21st FIFA World Cup

Soccer’s biggest spectacle, the quadrennial men’s World Cup, kicks off Thursday in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin on Saturday promised “a real celebration — filled with sporting passion and strong emotions.” A total of 64 matches will be played in 12 venues located in 11 cities. In the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 for the championship. Iceland and Panama will both be making their first World Cup appearances. The United States is not part of the 32-team field, failing to qualify for the first time since 1986. Fox Sports will televise the tournament for the first time.

Key dates

Thursday: Tournament opener, Russia vs. Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (10 a.m., Ch. 9)

June 28: Final day of group play

June 30-July 3: 16-team knockout stage

July 6-7: Quarterfinals

July 10-11: Semifinals

July 14: Third-place match

July 15: Championship match

Groups

(top two advance)

A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain

C: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru

D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

World’s top five

1. Germany, 2. Brazil, 3. Belgium, 4. Portugal, 5. Argentina

Did you know?

Only eight nations have ever won the World Cup. And since England won its only title in 1966, only six have lifted the sport’s most coveted trophy: Germany, Brazil, Spain, France, Argentina and Italy.News services