By Motez Bishara, CNN
CNN) The Russia 2018 World Cup is loaded with fascinating plot lines on and off the pitch. Names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah lead a chorus of superstars striving to be crowned the kings of football.
Five-time winner Brazil wants the trophy back, while Germany is trying to become the first repeat champion since 1962. Italy, the Netherlands and the United States are all watching from home, while World Cup first-timers Iceland and Panama look to make an impact.
The host nation, meanwhile, has emerged as perhaps the tournament’s most controversial site since Argentina’s military regime hosted in 1978.
All sorts of questions have emerged ahead of the World Cup launch Thursday. Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing ones:
Now or never for Messi and Ronaldo
With Ronaldo at 33 and Messi turning 31 this month, there is a feeling that both superstars won’t get a better chance to capture the one major title that has evaded them.
True, this generation of elite athletes — from Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, to Tom Brady and LeBron James — is changing the rules of longevity.
But even if Messi and Ronaldo return for a farewell at Qatar 2022, the chances of either having a supporting cast of equal strength is low.
Ronaldo’s Portugal is ranked world No. 4 by FIFA, coming off the high of winning Euro 2016, and aided by the emergence of 23-year-old Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva.
Messi’s Argentina is just a notch behind at No. 5, returning strengthened after losing by an extra-time goal against Germany in the 2014 final.
Messi will operate the attack with veteran marksmen Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain — both in their third World Cups — and emerging 24-year-old Paulo Dybala.
A World Cup win for either Messi or Ronaldo could finally put to rest the debate of which of the two is the greatest ever. Or would it?
How do Germany and Brazil stack up?
Defending champion Germany returns with Coach Joachim Low and much of the same cast from the 2014 final — minus Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Replacing them as team leaders are Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos and Paris Saint-Germain’s Julian Draxler. Look for super-sub İlkay Gündoğan of Manchester City to make an impact.
Brazil, meanwhile, brought in manager Tite to replace Dunga. Under his wing, Brazil is playing with renewed freedom and has not lost in two years.
Neymar is fully fit and will be joined in attack by World Cup newcomers Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, with Thiago Motta — suspended in that 7-1 debacle against Germany in 2014 — anchoring the back line. Twenty-five-year-old Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker has been dubbed the “Messi of keepers” by a former coach. No pressure then.
What are the most intriguing group matches?
Argentina vs. Iceland, June 16: Messi and co. will start their campaign against the pesky darlings of Euro 2016. Argentina would be wise not to look at Iceland as a tune-up for Croatia and Nigeria.
Led by Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelanders will be looking to thunderclap their way back to another big upset after taking down England in the Euros.
Germany vs. Mexico, June 17: Look for CONCACAF champion Mexico — led by a rejuvenated Javier Hernandez (West Ham) — to pose a bigger threat to FIFA World No. 1 Germany after getting rolled over 4-1 in last year’s Confederations Cup.
Portugal vs. Spain, June 20: It is rare to see two tournament favorites pitted in a group stage match. Spain will boast a veteran squad including David Silva (Manchester City), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid) and Champions League bad boy Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid). Will Spain’s captain Ramos be a little gentler covering Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo? Don’t count on it.
Egypt vs. Saudi Arabia, June 25: On that note, if Salah is able to provide even 20 quality minutes for Egypt after that bruising collision with Ramos in the Champions League final, he’ll give the Pharaohs a big moral lift.
But this match has ample intrigue off the pitch. Saudi, playing in its fifth World Cup since 1994, and African giant Egypt are both strong candidates to qualify for Qatar 2022. One small issue: The two are allies in an aggressive economic blockade against the Gulf emirate.
England vs. Belgium, June 28: Given this is the third group match for each team, one or both may have already qualified over Panama and Tunisia.
But Premier League fans will tune in for the sheer star power representing the league, including Belgians Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) and Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), against England’s Harry Kane (Tottenham), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) and Jamie Vardy (Leicester City).
What price the World Cup?
Estimates for the total cost of hosting the World Cup range between $13.2 billion and $14 billion, according to Russian news reports.
They include costs for building or refitting 12 new stadiums, modernizing 20 railway stations, repairing 178 kilometers of roads and expanding airports in the 11 host cities.
The figures may seem high, and greatly exceed the $11 billion costs of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup. But they are a drop in the ocean compared to Russia’s cost of hosting the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. That total? $51 billion.
By Motez Bishara, CNN