Some of soccer’s biggest names – notably Croatia’s Luka Modrić and Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium – will begin their World Cup campaigns on Wednesday, while the decades-long wait is nearly over for Canada fans as their team makes its tournament bow for the first time in 36 years.
We’ve already seen some of the game’s young stars light up the tournament – Cody Gakpo for the Netherlands, Timothy Weah slotting home for the United States Men’s National Team and Jude Bellingham scoring for England.
Germany’s Jamal Musiala and Spain’s Pedri, as well as a host of other young talent, will also showcase their skill on Wednesday.
But in the first match of the day, at the Al Bayt Stadium, it will be all about experience as Croatia, a 2018 World Cup finalist and one of the older teams in the tournament, plays Morocco.
The wily midfield of Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović will aim to dominate the game against a Morocco side under a recently-appointed head coach, Walid Regragui.
Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech and dynamic fullbacks Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui, with their pace and movement, could cause issues for an aging Croatia.
At the Khalifa International Stadium, 2014 champion Germany faces Japan in Group E.
Although Germany has undergone some ups and downs since its victory in Brazil eight years ago, its squad in Qatar is full of talent, predominately from German giants Bayern Munich.
And with former Bayern coach Hansi Flick in charge, it is perhaps no surprise that players such as Leroy Sané, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka have flourished recently.
But Germany’s breakout player could be Musiala who, having become a mainstay in the Bayern team this season, could be the country’s leading man in Qatar.
Germany will face a Japan team full of names familiar to fans around the world. From Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma and Monaco’s Takumi Minamino to Frieburg’s Ritsu Dōan and Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu, Japan is a well-organized team full of well-established players.
With 2010 World Cup winner Spain in the same group – the 2010 champion kicks off later on Wednesday against Costa Rica at Al Thumama Stadium – three points will be vital for both sides.
Like Germany, Spain has also undergone some lean years since its World Cup triumph in South Africa, and will be relying on a mix of a young generation and the old guard for success in Qatar.
The team’s likely starting midfield will consist of 19-year-old Pedri, 18-year-old Gavi and 34-year-old Sergio Busquets as Luis Enrique’s men seek to go one further than last year’s semifinal exit at the European Championships.
For Costa Rica, it is a last hurrah for some of the country’s legendary players. Captain Bryan Ruiz, 37, will lead the team, while the experienced Celso Borges and Keylor Navas could be appearing in their final World Cup.
The last match takes place at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, with world No. 2 Belgium facing Canada.
Like Costa Rica, Belgium’s campaign in Qatar is seen as the last opportunity for the nation’s so-called “golden generation.”
Having lit up European football for years, Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens are all in their thirties and could be playing in their last World Cup. Suffering from a hamstring injury, striker Romelu Lukaku is likely to miss Belgium’s first two group matches.
Belgium’s results in major tournaments has been underwhelming, given the talent at its disposal, the 2016 shock defeat to Wales in the quarterfinals of the European Championships a particular frustration.
So, with one final shot at glory, Belgium begin against a Canada side making its second appearance at a World Cup.
Canada ended its 36-year drought to play in a World Cup when it qualified earlier this year. And, behind the exuberance and excellence of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David in attack, could prove a danger for any team.
Heading into its opening game, midfielder Jonathan Osorio said his team believes it can shock Belgium.
“We want to show that we are a football nation, that we can compete with the best in the world,” Osorio said, according to Reuters.
“We want to surprise people because I think people still see us as underdogs. ‘It’s the World Cup, they should just be happy to be here.’ But that’s not our mentality.”
Morocco vs. Croatia: 5 a.m. ET
Germany vs. Japan: 8 a.m. ET
Spain vs. Costa Rica: 11 a.m. ET
Belgium vs. Canada: 2 p.m. ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC