The World Cup! The biggest, most watched sporting event on Earth where countries from across the globe compete to see who are kings of the Beautiful Game. Sure, the US won’t be there but there is still plenty of great soccer to watch (let’s be honest we don’t normally go that far anyway) and drama to unfold.
In this blog I’ll briefly preview all 32 teams, give predictions for each group and then lay out how I think the knockout stage of the tournament will play out.
How They Got Here: Won Group E of Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualification
World Cup History: 3rd appearance Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)
FIFA Rank: 45
In a sport with 11 players on the field, it’s hard to have a one-man-team, but Egypt come pretty close; they’ll go as far as Mohamed Salah can carry them. He led the final round of CAF qualification with 5 goals, and is coming off a season where he scored a record-setting 32 Premier League goals for Liverpool and led them to the UEFA Champions League Final. The problem for Egypt is that he was controversially injured in that UCL final in a collision with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. He’s said he’ll be ready for Egypt’s first game against Uruguay, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
The Egyptians do have a couple other players with Premier League experience in midfielder Mohamed Elneny of Arsenal and defender Ahmed Hegazi of West Brom, but this laregly Egypt-based squad are certainly underdogs. However, they have the benefit of being in a relatively week group and have been picked by many to get into the knockout stage.
One final note: Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary is 45 years old and would be the oldest player to ever play in a World Cup.
How They Got Here: Automatically qualified as host nation
World Cup History: 11th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1966)
FIFA Rank: 70
There’s nothing quite like being the only team out of 32 that gets home-field advantage, and the Russians will need all the help they can get. Let’s make something clear: if they had to go through normal European qualification, they probably wouldn’t be here. This is a veteran squad, and the player to watch is CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev; he’s the team’s playmaker, and most of their attacks will run through him.
On paper, the Russians look like big underdogs. However, there’s a long history of home cooking making a big difference (see South Korea in 2002). If the Russians get out of this group, they’ll have their fans to thank.
How They Got Here: Finished second in Group B of Asia Football Confederation (AFC) qualification
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
FIFA Rank: 67
The Saudis are the second team in this group that you could rightly consider a one man show. There go-to guy is Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who over the course of World Cup qualification scored a remarkable 16 goals (although that did include 5 in a 10-0 rout of East Timor). Even more impressive is that he’s scored 28 goals in 39 games for his country.
Until recently, all Saudi players were required to play in the Saudi league. However, a deal was struck this past year to allow 9 players to go on loan to La Liga in Spain. Three of those players (wingers Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad) are on the Saudi roster and will be looked to as key to helping Al-Sahlawi generate opportunities. Even with an easier group, getting much of anything out of this tournament will be a big ask for this team.
How They Got Here: Finished second in CONMEBOL (South America) qualification
World Cup History: 13th appearance Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
FIFA Rank: 14
Congratulations, Uruguay! You’ve received the greatest gift in this tournament by being placed in a group with these three teams. This team is incredibly strong up front, led by the strike partnership of Barcelona’s Luis Suarez (50 goals in 97 games for Uruguay) and Edinson Cavani (42 in 100). They’re two of the best strikers in the world and are the key to Uruguay’s success. This is not just because of their talent, but also the general lack of talent behind them. Atletico Madrid defenders Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are both high quality players, but there’s a bit of a hole in the middle of this team.
Perhaps the biggest key to Uruguay progressing in this tournament is Luis Suarez staying on the field. He has played in two World Cups, both of which ended in being suspended: first in 2010 for a volleyball-style block, then for infamously biting the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in 2014. Perhaps the main storyline for Uruguay is what weird shit Suarez will do this time.
Group A Prediction:
- Saudi Arabia
Uruguay will take care of business, Russia’s home field advantage will make a difference, Mo Salah isn’t 100% and the Egyptians will fall short as a result, Saudi Arabia thanks for playing.
How They Got Here: Won Group A of AFC qualification
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
FIFA Rank: 37
Iran had an impressive qualification run, beating out South Korea (who they beat and drew in the final round of qualification) to top AFC Group A.
There are two players to focus on for Iran. The first is their captain, midfielder Masoud Shojaei, who not long ago probably thought he had no chance of being at this World Cup because he had been banned from the Iranian national team for life. His crime? Playing against an Israeli team in the Europa League while playing for his club team in Greece, AEK Athens (nothing says “we don’t like you” quite like considering standing on the same soccer field as an act of treason). But were Iran really going to keep their captain and arguably best player out of the World Cup? Of course not. His suspension was reduced from life to six months and he’ll lead his team out in Russia this weekend.
