All eyes will be on Russia this afternoon as the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup - and the first to be held in Europe since 2006 - gets underway in the Soviet state.
Some 210 nations contested 872 qualifying matches to make it this far, leaving us with 32 teams battling it out for the biggest prize of them all.
Over the next four weeks or so we can expect excitement, controversy and plenty of drama to keep us gripped - this really is the greatest show on earth of them all.
It all gets up and running at 4pm with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, but before then be sure to stick with Sports Mole for all the latest from each camp.
Lopetegui, unbeaten since taking charge of the national side two years ago, has been replaced by sporting director Fernando Hierro for the duration of the competition. There is a debate to be had as to whether the Spanish FA were right to part company with the popular coach, who announced a day beforehand that he is to succeed Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid manager next month.
The previous examples of possible disharmony behind the scenes do not have happy endings, though, most notably in 2010 when a dispute between Nicolas Anelka and Raymond Domenech led to a team rebellion. Unlike Les Blues eight years ago, you get the impression that this Spain side - even with the Real Madrid-Barcelona divide - have a lot more togetherness about them.
France, man for man, arguably posses the best squad of them all, but that is proving to be something of a problem for boss Didier Deschamps. Does the respected head coach go with a 4-4-2, utilising the strengths of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud up top, or instead shift things around and use a 4-3-3 so that Paul Pogba can shine?
Tite's arrival at Brazil, and the transformation that followed, marks Brazil out as one of the strong favourites to lift the trophy for a sixth time. The Selecao only tend to lift the trophy on their own continent, though, and there could just be a little hangover from the 7-1 destruction at the hands of Germany four years ago. We do, of course, have the prospect of a Germany vs. Brazil final in Moscow a month from now - yes please!
Joachim Low remains in charge, and the 58-year-old's record looks even more impressive now than it did after the 2014 World Cup. In 162 matches under Low, Germany have won 107, lost 25 and drawn 30 - a 66% win rate. Three-hundred-and-ninety-one goals have been netted in that time and 151 conceded. They are very much the team to avoid in the knockout rounds.
If you are expecting a game of high quality, this might not be the one for you. What we can expect, however, is two sides that will go all out for victory in what could potentially be a decider for second place in Group A. Egypt will have plenty to say about that, of course, as they are fancied to finish behind strong favourites Uruguay. Either way, lose this opening fixture and Russia will surely become just the second host nation to crash out at the group stage on home soil.
Our projection has them then beating Colombia in the quarter-finals before taking on Spain in the last four, and in a contest between arguably the two best squads in the tournament we are once again backing Low's side to come out on top. However, we expect their bid for back-to-back world titles to fall at the final hurdle with defeat to Brazil on July 15 in Moscow.
Our prediction sees them face Nigeria in the last 16 - a match they would be expected to win - before coming up against Uruguay in the quarter-finals, undoubtedly their toughest test up to that point. However, we expect Les Bleus to make it to at least the semi-finals, where they could face Brazil in a repeat of the 1998 final. That is a match which could go either way, but performances in the build-up to the tournament just give Brazil the edge.
A semi-final against France - a repeat of the final from 20 years ago - is a possibility, and while France boast one of the best squads in Russia, we're also backing Brazil to get through that one. The ultimate redemption and revenge could be exacted against Germany in the final, then, and considering their fearsome defensive record under Tite and the attacking flair at their disposal, we're backing Brazil to go all the way and lift the trophy for a sixth time.
A semi-final showdown with Germany could await Spain if they get past likely semi-final opponents Argentina, but we're backing the defending champions to just about come out on top in a clash between arguably the two best squads in Russia.
Kudos to five-time winners Brazil, then, as well as four-time champs Germany and Italy - they really are the cream of the crop. Argentina and Uruguay then lag behind slightly with a respectable two successes, albeit a long time ago. Each final tends to be made up of those same sides, too, so the predication of seeing France, Brazil, Spain and Germany in the semi-finals could well come true.
Elsewhere, the United States were dramatically denied in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying - they had England's group-stage opponents Panama to thank for that - and there will also no place in Russia for 2014 entertainers Chile. Perennial qualifiers Greece and Ghana can also be added to that list, but at their expense comes some fresh sides looking for glory.
The most goals scored at a World Cup finals is a tie between the 1998 and 2014 editions, with 171 being netted in both. Then comes 2002; 161 goals being scored in South Korea and Japan at a rate of 2.52-per-game.
