping and on paper it must be the worst curtain opener the great tournament has ever had.

 

Mind you there seemed to be something of a curse on the opening games once the earlier format of numerous matches kicking off at the same time was scrapped.

There were dull 0-0s between England and Uruguay in 1966, Mexico and the Soviet Union in 1970, Brazil v Yugoslavia in 1974 and Germany v Poland in 1978. The first time there was more than two goals was France 98 when Brazil saw off Scotland 2-1.

Hopefully Russia 2018 will buck this trend as it needs something as it must be the least hyped tournament in history.

There are no sexy singers strutting their stuff with catchy ditties like Ricky Martin’s La Copa de la Vida for France 98 or Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie for Germany 2006.

Where are the instantly recognisable mascots like Pique from Mexico 86 or our very own 1966 World Cup Willie – the first and still the best. I had to Google to discover Zabivaka – seemingly a wolf in safety googles – is this year’s little furry friend.

There is a new Nike ad but even that is a rehashed version of the iconic 98 one in the airport with the original Ronaldo who reprises his role – although there is a little more of the Brazilian to admire this time around.

England, 12th in FIFA rankings, warmed up for hostilities by beating Nigeria 2-1 and Costa Rica 2-0. Gareth Southgate’s boys start their campaign on Monday against Tunisia – let’s hope the action is all on the pitch this time. The last time the nations met in 1998 Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes were on target in a 2-0 group win marred by 32 people getting injured in three days of rioting and violence in Marseille.

On Oct 5 I predicted the Three Lions would crash out in the Last 16 but now the draw has been made I’m revising that to either the round before or the round after.

My heart says quarter-final where our likely opponents would be Germany or Brazil – so out to the old enemy on penalties or losing the dance-off to the Samba stars it is then!

My admittedly pessimistic head says out on goal difference in the group stage after a dull opening draw with Tunisia, narrow win over Panama and loss to the Belgians with our lads heading home quicker than all self-respect is lost on Love Island!

World Cups usually have one breakout player who steals the limelight, so who of the 736 men pulling on their boots is likely to shine? German duo Timo Werner and Leon Goretza, Poland’s Piotr Zielinski, Dane Pione Sisto plus Portugal winger Goncalo Guedes and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Serbia could be the headline-grabber.

As for the winners there is no standout team which is refreshing and Spain, Brazil, Germany, France or Belgium could win it

But I have a sneaking feeling that Lionel Messi is thinking to himself ‘well Cristiano I’ll take your Euro 2016 victory with an unfancied team and raise you a World Cup win with an even more unfancied team’. If Argentina were a car they’d have the back end of a Robin Reliant, the middle of a Mercedes and the front of a Bugatti Veyron.

Can the Barcelona megastar pull it off? If he does also expect him to win the Golden Boot ahead of the likes of Brazil superstar Neymar, France ace Antoine Griezmann or German pair Thomas Muller and Werner.

But whatever happens on the pitch, my only hope in the coming weeks is the concerns over racism, homophobia and hooliganism don’t turn out to be well-founded.

Recent stories about monkey chants emanating from crowds, Cossacks announcing their plans to report gay couples kissing to the police and neo-Nazi far-right firms running hooligan ‘schools’ hardly allay fears.

The Russians insist we trust in their preparations but I have trust issues – it stems from oatmeal raisin cookies that look like choc-chip cookies!

AND finally our top tip from last week Northern Cyprus made Sunday’s CONIFA World Football Cup final – unfortunately they lost to Karpatalya.

Keeper Bela Fejer was the hero for the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine in a 3-2 penalty success after a goalless draw.

Just remember folks that gambling is a sure fire way of getting nothing for something!

 Tweet @BabsDouglasBP

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