The other key player for the Iranians is 23-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun, who despite his young age is already Iran’s 4th all-time top scorer with 23 goals in just 32 games. Look for Shojaei to be feeding Azmoun every chance he gets.
Given the Iberian powers in this group, this won’t be easy for the Iranians.
How They Got Here: Won Group C of CAF qualification
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
FIFA Rank: 41
Morocco won what was probably the most difficult group in African World Cup qualification, going up against the like of the Ivory Coast and Gabon. Moroccan football has been in the news recently as they were one of the two finalists to host the 2026 World Cup, which was instead awarded to the joint bid of Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
As far as this World Cup goes, like Iran they’ve drawn a short straw of being tossed in with Spain and Portugal. Their first game, against Iran, is a must win for both teams. A win for one gives them an outside chance, while a draw likely dooms them both.
How They Got Here: Won Group B of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) qualification
World Cup History: 7th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1966)
FIFA Rank: 4
Portugal have been riding high the past couple of years. They were surprise winners of the 2016 European Championship in France, where they defeated the hosts in the final largely without Cristiano Ronaldo. They cut it a bit close in qualifying, beating out Switzerland to claim the top spot in their group. This may be Ronaldo’s last real chance at a World Cup (although he’s said he wants to play until he’s 40), an opportunity Portugal won’t want to waste.
The only real bad news for Portugal is that seeding for these groups is based on FIFA rankings which have somehow left the Spanish out of the top seven. Thus, despite being the top seeded team in Group B they find themselves not as favorites.
While all eyes will certainly be on Ronaldo, he’ll need some help from the likes of young stars Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva (no relation that I’m aware of) to bolster the Portuguese attack.
Whoever wins Portugal’s opening game against Spain (if there is a winner) will be in the driver’s seat to win the group. Assuming Portugal navigates these first 3 games without too much trouble, they’ll have their eyes on a deep run.
How They Got Here: Won Group G of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: 15th appearance Best Finish: Champions (2010)
FIFA Rank: 10
After winning the World Cup in 2010, Spain hurtled back down to Earth in 2014 where they were beaten by both Chile and the Netherlands in the group stage to be knocked out of the tournament. They’ll be looking to bounce back this time around, and have all the tools necessary to make another run at a World Cup title.
Their midfield is as imposing as ever with Andres Iniesta, playing in what he has said will be his final World Cup, alongside Barca teammate Sergio Busquets and Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara (who’s been rumored to be considering a move back to Barca where he started his career).
They’ve got loads of attacking options with the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio, Diego Costa (why did he not play for Brazil?) and David Silva.
David de Gea is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world right now, and their defense is one of the most experiences in the tournament.
Spain did make some headlines for the players they left out of the squad, including Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata and Cesc Fabregas, but you can’t argue that they don’t have incredible depth at their disposal all over the field.
Finally, in a really weird move, Spain fired their coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the start of the tournament after he had agreed to become Real Madrid’s manager for next season. My only thoughts:
Group B Prediction:
Spain are one of the best teams in the tournament and show it, Portugal get edged out by Spain but otherwise take care of business, Morocco are overmatched by the Iberians but beat Iran, and hey Iran got to go to a World Cup so good for them.
How They Got Here: Defeated Syria in AFC qualification playoff; defeated Honduras in inter-confederation playoff
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
FIFA Rank: 36
If you’re wondering why Australia qualifies with Asia for the World Cup, it’s because they got tired of having to go through a playoff game after always winning Oceania qualifying. They almost didn’t make it this time, though, and had to play Syria (yes, Syria almost qualified) in one of those playoff games to make it to Russia this summer. The Socceroos are led by 38-year-old striker Tim Cahill who, while he scored one of the goals of the tournament back in 2014, is certainly not what he once was. Their midfield is anchored by their veteran captain, Mile Jedinak, and Aaron Mooy, who is coming off a great first Premier League season with Huddersfield Town.
