The World Cup is right up there with the Olympics when it comes to the most-watched sporting events on the planet.

The global in-home audience for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was 3.2B and the final attracted more than 1B (23M in the U.S.). Russia 2018 (June 14-July 15) gets underway today with Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar among fan favourites set to captivate audiences the world over.

U.S. ratings are expected to be down on the record-breaking 2014 due to the Stars and Stripes’ first no-show since 1990 and the time difference — Moscow is seven hours ahead of New York.

But with eight teams from the Americas in the mix and the NFL and NBA in off-season, soccer’s growing stateside fan-base (a surprising nugget on that line: U.S. nationals have bought the second-most tickets for the competition) could still deliver decent numbers for Fox, which is going all in on its coverage.

It’s a given that the latter stages tend to do well globally, but here are seven group games likely to draw viewers stateside and/or beyond. All times are EST.

Thursday June 14, 11AM — Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Group 1 (Fox)

Robbie Williams anyone? For once, the opening ceremony may be more exciting than the opening game. Mathematically, you couldn’t have come up with a worse first match: a showdown between the tournament’s two lowest-ranked teams. In NFL terms, this is the Browns-Bucs. And yet the game will still generate plenty of international eyeballs by virtue of it being the first fixture and because it features the host nation in their most winnable bout. By population, Russia is the third-biggest nation ever to host the tournament, which should help heat up local auds. The fixture could also draw above average viewing figures in Muslim countries as it falls on the same day as religious holiday Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, however, millions may try to stream the match illegally after authorities failed to strike a deal (due to an on-going diplomatic row) with Qatar’s beIN Media, which holds rights. Former Take That star Robbie Williams is the headline act for a mercifully short opening ceremony.

Friday June 15, 2PM — Portugal vs Spain, Group B (Fox)

Cristiano Ronaldo
Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP/REX/Shutterstock
REX/Shutterstock

The World Cup’s first heavyweight clash is the biggest game of the group stage. Spain are one of the tournament favourites and among the easiest on the eye while Portugal, led by five-time World Player Of The Year Cristiano Ronaldo, are current European champs. The Iberian derby is one of the fiercest international rivalries and the Friday evening slot European time will boost ratings.

Sunday June 17, 11:00 AM – Germany vs Mexico, Group F (FS1)

Two large, soccer-loving nations go head to head as current world champs Germany take on World Cup perennials Mexico in a spicy Group F clash likely to be among the most-watched group games in North America. Mexico will be glued to this weekend fixture but there should also be decent interest stateside: Mexico’s 2014 Round of 16 clash with Netherlands was the fourth most-watched game of the tournament in the U.S. Meanwhile, Germany always tunes in to watch ‘Die Mannschaft’ (The Team). Nineteen of the top 20 most watched TV emissions ever in Germany are soccer matches, with each garnering more than 25m viewers.

Sunday June 17, 2 PM – Brazil vs Switzerland, Group E (FS1)

The ever-popular ‘Selecao’, soccer’s great entertainers, play their first game on a weekend and as ever, the team will be roared on by their 200M+ soccer-mad population as well as millions of neutrals. Brazil boast one of the tournaments genuine superstars in the shape of Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar, the world’s most expensive player ($262M), and this is a stronger team overall than four years ago when they disappointed on home soil. Brazil vs Costa Rica from the same group could also see solid numbers in the U.S.

Tuesday, June 19, 8 AM – Colombia vs Japan, Group H (FS1)

This intriguing tie takes place at 7am in Bogota and 9pm in Tokyo so should benefit from decent local audiences given that both teams will still be in contention for the second round at this point. Colombia and their Bayern Munich ace James Rodriguez were among the break-outs of the 2014 tournament.

Thursday June 28, 2 PM — England vs Belgium, Group G (Fox)

James Marsh/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

In another group stage doozy, perennial under-achievers England face off against star-studded Belgium, whose premier league luminaries include Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. The evening kick-off this side of the pond should supercharge ratings in Europe.

Tuesday June 26, 2 PM — Nigeria vs Argentina, Group D (Fox)

This is a game whose audience could swell or shrink depending on results in the teams’ two previous group games but if there’s still something on the line it could be a humdinger. This is the fourth time these two soccer-loving countries have met in the last five editions of the tournament and the opportunity to watch Argentina great Lionel Messi in a key game should guarantee a strong global following.