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World Cup Preview

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 7:03 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The World Cup that is beginning today in Moscow will not feature the team that lost this game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It is over. Trinidad, with nothing to play for, has dethroned the United States, knocking them out...

INSKEEP: Team USA had a humiliating defeat to Trinidad and Tobago last fall and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in more than three decades. So who's in, and what's the tournament like? Well, Grant Wahl is covering the World Cup in Moscow for NPR News. Hey there, Grant.

GRANT WAHL, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?

INSKEEP: So how does the Moscow presentation of this tournament compare to other places?

WAHL: You know, the Russians are really organized about these big, mega events. We saw that in Sochi with the Olympics. So everything is very organized, and we're ready for the tournament to start with the host Russians taking on Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

INSKEEP: Of course, FIFA, which oversees this tournament, has not been organized, or maybe too organized depending on your point of view. In any case, it's the first World Cup since the revelation of a bribery and corruption scandal. How is that affecting the atmosphere?

WAHL: Well, you know, the FIFA scandal really turned FIFA upside down really from 2015 on. The FBI, the Department of Justice and the IRS ended up taking out large numbers of the people who were atop FIFA, forced the president, Sepp Blatter, to end up resigning his post. Under new President Gianni Infantino over the past two years, they've tried to clean up the image of FIFA. That's still very much an ongoing process. And in many ways, the brand name of FIFA is still pretty weak in the United States and a lot of places around the world. I think people want to see a lot more evidence before they decide if FIFA has really cleaned itself up.

INSKEEP: Are fans excited anyway?

WAHL: You know, I do think fans are excited still. I mean, the World Cup is still the greatest event in sports in my opinion. And obviously the World Cup only takes place every four years. So for all of the scandals that have taken place in FIFA and soccer politics in recent years, you look at - the sport itself is as popular or more so than ever. And there are stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah - all those guys are going to be here at this World Cup. And I think fans aren't going to suddenly start boycotting the World Cup because they think FIFA is not the most clean organization.

INSKEEP: So who's favored?

WAHL: Well, Spain was actually one of the teams favored and the team I was picking to win the tournament. And then just the day before the World Cup starts, Spain controversially fired its coach. So clearly, the World Cup 2010 winners are in turmoil there, and suddenly, I'm wishing I hadn't picked Spain to win the tournament.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I guess we're going to find out if a coach is really all that important, aren't we?

WAHL: I think we will, you know. I think also favorites are Brazil, France; Germany is the defending champion. Those are probably the teams that most people are saying are going to win this thing.

INSKEEP: Grant, will you explain something else to us as somebody who's covered soccer an awful lot? People will have heard by now that while the United States missed this World Cup, the United States and Mexico and Canada together have been awarded the 2026 World Cup. How's that supposed to work?

WAHL: Well, this is actually going to be the second time that a World Cup has been shared as far as hosting duties. Japan and South Korea shared the World Cup in 2002. But this is three countries, so we've never seen that before. It's a great thing for the sport in the United States when you have World Cup coming back on the men's side for the first time since 1994. You're going to see millions of new fans be created at that event. And it's an example of cooperation between the three big North American countries. The U.S. is going to host 60 of the 80 games. Mexico and Canada will host 10 each. But the games from the quarter finals all the way to the final will all be in the United States in 2026.

INSKEEP: Grant Wahl, good talking with you.

WAHL: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.