Let’s just put it this way, though: if you have to beat Syria just to get here you probably won’t be sticking around very long.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in Group B of UEFA qualification; defeated Ireland in UEFA qualification playoffs
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1998)
FIFA Rank: 12
While overall their quality is superior to the likes of Egypt, Denmark are yet another team who rely incredibly too much on one player. For them, that’s Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, who tallied 10 goals and 10 assists (most of them to Harry Kane) this season for Spurs. He scored 11 goals in Denmark’s qualifying campaign and may need to continue that kind of production if Denmark are to advance out of the group.
The Danes will miss veteran striker Niklas Bendtner, who suffered a groin injury as the team was preparing for the World Cup. That only increases the burden on Eriksen for offensive production, who will need help from the likes of young Ajax striker Kasper Dolberg. They’ve got some other good players including Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City in goal and Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen, but it will take a full team effort to propel Denmark in this World Cup.
How They Got Here: Won Group A of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: 15th appearance Best Finish: Champions (1998)
FIFA Rank: 7
In soccer terms, France are incredibly spoiled with riches. The list of players who didn’t make their World Cup squad could form a team that could probably reach the quarterfinals. Thus, the team they have brought to Russia is considered to be one of the most talented in the tournament.
They have established world-class players all over the field including striker Antoine Griezmann, central midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, and defender Raphael Varane, complemented by some of the best young attacking talents talents in the world like Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar.
The question for France is if they can turn all this talent into a cohesive team that can play well together and win. This concern is raised constantly, most recently when in their final World Cup warm-up game they drew 1-1 with a USA team mostly composed of young, inexperienced players; certainly not the best team the US (who of course didn’t qualify for the World Cup) could offer. A more pressing concern from this game was an injury to striker Olivier Giroud, who clashed heads with US defender (and Chelsea teammate) Matt Miazga. Thankfully for France, he’s expected to be good to go.
The French should go far in this tournament. How far is really up to them.
How They Got Here: Finished 5th in CONMEBOL qualification; defeated New Zealand in inter-confederation playoff
World Cup History: 4th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1978)
FIFA Rank: 11
As flawed as the FIFA ranking system may be, it’s incredibly impressive that Peru come into this World Cup ranked 11th in the world. They did this by throwing a huge wrench into the South American qualification process by drawing with Argentina twice, drawing with Colombia and beating Uruguay which saw them finish ahead of reigning Copa America champions Chile. They they beat New Zealand in a playoff to make it to the World Cup.
The player to watch for Peru is captain Paolo Guerrero, who wasn’t originally going to be allowed to participate in the World Cup. He failed a drug test last year (for cocaine, not PEDs) and the resulting suspension would have kept him out. However, the captains of the other three teams in this group wrote a letter to FIFA asking them to let Guerrero play. FIFA accepted, and Peru’s all-time leading scorer will be at the World Cup.
This is both incredible sportsmanship and a really gutsy move by the other teams, as Peru has been picked by many as a dark horse. If they can replicate their form from qualifying, anything’s possible.
Group C Prediction:
France wins the group on talent alone, Peru are for real, Eriksen can’t quite get Denmark out of the group by himself, Australia never really stand a chance.
How They Got Here: Finished 3rd in CONMEBOL qualification
World Cup History: 17th appearance Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
FIFA Rank: 5
After losing to Chile in the finals of the Copa America two years ago, Lionel Messi said he was retiring from international play. To no one’s surprise, that didn’t last very long and once again Messi is leading Argentina into a World Cup. After losing to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final, Messi and Argentina will be looking to do one better and win the whole thing this time.
This is a team with no shortage of attacking options, boasting the likes of Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria in addition to Messi. The problem is everything else.
Starting goalkeeper Sergio Romero is out of the tournament due to injury and the three ‘keepers the Argentines are bringing have a combined nine international appearances between them. Defense has never been this team’s strong suit and veteran Javier Mascherano only has so much left in the tank at 34 years old. Their midfield was also dealt a blow when Manuel Lanzini tore his ACL just a week before the start of the World Cup.
You’ve always got a shot when you have Messi, but this World Cup could prove a bit tougher than usual.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in Group I of UEFA qualification; defeated Greece in UEFA qualification playoffs
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1998)
FIFA Rank: 20
On the field, Croatia have a lot going for them, primarily an absolutely loaded midfield comprised of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic. They’ve also got veteran attackers like Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic who have proven goal-scoring records including at World Cups.
