Moscow (AFP) – Reigning champions Germany arrived in Russia on Tuesday to join the World Cup party as Real Madrid announced Spain coach Julen Lopetegui will replace Zinedine Zidane after the tournament.
Gareth Southgate’s inexperienced England team also touched down as excitement mounts ahead of Thursday’s opening fixture in Moscow between the host nation and Saudi Arabia.
Germany, aiming to join Brazil as five-time winners of the World Cup, landed near Moscow ahead of their first match against Mexico on Sunday.
The Germans are among a group of favourites alongside Spain, France and Brazil but there are lingering questions over their form.
Joachim Loew’s side went five games without a win before labouring to a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up and first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has hardly played since September.
But the Germans have made at least the semi-finals in each of the past four World Cups and have a habit of finding form when they need it most.
The defending champions also play Sweden and South Korea.
Loew warned Germany’s rivals had all made strides since Mario Goetze’s extra-time goal gave them the title in 2014.
“There will be a high standard of opposition. Spain have improved, while Brazil and Argentina are up there,” he said.
England, who landed in Saint Petersburg, are not among the favourites in Russia but the third-youngest Three Lions squad ever to head to a World Cup boasts Premier League stars such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling.
“It’s the one competition that everybody dreams of winning,” said captain Kane before England set off.
“I’d be surprised if the majority of players did not say the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world.”
England’s Group G opponents Belgium showcased their talents in a 4-1 victory against Costa Rica in Brussels on Monday, featuring two goals from Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku and a glittering performance from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
Hazard limped off with 20 minutes to go but coach Roberto Martinez brushed off concerns, saying there was “nothing to worry about”.
Real Madrid’s announcement on their new manager comes shortly after Lopetegui extended his contract as Spain coach until 2020.
Zidane quit Real after winning a third consecutive Champions League trophy.
Brazil and Neymar attracted an army of excited youngsters — including one who managed to break onto the pitch for a selfie — as they held their first training session on Russian soil.
Around 5,000 locals turned out to watch the relaxed session next to the Brazilians’ hotel in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
The 222-million-euro ($261 million) Paris Saint-Germain forward made his first start on Sunday, against Austria, since undergoing surgery on a foot fracture at the start of March.
“Neymar is doing great, thanks to God,” said goalkeeper Alisson. “I think the way the whole process has been dealt with was perfect. He has fully recovered.”
– 2026 World Cup decision –
But before the action on the pitch gets under way, on Wednesday FIFA members must choose whether to award the 2026 World Cup to North America or Morocco.
The choice is clear — give the first 48-team World Cup to a US-Canadian-Mexican bid or hand it to Africa for just the second time.
A FIFA evaluation report earlier this month classified the north African nation’s stadiums, accommodation and transport as “high risk”, leaving the North American bid as the clear frontrunner.
But the North American bid has been dogged by concerns that the vote could become a referendum on the popularity of US President Donald Trump.
On Monday, bid leader Carlos Cordeiro urged FIFA members to vote on the “merits” of the bid, and not on Trump.
Russia beat England in the race to host this year’s tournament but the 2010 vote has since been tainted by bribery allegations.
The World Cup will take place against a background of international tensions after Russia and the West engaged in a major wave of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions since London accused Moscow of being behind the poisoning of a double agent in Britain.