Spain drops its coach days before its opener
Drama found its way to Russia before the first ball was ever dropped.
One day prior to the World Cup's opening match, the Spanish Federation made the incredibly brave and questionable decision to fire manager Julen Lopetegui. The sacking came a day after Lopetegui agreeed to take over at Real Madrid following the World Cup.
However, Lopetegui won't get the opportunity to lead his home country in Russia. Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales told reporters he could not let his employee stay on after hiding his negotiations with the three-time defending Champions League winners. Fernando Hierro will take over as the Spanish coach for the tournament. Hierro is the national team's sporting director and like Lopetegui, a former player.
Can you imagine if Mike Krzyzewski was fired 48 hours before Team USA opened up an Olympic campaign? The throng of questions from media and supporters alike would be enough to cause distraction with one of the world's biggest sporting events around the corner.
In my eyes, it appears Spain made the correct decision. Lopetegui was undefeated with 16 wins and four draws in charge, but he would have managed a team filled with future rivals, and Spain's opening match of the tournament is Friday at 2 p.m. against Portugal, the home to Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Once the World Cup ends, Lopetegui's biggest task will be trying to convince Ronaldo to stay in Madrid.
Also, how can the Spanish federation trust a manager that worked in secret to secure his next job? Now, one of the World Cup's favorites must quickly regroup. It was already a tournament filled with pressure for Spain, who looked to defend its title in 2014 but failed to even advance out of the group stage.
Spain has defined this era of soccer. Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated the club competition in Europe, and the Spanish National Team has won three major trophies since 2008. World-class players like Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Sergios Busquetes are all back for a shot at redemption.
While the Spanish camp is facing a flawed start, the rest of the tournament is buzzing with excitement. Host country Russia kicked things off Thursday with a 5-0 romp over Saudi Arabia. There will be at least three matches every day from now until June 28.
Aside from Spain, here are four other storylines I'll be closely following throughout the summer.
GOATS chasing ghosts
Crowning the greatest of all time (GOAT) in sports these days has become a bit cliché, but this World Cup could do just that for this generation's two best players.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi have won every trophy under the sun for their clubs, but neither has claimed a World Cup. Ronaldo has one international trophy, winning the 2016 Euro, and Messi has zero.
If Argentina wins on the back of Messi, he would almost assuredly be considered the greatest soccer player of all time. If Ronaldo’s Portugal pulled a stunner and won, he’d be right there in the conversation with greats like Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona.
Is Salah catching those two?
Ronaldo and Messi finally have a counterpart who looks ready to usurp them on the throne of best player alive. Egypt’s Mohamed Salah scored 46 goals and dished out 14 assists while leading Liverpool to the Champions League Final this past season.
In the World Cup, he will be the best player on an average Egypt team. Winning the World Cup is unlikely, but Salah could clinch a Ballon d’Or trophy if he somehow led Egypt out of the group stage and into one knockout win.
Will Mexico finally break through?
Our neighbors to the south have reached the round of 16, but no further, in six consecutive World Cups dating back to 1994. The thirst for a quarterfinal berth for that country is palpable, and not doing so would be a failure at this tournament.
The Mexicans once again have the talent to make a deep run. Veterans like Giovani Dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Chicharito Hernandez were once viewed as the golden generation, and with a little help from young star Hirving Lozano could finally end the Round of 16 curse.
This will be the first World Cup to use instant replay for close calls, but the video assistant referee experiment is off to a rocky start across international soccer.
There have been good and bad moments with this new system. It doesn’t fix all missed calls and somehow finds ways to create more controversy. It also can provide abnormal delays to a sport that’s known for its continual flow.
Regardless how well it does this summer, there’s sure to be ongoing debate about VAR.