The problem for Croatia is off the pitch, where scandal is rocking Croatian football. I’d advise you read this piece from the Guardian which explains the whole thing, but the gist is that an executive at Croatia’s best team was embezzling funds from the sale of their best players, even giving the players themselves a cut of the money. A bunch of those players play on this Croatia team. Modric has been charged with perjury and Dejan Lovren likely will be as well; that could mean jail time.
Croatia are team that certainly has the ability to make some noise, but the distractions surrounding this team right now might just be too much in an incredibly competitive group.
How They Got Here: Won Group I of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: First World Cup appearance
FIFA Rank: 22
Iceland became the darlings of the soccer universe two summers ago when they made run to the quarterfinals of the European Championships, a run which included beating England. They also introduced the world to the Viking Clap (like the SKOL clap but better). The tiny nation of just 350,000 proven that size is not always the most important thing in sports.
They rolled the momentum from the Euros right into World Cup qualifying, topping a group that included Croatia and Turkey. Iceland are the epitome of a team being greater than the some of its parts, displaying an incredible team chemistry and collective discipline.
The only concern they may have going into this tournament is the health of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who’s without question their best player but hasn’t played since sustaining a knee injury back in March.
He says he’s good to go, and he’ll need to be if Iceland’s fairy tail is to continue.
How They Got Here: Won Group B of CAF qualification
World Cup History: 6th appearance Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
FIFA Rank: 48
If who wins the World Cup was just determined by how cool your uniforms were, Nigeria would be runaway favorites. Just LOOK at all these things:
Alas, they do have to still play the games. There’s plenty of familiar faces on this team for fans of the Premier League, including Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi,John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa, and Odion Ighalo.
Nigeria will need the likes of Iwobi, Moses and Iheanacho (who scored just 3 goals in his first season for Leicester) to step up their games if the Nigerians are to advance. Another key will be players like defensive midfielders Mikel and Ndidi protecting Nigeria’s defense, which isn’t particularly strong.
This group could be anyone’s game, and if Nigeria can play up to their jerseys then they’ve got as good a chance as anyone.
Group D Prediction:
Messi does Messi things, Iceland’s dream lives on, Nigeria is fun but not all that good, Croatia implodes
How They Got Here: Finished 1st in CONMEBOL qualification
World Cup History: 21st appearance Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
FIFA Rank: 2
Brazil are the betting favorite to win the World Cup and with good reason. While pretty much everyone else struggled to survive, Brazil cruised through qualifying only losing once in 18 games. Second, they’re out for revenge. In 2014 on home soil they made a run to the semifinals where they were embarrassed 7-1 by Germany. They had also lost star player Neymar to a back injury in the previous game. Third, they’ve filled some big holes in the team. Four years ago they didn’t have a true striker but are now led up top by the electric Gabriel Jesus, who’s coming off a great season for Man City, with Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino a more than competent backup. They no longer have the human own-goal that is David Luiz, replaced by younger and superior defender Marquinhos. They also have a goalkeeper at the top of his game right now in Alisson.
Neymar is back from an injury that curtailed his club season with PSG and has been scoring some ridiculous goals as Brazil have been preparing for the World Cup. He’ll be glad to have less of a burden on his shoulders with players like Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Willian supporting him offensively.
The one thing that Brazil will be without at the World Cup is veteran right back Dani Alves, who’s out injured.
Nevertheless, this is one of Brazil’s best teams in years and they’ll be looking to make up for the disappointment of 2014.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in CONCACAF (North America) qualification
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
FIFA Rank: 23
Costa Rica were the Cinderella story of the 2014 World Cup, winning a group that included England and Italy before making it to the quarterfinals where they were knocked out on penalties by the Dutch.
The good news is they bring that experience from 2014 into this World Cup, returning 13 of the 23 players from that team. This is also somewhat the bad news, as the team has gotten older without much young reinforcement. They’re one of the oldest teams at the tournament and it would be an even bigger surprise for them to make a run this time around.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas stood on his head several times back in 2014, and he’ll probably have to do so again if Costa Rica are to go anywhere.
How They Got Here: Won Group D of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: 12th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1930)
FIFA Rank: 34
You wouldn’t normally think of Serbia as a soccer power, but Serbia are a team with a lot of history (formerly Yugoslavia) and several top-level players. They boast one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, Nemanja Matic, along with one of the most wanted young talents in Europe right now, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. They have veteran defenders like Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov as well as Premier League forwards Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Tadic. They won a tough qualifying group that included Ireland, Wales, and Austria to get to the World Cup, which should prepare them well to battle for second place in this group.
