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World Cup Kicks Off In Russia


We already have a final score in the World Cup. Host Russia beat Saudi Arabia in the opener today 5-0. But there are 63 more matches over the next month before a World Cup champion is crowned. And for a preview, we welcome back Tariq Panja. He's in Moscow covering the soccer tournament for The New York Times. Welcome back.

TARIQ PANJA: Nice to be with you again.

CORNISH: So are you looking at something like a full-fledged soccer fever in Moscow?

PANJA: Yeah, well, maybe not from the Russians. It's not a football nation. But what you have here are thousands upon thousands of the world's soccer fans here. So there is an avenue behind the Kremlin, and if you walk down it, it's like being in a museum of soccer fans. So, you know, you walk 5 yards, and there's, like, hundreds of Argentines. Walk maybe 10, 20 more feet, and then there's a group of Peruvians. And then you bump into the Iranians and then the Moroccans. And then why not turn left, and then you get into the Egyptian section. So it is fantastic. There is a World Cup fever in the city. But I believe that's been kind of imported by all these fans that have come in.

CORNISH: You mention Argentines. And I know Germany won that, like, huge, thrilling final over Argentina in 2014. Can Germans repeat as champions in 2018?

PANJA: I'm really not good at predictions.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

PANJA: But I'm going to say no, so they probably will do it. And the reason is, they enter this competition on a - what's for them a bit of a rocky buildup. And it just hasn't been playing as well as we know it can. I think they'll go deep in the competition, but perhaps they aren't the ones who are going to take the trophy away at the end.

CORNISH: Brazil has won five World Cups, but the last time around, we watched them also fall to Germany, right? They were eviscerated in front of a stadium of distraught fans. What's their situation this time around?

PANJA: This time around, Brazil has turned a corner. But, you know, as you say, they were eviscerated. We've never seen anything quite like that. And you thought, can this nation bounce back in time for the World Cup? And to me, it looks like they certainly have. They've got a new coach since then, Tite. He's galvanized a new team. And they've been performing extremely well. They topped their group, in fact sailed through South American qualifying and are the ones to beat here, I'd say.

CORNISH: Here in the U.S., we're bummed because the U.S. men's team didn't make it of course. But neither did perennial powers - Italy, also the Netherlands. Does the tournament feel a little weird with some of these countries missing?

PANJA: Yeah, and I guess if you're someone of a certain age and used to seeing them as I am, like, Italy are kind of - when you think of the World Cup, there's a few nations. You mentioned Germany, Brazil. You've got to throw in Argentina. And then you always throw in Italy as well. It's a passionate soccer country. They were in pieces (laughter) when they didn't qualify.

But I think it kind of goes to show if your program isn't running on full-steam, you can't rely on the past. You can't rely on legacy, and you can't rely on your name anymore. Soccer has become a lot more sophisticated. And with some investment and a bit of luck, a lot of teams are performing a lot better than they may have done in the past. I mean, you only have to look to Iceland, the world's smallest - World Cup's smallest ever of a country. They're coming to their second straight tournament. We're all looking forward to seeing them and their supporters.

CORNISH: It's a good thing you're telling me this because when I sit down to watch a World Cup game, I basically just root for whoever is the underdog. So are there any other upstart countries that I should look forward to watching?

PANJA: Yeah, yeah. For me - I'm flying tomorrow to the city of Saransk where Peru are meeting Denmark. And if you were to arrive in Moscow today, you may think you've come to Lima. There are thousands and thousands of Peruvians everywhere. It's a soccer-mad country on a soccer-mad continent, and it hasn't qualified for 36 years. So the whole generation of people have never seen their team play a World Cup, and they've done it. So people have been selling their cars and remortgaging homes I heard. And they're here. I think when we see the game against Denmark, their opening game, it may feel like a home game for the Peruvians. They're a good story.

CORNISH: That's Tariq Panja, sports correspondent for The New York Times. He's covering the World Cup in Russia. Thanks for speaking with us.

PANJA: Happy to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.