ANOTHER World Cup without Scotland, the fifth in succession, is a depressing prospect. The days when the national team’s involvement in the tournament every four years was keenly anticipated, expected even, are long gone now. Generations of football supporters in this country have grown up without knowing the pride and joy in watching their best players grace such a rarefied stage.

The 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana back in October was gut-wrenching enough at the time. A last-gasp fightback in the final Group F game proved in vain and the triumph that Gordon Strachan’s side needed to secure a play-off spot eluded them. But now the tournament is set to start for real, their absence is especially hard to bear.

However, all is not lost. There will still, as always, be much for football fans in this country to savour at Russia 2018 in the coming weeks even though they are once again not represented by their national team.

From the moment that Russia kick off the opening match against Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Thursday until the final is staged at the same 81,000-capacity venue a month and a day later, the finals promise to be fascinating, captivating, exhilarating and entertaining viewing.

Craig Gordon, Leigh Griffiths, Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Scotland will not be present– maybe next time! – but a stellar cast and the outstanding teams on the planet most certainly will be.

The World Cup has unquestionably diminished somewhat in these less innocent, more commercial, high-tech times. Having competitive football screened 12 months a year on satellite television and highlights available at the touch of a button online has lessened its impact considerably. The demands that have been made on the leading players by their club sides during the course of lengthy and draining campaigns, too, are all too obvious.

The chance of trouble flaring is also, alas, a high one despite repeated guarantees that adequate safety measures are in place to prevent it. Russian supporters have a notorious and well-deserved reputation and were involved in ugly clashes with England fans, who aren’t exactly virtuous themselves, at Euro 2016.

The authorities have assured organisers there will be no violence. But the host nation’s ultras are among the most organised and ruthless anywhere. Racism frequently rears its ugly head, homophobia too. Gay fans have been warned not to display their sexuality.

This will be the first World Cup where the video assistant referee (VAR) will be in use and it is to be hoped that will prevent any injustices occurring. But it is a new and far from perfect system and has not been met with universal approval in the countries where it has been trialled to date. It could very easily, if the examples of other sports are anything to go by, do as much damage as it does good.

Russia 2018, though, still has, on the park at least, the capacity to be a classic tournament which will live long in the memory.

Can Brazil, the most successful team in the history of the event with five victories and a country synonymous with all that is good about the beautiful game, erase the painful memory of that incomprehensible 7-1 defeat they suffered at the hands of eventual winners Germany in the semi-final in Belo Horizonte in their homeland back in 2014? They are joint favourites along with the defending champions and will be hell bent on restoring their damaged pride.

Will Lionel Messi cement his status as one of the best footballers of all-time, arguably the best, and help Argentina to avenge the agonising extra-time defeat they suffered in the final at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro four years ago before he retires from international football once again? Beckenbauer, Garrincha, Maradona, Muller, Pele, Romario, Ronaldo and Zidane all won the World Cup. Can Messi join them?

Could Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from helping Real Madrid win a third consecutive Champions League in Kiev, inspire Portugal, the Euro 2014 champions, in Russia 2018 and do exactly the same thing?

Is it possible that Germany, the defending champions, the top-placed team in the FIFA world rankings, the Confederations Cup winners, the most consistent side in the history of the international game, can retain their title and join Brazil with five triumphs. Only a fool would bet against it. Manager Joachim Loew still has Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil at his disposal. They went undefeated in 2017.

Could a Belgium side that has, with the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, to name just a handful, long been tipped for greatness finally fulfil their potential and come good? Will the Gold Generation shine at long last? Is Roberto Martinez, the former Motherwell man, a World Cup-winning manager?

Don’t forget France and Spain either. They may not be at the level they were when they won – in 1998 and 2010 respectively – but they have talent and experience in abundance. Les Bleus can call on Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe while La Furia Roja have David de Gea, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Diego Costa.

And what of England? In the last 20 years many Scots have, in the absence of their own side from the finals, taken a perverse pleasure in watching our neighbours head off to the World Cup on a wave of spectacularly misplaced national optimism only to fail miserably and return home nursing bruised egos.

But repeated failures – they last won a match in the knockout rounds way back in 2006 – have tempered English expectations considerably. Last time around they exited after just two games. Paradoxically, this could be the year they come good. They may have fewer superstars in their ranks than before, but they may be better for it. They certainly, in striker Harry Kane, have goals.

Supporters of Aberdeen, Celtic and Hibernian will certainly have the presence of their players to keep them interested. Kari Arnason (Iceland), Cristian Gamboa (Costa Rica), Jamie Maclaren and Tom Rogic (Australia), Mikael Lustig (Sweden), Dedryck Boyata (Belgium) have all been included in their national squads.

There will be no Cameroon, Italy, the Netherlands or the United States, all countries who have distinguished themselves in the World Cup in the past, in Russia. But which nation will grasp their opportunity and come through and make a name for themselves?

Iceland were the surprise package of Euro 2016, beating England and reaching the quarter-finals before losing to eventual finalists France. Seeing if they can progress from Group D, where Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria await, in what is their World Cup bow will be enjoyable.

One unfancied participant always comes through and enjoys a run. Colombia and Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals in Brazil in 2014, Paraguay and Ghana made it through to the same stage in South Africa in 2010 and Ukraine got to the last eight in Germany in 2006.

So can Switzerland (ranked sixth in the world), Peru (not far behind in 11th) or Mexico (in 15th spot) excel? Could Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, South Korea of Serbia pull off a giant-killing act? Anything is possible.

The chances of 1000-1 outsiders Panama winning a game, getting a point even, in the group stages are slim. They qualified for the finals for the first time in dramatic and controversial circumstances last year thanks to a narrow 2-1 triumph over Costa Rica and the United States slumped to a shock reverse to Trinidad and Tobago.

Their opening goal was highly dubious to say the least. But nobody in Panama was complaining. President Juan Carlos Varela declared a public holiday. They will enjoy their involvement irrespective of how they fare. Just as well there was no VAR in the Rommel Fernandez Stadium.

Scottish fans would have happily accepted a dodgy goal in their meeting with Slovenia if it had meant their hopes of making it to Russia 2018 had remained intact. The Tartan Army will have to remain at home once more and dare to dream yet again. But it won’t be too much of a hardship to see how those who were lucky enough to make it do. In fact, it will be an absolute pleasure.