It’s the first world cup for most of this squad, and they’ll want to be sure they aren’t overlooked.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in Group D of UEFA qualification; defeated Northern Ireland in UEFA qualification playoffs
World Cup History: 10th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
FIFA Rank: 6
There are teams that the FIFA rankings overvalue and then there is Switzerland, who routinely find themselves incredibly high up despite nobody considering them to be all that good.
They cruised through qualifying thanks to a group that included Latvia, Andorra and the Faroe Islands before having to play Northern Ireland in a playoff because they had a worse goal differential than Portugal.
The key to Swiss success at the World Cup is Xherdan Shaqiri, the diminutive winger who looks like he’s 90% muscle. He had a frustrating season as Stoke City got relegated, and Swiss fans will be hoping he takes his anger out on the other teams in this group. He’s scored 20 goals in 70 career games for Switzerland, including a hattrick at the last World Cup.
In addition to Shaqiri the Swiss have plenty of veteran leadership that could prove helpful in weathering the group stage.
Group D Prediction:
- Costa Rica
Brazil cruise, Switzerland do just enough while Serbia fall just short, Costa Rica can’t find the magic of 2014 and struggle
How They Got Here: Won Group C of UEFA qualification (went undefeated)
World Cup History: 18th appearance Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
FIFA Rank: 1
Germany is right where they were at the end of the last World Cup: on top. The defending champions and #1 team in the world come into this tournament looking to be the first team since Brazil in 1962 to repeat as winners of the World Cup, and you could argue they have an even stronger team than last time. World Cup specialist Thomas Muller is back, looking to add to his 5th best all-time 10 career World Cup goals. He, along with Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng, will be playing in his third World Cup; the Germans are loaded with both talent and experience.
Marco Reus finally gets to play at an international tournament after injuries kept him out of both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and he’s joined by plenty of talented young players like Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner and Niklas Sule making their World Cup debuts.
The Germans do have a couple injury concerns, with Neuer only recently back to full fitness after missing the entire 2017/18 season and Mesut Ozil dealing with a nagging knee injury.
It will be all systems go for the Germans, and while repeating as World Cup champions is hard to do it would be foolish to doubt this team’s ability to do so.
How They Got Here: Finished 1st in CONCACAF qualification
World Cup History: 14th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
FIFA Rank: 15
Mexico are fixture at the World Cup, given that they are consistently the best team in North America and never have much trouble qualifying. They’ve been at the last six World Cups and have been knocked out in the Round of 16 every time.
The headline for Mexico is 39-year-old defender Rafael Marquez, who is only the fourth player in history to go to five World Cups.
As far as Mexico’s play goes, they’ll be relying as usual on goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez who has an incredible scoring record for his country (49 goals in 102 games).
This is a team loaded with veterans, as only 7 of the 23 players in the squad have never played at a World Cup.
Of the newcomers, the one to watch is Hirving Lozano, an exciting winger with phenomenal amounts of talent who often struggles to keep his temper in check. One way or another, he’s always exciting.
Mexico have been consistent in World Cups, but they’ll be hoping for more than just consistency this time around.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in Group A of AFC qualification
World Cup History: 10th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (2002)
FIFA Rank: 57
I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about the South Koreans, the reason being a bunch of their players play in Korea and Japan and thus I’ve never heard of them.
The one player on this team I do know a lot about is Son Heung-min, a forward who plays for Tottenham Hotspur and is as good at handshakes as he is at soccer. He’s scored 21 goals in 66 games for South Korea and is coming off a season in which he scored 18 goals for Spurs. Maybe South Korea will surprise me, but as far as I know they’re Son and a bunch of other guys who are just lucky to be here.
How They Got Here: Finished 2nd in Group A of UEFA qualification; defeated Italy in UEFA qualification playoffs
World Cup History: 12th appearance Best Finish: Runners-Up (1958)
FIFA Rank: 24
Not only did Sweden knock off Italy to qualify for the World Cup, they qualified without Zlatan Ibrahimovic who retired from international play in 2016. He said he wanted to go to the World Cup this summer, but Sweden turned down their all-time top scorer. That may sound ridiculous and dumb, but many have argued they’re a better team without him (kind of like how the Boston Celtics were good without Kyrie Irving, even though he’s their best player).
