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The World Cup begins with a clash between two natural resource superpowers, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Optimists have labelled the contest the “gasico” but on the pitch the countries are footballing lightweights, the two worst-ranked teams in the tournament.
Saudi Arabia vs Russia
Is this potentially the worst-quality World Cup opening match ever? We analysed “elo rankings”, which score national teams according to their results over time and are weighted against the strength of opposition they faced.
Focusing on the period from 1998, when the World Cup expanded in size from 24 to 32 teams (diluting the strength of the sides appearing at the tournament), we found that the next “worst” opening match-up was South Africa vs Mexico from 2010. South Africa became the only hosts not to progress past the opening group stage of a World Cup.
Host nation Russia will kick off the 2018 World Cup at the iconic Luzhniki Stadium against Saudi Arabia in Group A.
The Russians qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though failed to emerge from their group. and have consistently fallen at the first hurdle of every tournament since 1986, failing to appear at three of the last six editions before automatically qualifying for this summer as hosts.
Comfort breeds laziness, however, and the Russians have played just three competitive fixtures since their Euro 2016 campaign, and only four in 2018. Winless in their last seven -D3 L4-, their last victory came in October 2017 against South Korea.
Beginning their qualifying campaign in the AFC’s second round, the Saudi’s comfortably topped their group, going undefeated and conceding only four times in eight games.
After a ten-game home-and-away series of matches, Saudi Arabia pipped Australia to the second automatic spot by two goals in the third round.
Since that impressive campaign, though, results have been skewed.
The Saudi’s have only won four of their last fourteen games, losing eight, and their last three. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men didn’t take their warm-up matches easily, though, and narrow 2-1 defeats to Italy and reigning champions Germany can be reflected on proudly.
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On May 28, Tunisia were 2-1 down to Portugal in the second half of a World Cup warm-up match when goalkeeper Mouez Hassen lay down in his goal, apparently injured. As he received treatment, several Tunisia players went to the sidelines to drink water and snack on dates. With an extra boost of energy, Tunisia soon equalised against Portugal and drew the game.
Coincidentally, the same goalkeeper also required treatment during another friendly match against Turkey a few days later. On both occasions, he went down at sunset, when Muslims are allowed to break their day-long fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.
Muslim footballers have faced a dilemma in the build-up to this World Cup. If they observe the fast, they risk not being in peak physical condition when the tournament starts. In addition to Tunisia, five other majority Muslim nations — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco and Egypt and Senegal — will compete in Russia. A number of devout Muslims, such as Germany’s Mesut Ozil and France’s Paul Pogba, will also participate for other nations.
Some, such as Ozil, say they are not fasting because they are at work. Egypt’s grand mufti has granted his country’s players, who include Liverpool’s superstar Mohamed Salah (pictured), permission to postpone fasting until after the World Cup. Other Islamic scholars suggest professional athletes can pay a sum to charity to compensate for missing their fast. Still, many footballers insist on prioritising faith over football. The Egyptian Football Association has hired “specialists” to advise devout players on nutrition and sleep during Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia vs Russia: The World Cup gets underway this Thursday (14 June) as hosts Russia take on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Russia come into this game in dreadful form and the visitors, who are the clear underdogs, may just fancy their chances of causing a very early upset.
As hosts of the tournament, Russia will be desperate to put in a good showing, but their recent form has been woeful. Without a win in their last four outings, the side failed to make it past the group stage at both the European Championships in 2016 and the Confederations Cup last year.