Lee Clarke's World Cup Diary: '˜The first game can't come soon enough'

Gareth SouthgateGareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate
The close season break represents a time of real distress for ardent football supporters, so it's fair to say that the commencement of the 2018 World Cup is massively overdue.

The sticker book has been a work in progress for a couple of months, my wife has already threatened divorce if one more wallchart is put up in the garage and my eyes will go square if I read one more preview ahead of the greatest show on earth.

For an England supporter, the 2018 offering of the World Cup represents the dawn of a new era under boss Gareth Southgate and what is perhaps more surprising is that the Three Lions go into the tournament without any real expectations from both media and those traveling to watch Southgate’s charges.

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More on England in the days leading up to their opener against Tunisia on Monday but Thursday sees the host nation traditionally play the first game of the competition and in drawing Saudi Arabia they couldn’t really ask for a better fixture.

The Saudis qualified from a pretty ordinary looking qualifying group, although it has to be said that the fact they finished above Australia suggests they can be capable of causing an upset on their day. I certainly won’t be backing against the hosts on the opening day, however.

One cause for concern ahead of a major tournament being held in Russia has to be whether or not the locals will be capable of behaving themselves with the country renowned in the past for violent behaviour when football is concerned.

After several incidents of disorderly behaviour during the European Championships in France in 2016, the governing bodies will be desperately hoping that football is the topic of vast conversation in Russia, as opposed to other, unsavoury incidents.

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I have to say that the World Cup itself holds special memories for me. USA ’94 was one of my very first recollections of a major tournament and the whole razzmatazz that accompanies such a spectacle completely blew my mind as a naïve six-year-old.

Even now I can see Ray Houghton breaking Italian hearts with a divine goal to give an unfancied Republic of Ireland side an unlikely victory over eventual finalists Italy, whilst Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi was simply majestic in my young eyes back in 1994 and to this day his quality during that tournament remain imprinted in my mind.

Fast forward to 2018 and it is the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Lionel Messi who will hope to steal the show and embed their names into World Cup history, whilst England’s Harry Kane will hope to lead by example for his country after a poor Euro 2016 campaign.

Thursday cannot come soon enough for me. The thought of so much football definitely whets the appetite, but more than anything it might finally put me out of my misery when it comes to trying to fill my Panini sticker book!

Bring on Russia 2018...