The new leader of the team is attacking midfielder Emil Forsberg, who’s the team’s creative force and serves a role similar to what Christian Eriksen does for Denmark.
Sweden haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 2006, and as a result none of the players in their 2018 squad have ever played in a World Cup before. They didn’t need Zlatan to get here, so who says they need him to advance to the knockout stage.
Group F Prediction:
- South Korea
Germany are a machine, Mexico are going to do what they always do, Sweden just don’t have quite enough talent, I feel bad for Son
How They Got Here: Won Group H of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: 13th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1986)
FIFA Rank: 3
This current group of Belgian players is known as Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation,’ and with good reason; the squad is filled with some of the best players the country has ever had. Romelu Lukaku is just 25 years old but already Belgium’s all-time top scorer. Eden Hazard is one of the most skilled and exciting players to watch in the world. Kevin De Bruyne is a world-class midfielder who just led the Premier League in assists this season. Center backs Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have all made over 60 appearances for Belgium and are among the best defenders in the world. This team is built to win.
The problem is that so far they’ve underachieved. They were knocked out in the quarterfinals of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championships.
With most of their best players in their prime right now, this is the time for Belgium if they’re going to win a World Cup.
Much like France, it’s a question of being able to translate immense talent into equivalent results.
How They Got Here: Won Group F of UEFA Qualification
World Cup History: 15th appearance Best Finish: Champions (1966)
FIFA Rank: 12
To say England has been disappointing in recent years would be a bit of an understatement. They didn’t even get out of their group in Brazil four years ago and were knocked out of the Euros by Iceland. In many ways, though, this isn’t the same team. Only five of the 23 players in England’s squad for this World Cup were there four years ago, and England will hope this new generation of players will bring with them a new era of success.
There is perhaps no player under more pressure to perform at this World Cup than Harry Kane. He’s coming off the highest scoring season of his career and, despite being just 24, has been made England captain. He’s one of the best strikers in the world and the heir to Wayne Rooney in the England attack.
It can’t all be Kane, though. Fellow young stars like Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli will have to play big roles this summer if England are to go far.
England also have some serious defensive concerns, with Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and John Stones all knowingly prone to lapses.
This is one of the youngest squads in the whole tournament, and it may just be a little too soon for them to dream of winning the whole thing.
How They Got Here: Finished 3rd in CONCACAF qualification
World Cup History: First World Cup appearance
FIFA Rank: 55
If you’re wondering how Panama has made the World Cup for the first time ever, you can thank the United States of America for that (I’m not bitter, I swear). The Panamanians probably wouldn’t be here if not for the US loss to Trinidad and Tobago, along with being awarded a goal they didn’t actually score in their final qualifying game.
But Panama won’t care how they’ve ended up in Russia, they’re going to play like they belong (or at least try).
Nine of Panama’s ten most experienced all-time players are on this team, as are five of their top ten all time goal scorers. If a Panama team was going to go to the World Cup, this is the one.
Most of this team plays in Central America, while a few play in the MLS. While I can’t say much about them, I would caution England and Belgium not to underestimate them. They’ve seen what Costa Rica did four years ago and they’ll believe there’s no reason they can’t do the same.
How They Got Here: Won Group A of CAF qualification
World Cup History: 5th appearance Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
FIFA Rank: 21
Tunisia hit their highest point ever in the FIFA rankings earlier this year (14th), and they’ll be hoping that this is finally the World Cup where they get out of the group stage.
They didn’t exactly have the most difficult road to get here, winning a qualifying group of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea, but they’ll fancy their chances to play spoiler in this group.
Wahbi Khazri is their go-to-guy, having scored 12 goals in 35 games for Tunisia. He’ll be hoping he (and Tunisia) do well enough to get him the heck out of Sunderland, who were just relegated for the second consecutive season.
Group G Prediction:
Belgium won’t screw this group up, England will choke at some point but not enough to knock them out, Panama and Tunisia both prove worthy adversaries but that’s about it
How They Got Here: Finished 4th in CONMEBOL qualification
World Cup History: 6th appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
FIFA Rank: 16
Hands down the star of the 2014 World Cup was Colombia’s James Rodriguez. He scored an absurd 6 goals (including this one that one FIFA’s goal of the year award) and earned himself a move to Real Madrid as Colombia made it to the quarterfinals before being knocked out by hosts Brazil.
