The World Cup squads are set and twelve stadiums in eleven Russian cities are ready to host 32 teams competing for the globe’s greatest prize. Though the finals are yet to kick off, this tournament has already seen its share of drama. Argentina, for one, likely wouldn’t be involved if not for the heroics of Lionel Messi. His hat trick in the final game of qualifying in Quito secured his team’s place on a day that started with the Argentinian health ministry issuing instructions on how to avoid heart attacks during the game. But not every nation had Messi to act as fail safe, and several high-profile countries paid the ultimate price. Back-to-back Copa America champions Chile failed to qualify for the first time since 2006. While Ghana and the Netherlands missed out for the first time since ’02. The United States will be absent for the first time since and Italy, four time World Champions, are gone for the first time since 1958. In their places, the tiny nation of Iceland (population: 327,386) and Panama will make their tournament debuts. Morocco returns to the finals for the first time since 1998 and Egypt for the first time since 1990. Lastly, soccer-mad Peru graces the tournament for the first time since 1982. Getting to the World Cup at all is half the battle. Getting there healthy and harmoniously is much of the other half.Egypt saw their talisman, the brilliant Mohamed Salah, exit the Champions League final in tears after injuring his shoulder in a clash with Spain’s captain Sergio Ramos. He’ll be at the tournament, but the level of his participation is still a question mark. Peru’s talisman, striker and captain Paolo Guerrero, will lead them at the tournament but only after his 14-month doping ban was lifted. He would have missed the finals but was cleared at the eleventh hour by a Swiss court. Guerrero went into his final appeal with a letter signed by all of the captains of the three other teams in Peru’s group, France’s Hugo Lloris, and Denmark’s Simon Kjaer, and Australia’s Mile Jedinak. It was a big gesture, and a nod – as were Salah’s and Dani Carvejal’s tears in Kiev – to the regard with which participation in the World Cup is held by those who play the game. Guerrero thanked god after his reprieve was granted. Writing in a statement that “there are no impossible dreams now,” and then went out and scored a brace in Peru’s warm-up win over Saudi Arabia. Such are the stakes, the highs and the lows, at the World Cup finals. There is no substitute for the pressure, and it’s pressure that, for several countries, has already told. Four teams, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Serbia, parted ways with the managers who qualified them in the buildup to the tournament. Australia’s new coach, Bert van Marwijk, was previously in charge of the Saudis. Saudi Arabia’s new coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi, arrived after failing to get Chile to the finals. Hosts Russia are a team that could have made a coaching change – they’re riding a miserable seven game winless streak into the finals – but haven’t. They’ll struggle to avoid the ignominy of a group stage exit but were boosted by being drawn, coincidentally, into what is statistically the weakest World Cup group since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998. Russia’s hosting the tournament at all is, questionable indeed. Apart even from the conduct of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic government, Russia’s history of racially abusing players, homophobic laws and supporter violence have led some fans and families to stay away. Russia is of course eager to present well over the next month, but we’ll see what happens. On the field, at least, and in the spirit of the vast majority of supporters, there is no chance that the tournament will disappoint.