On June 14th – in just 17 days – Russia will kick off the 2018 World Cup against Saudi Arabia. Will it be a glorious, unmissable festival of football? Or will we remember the tournament for hooliganism and racism?

By Mark Richards

Yes, just 17 days. On Thursday, June 14th the World Cup will get under way at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Russia’s game against Saudi Arabia kicks off at 4 pm UK time and billions of people around the world will tune in.

Four days later – and more than 600 miles down Russia’s E119 – England starts their campaign against Tunisia. The tournament ends on Sunday, July 15th with the final back in Moscow. What sort of tournament will we have seen and, most importantly, will England still be involved? Or will Harry Kane and friends be on the beach, enjoying a holiday but trying to forget another inglorious exit…

Who is going to win the tournament?

This looks like one of the more open World Cups. The bookies have Brazil and Germany as the favourites, followed in the betting by Spain, France, Argentina, Belgium – and then England. But there are question marks over all the leading teams: this could be one of those tournaments where an outsider sneaks through to the final. Hosts Russia are available at 50/1 – and it will be a brave referee that gives a penalty against them with Vladimir Putin glowering on from the stands.

The $64,000 question: will England win?

Probably not. The bookmakers currently have England as 16/1 7th favourites to lift the trophy. Will England get through the group stage? They should do: they are in a group with Belgium and outsiders Tunisia and Panama. The crunch game for the Three Lions might be the one with Tunisia on June 18th.

But let’s dare to dream for a moment…

The chances are that England will finish second in their group. If that happens, their most likely opponent in the last 16 will be Poland – although Group H also features Colombia, Senegal and Japan.

Safely through that game, England will be into the quarterfinals, where they could well come up against – who else? – Germany. On the off-chance that the game does not go to penalties, England would then be up against Euro 2016 winners Portugal. Having easily despatched Cristiano Ronaldo & co, England will – according to current world rankings – find themselves playing Brazil in the final. And rabid Spurs fans will be counting even more winnings, having backed Harry Kane at 16/1 to be the tournament’s top scorer…

What colours will England be wearing?

The ‘home’ kit – England’s first choice kit, will be a white shirt, navy shorts and white socks. The second kit will be a red shirt with the shorts, presumably, dependant on who they are playing. Some of the other kits in the tournament are… well, ‘interesting’ might be the politest way to describe them. Switzerland will be playing in red shirts with a white Ordnance Survey map on them, while Nigeria appear to have re-cycled the curtains your Grandmother threw out thirty years ago…

Will there be trouble?

The last major football tournament in Europe was Euro2016 – the European championships held in France. The back – and front – pages were rife with stories of Russian hooliganism, including reports of 150 “trained Russian hooligans” who flew to Marseilles especially to fight English fans before and after the teams met in the tournament. English fans described the Russians as “savage and organised.” And yet one Russian described the violence as “nothing personal” and promised that the 2018 World Cup would be “the safest ever.”

What about racism?

Sadly, you have to say that a tournament tainted by racism is a real possibility. Russian fans do not have the best reputation for racism – something FIFA was well aware of before it handed the tournament to Russia.

In March Russia played France in a friendly in St. Petersburg, a stadium which will host seven World Cup games, including Russia’s game against Egypt and a semi-final. During the game, racially offensive chants were aimed at several French players, including Manchester United’s Paul Pogba. FIFA came down hard on Russia, fining them £10m and stripping them of the right to host the World Cup.

Actually, as any football fan will know, FIFA administered the lightest possible slap on the wrist, fining the Russian Football Federation 30,000 Swiss francs (£22,000) – a fine which, it said, reflected, “the gravity of the incident, but also the limited number of fans involved.”

So that is alright then. But with similar charges having been made against Zenit St. Petersburg fans this season and other Russian grounds seeing similar behaviour, do not bet against racial abuse leading to the abandonment of a game in this year’s tournament.

Will the World Cup boost Russian’s economy?

That fine from FIFA pales into insignificance compared to one report which suggests that the World Cup will be worth $31bn (just over £23bn) to the Russian economy, thanks to the impact of tourism and the long term construction projects that have been necessary for the World Cup. We may need to take those figures with a pinch of salt – as the report also claims that the World Cup will encourage more Russians to take up exercise. Well, we all know what a hugely beneficial effect London 2012 had on the health of the average person in the UK…

Supposing I don’t like football?

For some people, of course, the World Cup is a nightmare. Wall to wall coverage and “expert pundits” invading your living room at every opportunity. If you need an escape then Wimbledon is on from 2nd to 15th July: the all-conquering England cricket team will also be in action. And the forecasters are promising a summer heatwave, so you could escape to the garden and the barbecue.

Just plan your return to the house carefully. Games, highlights and a “look ahead to England’s next match” will be on endlessly. And when the tournament ends, make the most of your window of opportunity: the next football season will be less than a month away…