Colombia has made some key additions to that 2014 squad, primarily veteran striker Radamel Falcao who was injured for the tournament. He’s been phenomenal for Monaco since failed loan spells at Manchester United and Chelsea. He’ll take some of the scoring load off of James. They also now have young defender Davinson Sanchez, who had a great first season for Tottenham and will be needed in a squad that doesn’t have all that many defenders.
Veteran attackers Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado are still there, but all eyes will inevitably be on James as he looks to duplicate his spectacular play from four years ago.
How They Got Here: Won Group B of AFC qualification
World Cup History: 6th appearance Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
FIFA Rank: 61
Much like Mexico, Japan have been a fixture at the World Cup in recent years. This is largely thanks to a relative lack of competition in qualifying, and they’ve never gotten past the Round of 16 at the World Cup itself. Japan is a team of aging stars. Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda have both been fixtures of the Japanese national team for the last decade and are among the five players on this Japan squad who played in both of the last two World Cups. They’re both top 10 in goals and appearances all time for Japan, and are joined by Shinji Kagawa who is 6th all time in scoring. Those three are all 29 or older and this will be Japan’s last chance with them all still relatively in their prime.
If Japan makes it to another Round of 16, it’s likely they’ll have them to thank.
How They Got Here: Won Group E of UEFA qualification
World Cup History: 8th appearance Best Finish: Semifinals (1974, 1982)
FIFA Rank: 8
Poland’s game-plan is simple: get the ball to Robert Lewandowski. He’s scored at least 40 goals in three straight season for Bayern Munich and has 55 goals in 95 games for Poland (he’s of course their top scorer all time). This strategy works well for them, as they breezed through qualification and find themselves ranked in the top 10 in the world.
This will be Poland’s first World Cup since 2006, and goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski is the only member of the squad who was there. This is not a young squad, however, and they’ll know that this may be there only chance to compete at a World Cup.
While there’s plenty of teams that are defined by one player, Lewandowski (and his supporting cast) are better than most.
How They Got Here: Won Group D of CAF qualification
World Cup History: 2nd appearance Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2002)
FIFA Rank: 27
Senegal have a world-class center back Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the Premier League’s best defensive midfielders Idrissa Gueye, and are led by Liverpool winger Sadio Mane. They also have an insane amount of speed and for that reason alone could be a fun team to watch in Russia this summer. They’re also a young team, with 28 and 26-year-old Gueye and Mane their two most experienced players. Like a lot of teams they’re strong in attack and weaker everywhere else but in a group as wide open as this one perhaps that’s enough.
Group H Prediction:
In an incredibly close group Colombia’s talent gives them an edge, Lewandowski shoots Poland into the knockout stages, Senegal are entertaining but not victorious, Japan just don’t have enough talent
Here are my picks for the Knockout Stage:
Round of 16
- Uruguay’s proves too one-dimensional and Ronaldo-and-co edge them out
- In a repeat of Euro 2016, France crushes Iceland’s dreams again
- Mexico gets knocked out in the Round of 16…..again; no fault of their own though as they don’t stand much of a chance against Brazil
- Poland has one world class player, Belgium has like 6
- Home field advantage is not enough for Russia to beat Spain
- Argentina finally beat Peru on the third try
- Switzerland is proved to not be an elite team by an actually elite Germany team
- In what I believe will be the tightest game of this round, England actually perform under pressure
- France avenge their loss in the Euro 2016 final
- Belgium is knocked out in the quarterfinals of yet another tournament by Brazil
- In a dream matchup for any Barcelona fan, Spain beats Messi
- Sorry England, but we’ve all seen this movie before and it never ends well for you guys
- France finally face a team that can match their talent and struggle to handle it
- Spain vs Germany would be an incredible matchup, but I’m giving the nod to the Germans
- To say Brazil want revenge for the 7-1 drubbing they were handed by Germany four years ago would be putting it lightly. I think they look like the real deal this time around and are an improvement over 2014. Assuming Neymar stays healthy I think they’ll win their 6th World Cup.
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)
Golden Boot: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Glove: Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Best Young Player: Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Feel free to comment with your own predictions, I’m always happy to talk soccer.
I will be doing updates throughout the tournament so keep an eye out for those and as always thanks for reading!