Moscow (AFP) – Reigning champions Germany are set to arrive in Russia on Tuesday to join the World Cup party as Belgium downplayed an injury scare over star player Eden Hazard 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 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 Hazard.
Hazard limped off with 20 minutes to go but coach Roberto Martinez brushed off concerns, saying there was “nothing to worry about”.
“He’s very strong, he just had a dead leg towards the end of the match,” he said.
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 at the Yug-Sport Stadium, next to the Brazilians’ hotel in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
– 2026 World Cup decision –
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 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 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.