The highest yellow card count was in 2006, meanwhile - 307 of them were dished out (does that include the three shown by Graham Poll to one player?!) at a rate of 4.8-per-game. A fair way behind is 2002 (260) and 2010 (245).
In terms of red cards, 28 were shown in 2006 (there must be something about the German air during the summer months), and 22 in 1998. The South Africa instalment is third in the list with 17 being dished out.
For those interested in the most common minute for a finals goal to be scored (anyone still out there?...), place your bets on the 90th minute - 76 have been scored in the final throes of a game. The final minute of the first half is next on the list, incidentally, with 48 in all.
So the school called, apparently my 14 year old son "isn't feeling too well" and I need to pick him up. Two hours before the World Cup coverage gets underway...... Who'd have imagined it eh.— Chris Williams (@Chris78Williams) June 14, 2018
Argentina's squad is packed full of quality, so much so that Jorge Sampaoli opted to leave out Mauro Icardi, but if Messi fails to shine then they will struggle to even make it as far as the last 16. It is a similar story for Portugal, who have a player in their ranks boasting 81 goals in 150 senior international outings, including 15 in qualifying.
Ronaldo, likewise, no longer has time on his side. Thirty-seven by the time the Qatar 2022 comes around, the Real Madrid ace will be desperate to get his hands on the World Cup to further cement his legacy. Winning Euro 2016 was special, even if he did watch pretty much all of the final from the sidelines due to an injury, and now he needs those alongside him to step up.
The current holder of the Golden Boot is James Rodriguez, who rose to prominence four years ago when netting six goals for Colombia in their run to the quarter-finals. Before that, Thomas Muller scored five times in South Africa to finish level with David Villa and Wesley Sneijder, but his higher tally of assists assured that he came out on top. Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo and Davor Suker have also won the award in the past two decades.
The problem, of course, is that the former Roma ace injured his shoulder in Liverpool's 3-1 loss to Real Madrid a few weeks back. The latest update we had on Salah is that he will almost certainly play a part in the Pharaohs' final two group matches, but whether or not he will feature in the tougher of the three games against Uruguay remains to be seen. That, in many ways, may determine whether or not he is worth a few quid in the top-scoring stakes.
England have a true goalscorer in Harry Kane, but questions remains over the quality of the unproven goalkeeper - likely to be Jordan Pickford - and the defensive midfield zone does not exactly boast all that much depth. Still, with expectations low, particularly on the back on the 2-1 loss to Iceland at Euro 2016, Gareth Southgate has a free hit of sorts.
Still, that will not stop supporters from cheering on their side, and there will be plenty of Saudi fans in attendance at the Luzhniki Stadium, too. The beauty of the World Cup - or any other major sporting competition - is that it can bring people together from all different backgrounds.
#Moroccan 🇲🇦 supporters in #Moscow #Russia earlier today holding Russian 🇷🇺, Moroccan 🇲🇦and Syrian 🇸🇾flags addressing #Saudi 🇸🇦supporters: ''Russia!, Russia!, Russia!'' (Saudi Arabia is playing Russia tomorrow in the opening game of #FifaWorldCup2018) pic.twitter.com/uRhlzBrrYT— Brasco_Aad (@Brasco_Aad) June 14, 2018
Saudi Arabia fans on the plane to Russia singing! 🇸🇦🇷🇺 pic.twitter.com/vN5MextTuK— Football Stands (@TheFootyStands) June 14, 2018
The wait is so very nearly over! Just two more hours to go until the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup - and the first to be held in Europe since 2006 - gets underway. Some 210 nations contested 872 qualifying matches to make it this far, leaving us with 32 teams battling it out for the biggest prize of them all and the biggest and best competition of them all.
Football's showpiece event will take place across 11 cities, spreading close to 2,000 miles and starting and ending in Moscow. Now would probably be a wise time to inform you that we will have every match covered on Sports Mole, including in-depth previews, pre-and-post match comments as well as the games themselves, so be sure to stick with us over the next 32 days.
Russia may not have a huge amount of joy at this summer's World Cup, but the home crowd should at least spur them on to a positive start at the expensive of Saudi Arabia. 1-0 Russia.
Egypt have struggled since losing Salah to injury and things will not get any easier for them against a highly-fancied Uruguay side. Between Suarez and Cavani, La Celeste will do damage to their opponents, while the Pharaohs will struggle to find a way past defensive duo Godin and Jose Giminez without Salah. 3-1 Uruguay.
