Moscow (AFP) – Reigning champions Germany are set to arrive in Russia on Tuesday to join the World Cup party as Belgium served notice of their threat with a dazzling display in their final warm-up match.
Gareth Southgate’s youthful England team are also due to touch down as anticipation mounts ahead of Thursday’s opening fixture in Moscow between host nation Russia and Saudi Arabia.
But before the action on the pitch gets under way, FIFA members have the weighty matter of choosing whether to award the 2026 World Cup to North America or Morocco.
Germany, who beat Argentina in the final in Brazil four years ago, are aiming to join Brazil as five-times winners of the trophy but there are questions over their form coming into the tournament.
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 in Leverkusen on Friday 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 open their World Cup against Mexico on June 17 in Moscow. They also play Sweden and South Korea in Group F.
Germany are not flying to Russia to see the sights, “but to win the tournament,” said team director Oliver Bierhoff.
England are not among the favourites in Russia but the third-youngest Three Lions squad to head to a World Cup boasts Premier League stars such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling.
“We have a young, hungry team that wants to achieve greatness, we want to bring the country together and achieve something great,” said Alli.
England’s Group G opponents Belgium showcased their talents in a 4-1 victory against Costa Rica in Brussels on Monday, featuring a powerful brace from Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku and a glittering performance from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
Hazard limped off with 20 minutes to go but his team-mates dispelled fears of lasting damage.
“I’m not too worried about Eden, he’s a tough guy. He gets kicked all the time, but soon gets over it,” said Lukaku.
– 2026 World Cup –
FIFA members will decide on Wednesday whether to vote for a joint US-Canadian-Mexican bid or whether the World Cup — which will feature 48 teams for the first time — will return to Africa for only the second time in 2026.
A FIFA evaluation report earlier this month classified the north African nation’s stadiums, accommodation and transport as “high risk”, leaving the joint US-Canada-Mexico bid as the clear front runner.
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 repeated a message he has hammered out again and again in recent months — vote on us, not Trump.
“We believe strongly that this decision will be made on its merits,” Cordeiro said in a conference call with reporters. “This is not geopolitics, we’re talking about football and what is fundamentally, at the end of the day, the best interest of football and our footballing community… We’ve had no backlash.”
Russia was a disputed choice when it was handed the World Cup in a closely watched 2010 vote that has since been tainted by bribery charges, and the 2018 tournament takes place against a background of international tensions.
Russia and the West have engaged in a major wave of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions since London accused Moscow of being behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain in March.
But as the clock ticks down to the opener in Moscow’s imposing 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium, the tournament is beginning to catch the public mood, with about 3,500 fans attending Australia’s training session in the central city of Kazan.
The atmosphere was also building near the Kremlin in central Moscow, where scores of fans gathered, banging drums, blowing whistles and posing for pictures with locals as darkness fell.