Soccer

Countdown to 2018 Russia World Cup: One more year to go

The players of Russia, left, and New Zealand line up before the Confederations, Cup Group A soccer match between Russia and New Zealand, at the St. Petersburg stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia on June 17, 2017.
The players of Russia, left, and New Zealand line up before the Confederations, Cup Group A soccer match between Russia and New Zealand, at the St. Petersburg stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia on June 17, 2017. AP

A year from this week — June 14, 2018, to be exact — the 2018 World Cup will kick off at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

It seems like just yesterday when Brazilians wept over their humiliating loss to Germany, Americans gushed over Tim Howard’s World Cup-record 16 saves against Belgium, and James Rodriguez and his Colombian teammates wiggled their hips to the delight of fans all over the world.

But the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is fading out of view, and it’s time to look ahead to Russia — a country that has been in the political news every day of late.

As usual, a year before any World Cup, there are questions about the host nation’s preparedness. Some of those will be answered in the coming weeks, as the eight-nation Confederations Cup — a World Cup test run — gets underway this weekend.

European champion Portugal, starring Cristiano Ronaldo, plays CONCACAF champion Mexico on Sunday (11 a.m., FS1); and African Nations Cup winner Cameroon plays Copa America winner Chile in Sunday’s other match (2 p.m., FS2). The other four teams in the field are reigning World Cup champion Germany, Asian Cup winner Australia, host Russia and Oceania Cup winner New Zealand.

The Confederations Cup has no bearing on World Cup qualifying, but it offers a sneak peek at some of the top teams and gives Russia a chance to test its tournament infrastructure. One of the biggest concerns about the Russia World Cup is hooliganism, especially after the violence between Russian and English fans last summer at the Euro Championship in France.

Three of the 32 teams in the World Cup field have already qualified. Host Russia gets an automatic berth. Brazil and Iran have also booked their spots. Over the next six months, the other 29 teams will secure their places.

Here’s how things are shaping up so far:

EUROPE

No big surprises among the power teams, with England, Germany and Belgium leading their groups, and Spain and Italy tied atop theirs. France’s 2-1 loss to Sweden means the French team might wind up in a second-place playoff in its group, and Portugal sits three points behind Switzerland in their group. The Netherlands is in third, behind Sweden and France, and in danger of elimination. Wales, a Euro 2016 semifinalist, is also in trouble. Northern Ireland could make its first appearance since 1986.

SOUTH AMERICA

Brazil won eight consecutive matches after Tite took over as coach, which is good enough for a World Cup ticket. With four rounds of games left, Colombia is in second place, Uruguay is third and Chile is fourth.

The biggest question mark is Argentina, which has gone through three managers since the last World Cup. The Argentines are in fifth place and will battle Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay for the final spot. Whichever team finishes fifth enters a playoff with an Oceania team.

CONCACAF

Mexico has a safe lead, followed by Costa Rica and the United States, which has moved up from last place to third since Bruce Arena was re-hired as coach in November.

A 1-1 draw at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium last week was a huge result for the U.S. team.

But a tough home match against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 awaits Arena’s team.

The top three teams qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-place team enters a playoff against an Asian Confederation team.

Other contenders are Panama and Honduras.

AFRICA

Nigeria needs two more victories to clinch a spot. Cameroon is in second, and Tunisia and Congo are fighting for third. South Africa, Senegal and Burkina Faso also are in the mix.

ASIA

Iran, coached by Carlos Queiroz, has already secured one of four spots after not giving up a goal in eight matches. Japan and Australia are also looking good.

HEADING TO RUSSIA?

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