Portugal tend to start slow in major finals, as they have not got off the mark with three points since Euro 2008. Spain should perform better than four years ago when barely putting up a fight in their title defence, meanwhile, but they have been rocked by the loss of their manager and may take time to settle down. A draw seems an obvious choice, and a result that neither side would be too disappointed with ahead of matches against Morocco and Iran. 1-1.
There are good reasons why France are odds-on to beat Australia convincingly, and the combined threat of Griezmann, Mbappe and Lemar is high on the list. Expect the attacking trio to penetrate the opposition's defence more than once, but the Socceroos have a decent scoring record against the world's elite, so there is a chance they will sneak a consolation goal, given that two of France's key defenders are doubtful for the match. 3-1 France.
Both nations will be aware that a victory in this game will go a long way to securing a place in the last 16 of the tournament and we think that the greater big-game experience in the Denmark ranks will prove decisive. Peru are full of confidence but Eriksen and co could prove too much in Saransk. 3-1 Denmark.
The form guide suggests that Croatia are going from strength to strength under Dalic, while Nigeria's good form has petered off in the run-up to the World Cup. There is a gulf in quality between the two squads, with players such as Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic certain to give the Blades the edge over a comparatively inexperienced Nigeria side, and that will prove the difference during a semi-comfortable win for the Croats. 2-0.
Egypt manager Hector Cuper has been holding his pre-match press conference over the last 30 minutes or so ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Uruguay. The big news to come out of that presser is that star man Mohamed Salah is 'almost 100% certain' to feature, having initially been labelled doubtful for any of the Pharaohs' matches. More on that, as well as all the other big news from across the other 31 teams, can be viewed here.
"This is a special event for any country in this position that will stay in the memory for many years to come," he said in quotes published by FIFA's official website. "All the stadia and infrastructure that have been built for the World Cup will be the legacy of the tournament and help us to develop new generations, teach kids how to play football and improve the sport in our country."
"Legacy" tends to be the big word when justifying the hosting of events of this calibre. One figure quoted in the local media suggests that Russia spent £8bn in the 10 years between being hosted the World Cup and actually staging it - an astronomical sum. If Sbornaya do crash out at the group stage, or indeed in the first knockout round, they will hope that the tournament at least lives up to the hype without them.
You may remember that a temporary stand had to be erected to ensure that it met FIFA requirements, and it is fair to say that it is not for the faint-hearted.
Here's the view from the top of the stand in Yekaterinburg. My legs were shaking when I was up there - the views are spectacular but you don't want to be jumping around too much if your team score. #Yekaterinburg #Russia2018 #WorldCup2018 pic.twitter.com/AZTOyOofuA— Iain Axon (@iainaxon) June 14, 2018
England are in one of the more predictable groups, on paper at least, as they are strong favourites to progress along with Belgium. The other groups are a little less predictable, however, particularly in the cases of Group D and H as each team will be confident of finishing in the top two.
Brazil World Cup hero Pele: "Neymar is to me one of the best players in the world. Today, he is more mature and he has more experience, but he isn't going to win the World Cup on his own. It's teams that win the World Cup. The greatest Brazil team of all-time was the one in 1970, with Tostao, Rivellino, Gerson and Pele all wearing the number 10 shirts for their clubs. In the 1970 World Cup, we spent more than six months together. That's why it worked."
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez: "What is good about this generation is that when they come together, they are a group of players that are prepared to work for each other and be a team. I don't think we should look any further than what we can achieve as a team and the team is made by outstanding individuals."
France striker Olivier Giroud: "I've equalled Zidane [for goals in a France shirt] and that's something no one can take away from me. Trezeguet has three goals more and I want to catch him up and score as many as I can. On a personal level, it's an objective, an ambition."
Spain playmaker Andres Iniesta: "That it's my last [World Cup] makes it special and different. I try not to have the last World Cup in my head, but to face it as if I were the first - or what it is: a very nice challenge. I do not get tired from the goodbyes, I just try to enjoy every moment. I try to taste it because, after so much time, it is still exciting to live these moments."
Red Square Moscow... https://t.co/sNXl3sF2TS— Mark Bosnich (@TheRealBozza) June 13, 2018
Peru fans by far the best in Red Square today pic.twitter.com/G0wuNuMGnv— honest john (@honestjohn2) June 14, 2018
Live coverage of events from the Russia vs. Saudi Arabia match at the Luzhniki Stadium can be viewed here, and if you want to get to know the two teams in a little more depth beforehand then head to our dedicated preview page. Enjoy!