Predicted order of finish: Uruguay, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia
Russia is not the favorite in this foursome, but as the home team, all eyes will turn its way. The host country, after all, carries the weight of a riveted populace and, except for South Africa’s predictable frailties in 2010, 19 welcoming parties over 84 years dodged the perils of group play.
It’s the least they should accomplish. In many nations, though, expectations demand a ride to the semifinals and beyond.
So where do Russia’s hopes and dreams lie? Or, given its dearth of success in major competitions since the Soviet Union collapsed, where do they die?
Despite gaining a favorable draw, the Russians are not a sure bet of advancing to the next stage. They are No. 66 in the FIFA rankings, behind, among others, Albania, Bolivia and Cape Verde Islands. Only Saudi Arabia (tied for 67th) is worse – and the Saudis just so happened to land in Russia’s group. (Go figure.)
Several Russian regulars are sidelined with injuries and only one is a full-time starter in a major league outside Russia. Victory over the Saudis in the opener would boost morale, but the team would still need between one and three points against Uruguay and Egypt.
Which brings us to the favorite, Uruguay, which finished second to Brazil in South America’s rugged qualifying competition. There aren’t many scoring tandems in the world with the ruthlessness of Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain) and Luis Suarez (Barcelona). They arrived at training camp after posting a combined 71 goals in 99 matches across all competitions for their trophy-winning clubs this past season. Their joint international portfolio is approaching 100 career goals.
Egypt’s hopes rest with Mohamed Salah, the inspirational and clinical attacker for Liverpool (44 goals in all competitions). If Salah regains full strength after suffering a shoulder injury in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid, the Pharaohs could very much revel in their first appearance since 1990.Mohamed Salah is facing a race against time to be fit for the opening game. Photo / AP
Saudi Arabia’s high point came in the 1994 World Cup with a stunner against Belgium and a place in the round of 16. Since then, the Saudis have either failed to qualify or been among the tournament’s worst teams. Most of the squad arrives from two top clubs in the domestic league, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli, plus three players from the Spanish circuit.
Predicted order of finish: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
There is no greater divide between the perceived top two and bottom two teams than right here. Spain, Portugal . . . and who else? With all due respect to Morocco and Iran, the Iberian titans will enter the competition as heavy favorites to secure passage to the next round. The only lingering question, it seems, is the order in which they’ll traverse.
Both sides have the opportunity to set the terms by winning the showdown in Sochi on the second day of the tournament. Just as likely, though, they’ll end up splitting points and, by the end of group play, deciding first place through the goal differential tiebreaker.
Spain roared through a soft qualifying group with nine victories, a draw and a plus-33 scoring differential in 10 matches, the only blemish coming at Italy. Four players scored five goals apiece. In March, the world took notice of Spain’s growing capacity this summer by blasting Argentina, 6-1.
After clashing in La Liga, a dozen players from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will make up more than half the squad. Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba will attempt to raise one more major trophy before time catches up to them. David de Gea (Manchester United) is among the sport’s best goalkeepers.Spanish players celebrate a goal during a friendly match between against Tunisia. Photo / AP
The Spaniards are familiar with Portugal’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has powered Real Madrid to four of the past five Champions League titles. In the middle of club supremacy, Ronaldo two summers ago also helped Portugal win its first European championship – an international breakthrough that could carry over to the World Cup. For that to occur, Ronaldo will need help from Euro heroes like Pepe, Rui Patricio and Raphael Guerreiro.
Morocco qualified for the first time in 20 years, beating out group favorite Ivory Coast. With players spread throughout European leagues, including Juventus defender Medhi Benatia, the Atlas Lions are primed to steal points.
The defense, however, is suspect, and Didier Deschamps, a member of the 1998 championship team who has coached the squad for six years, must keep this group on the same page.
Although they are clear group favorites, Les Bleus will not have an easy time. Denmark showed its fortitude in the qualifying playoffs by rolling to a 5-1 victory at Ireland after a disappointing 0-0 home draw.
Danish plans flow through Christen Eriksen, a world-class midfielder from Tottenham Hotspur who can alter a match as a facilitator or finisher. Nikolai Jorgesen will provide front-line firepower, but a groin injury kept Nikolas Bendtner off the roster.
Peru is making its first appearance since 1982, an astounding drought considering its prosperity at the continental championship, Copa America (semifinals in 1997, 2011 and ’15). Credit goes to its Argentine coach, Ricardo Gareca, who, after a rocky start to qualifying, oversaw eight matches without a defeat, including a playoff triumph against New Zealand.
Peruvian hopes are rising with the reinstatement of captain Paolo Guerrero, the program’s career scoring leader, who had been suspended for failing a drug test.
Australia, making its fourth consecutive appearance, will have a hard time earning any points after laboring in Asian qualifying and needing a playoff against Honduras to earn a place. Dutchman Bert van Marwijk is in charge after guiding Saudi Arabia to a World Cup berth.
Predicted order of finish: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
How fun is this going to be? Lionel Messi and Argentina? Yes, please. Iceland (pop. 337,000) and the spine-tingling Viking Clap making World Cup debuts? Oh yeah. Croatia’s array of high-end attackers? Definitely. Nigeria’s highflying Super Eagles? But of course.
Four years after finishing second, the Argentines are the favorites in the foursome but not definitively after a rickety qualifying campaign came down to the final day. A 6-1 fiasco against Spain in a March friendly did not inspire confidence, and questions have lingered about what Jorge Sampaoli’s lineup will look like.
The thing is, Messi could shroud Argentina’s problems by himself. He is extraordinary. Still, he will need a stable supporting cast to draw attention from him. Capable contributors are abundant: Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, 24, who has scored 52 goals in three seasons with Juventus.
Messi’s strength and endurance will be tested by what is sure to be tight marking and physical (likely excessive) challenges. Knock Messi off his game (if that is such a thing), and knock down Argentina. That’s the theory, anyway. He might have other ideas.Argentina’s Lionel Messi stands on the pitch during an international friendly. Photo / AP
In four prior appearances, the Iranians never got past the first round and earned only one victory (against the United States in 1998). Top scorer Sardar Azmoun plays in the Russian league for Kazan, whose stadium will stage Iran’s second match, against Spain.
Predicted order of finish: France, Peru, Denmark, Australia
If France follows the pattern of its recent World Cup appearances, Les Bleus will leave Russia gravely disappointed amid soaring expectations. Consider: They were champions in 1998, flopped in the group stage four years later, reached the final in 2006, bombed the next time around and reached the quarterfinals in 2014.
It’s hard to see the French going home early this summer, given the wealth of vibrant attackers and pillars of European club soccer in the lineup. Many observers see them as genuine title contenders – but only if they perform in harmony and avoid the selfish trappings that sunk past World Cup squads.
Three of the five most expensive club transfers in history involved current French players: Kylian Mbappe (Monaco to Paris Saint-German for $168 million), Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona, $122 million) and Paul Pogba (Juventus to Manchester United, $122 million). The squad also features hardened goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur) and veteran scorers Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) and Olivier Giroud (Chelsea).France’s Olivier Giroud. Photo / AP
Iceland is the feel-good story of the tournament, but don’t let the thermal baths and quaint fishing villages fool you. This team barely missed out on the 2014 World Cup, then made the most of its first European Championship visit by going unbeaten in group play and upsetting England in the round of 16.
In qualifying for this World Cup, Iceland finished ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Size and strength are top qualities, making it particularly dangerous on set pieces. Possession will come in short supply against technically superior foes.
Twenty years ago, in their first World Cup as an independent nation, the Croatians finished third. Since then, they’ve been a bust, winning two matches in nine attempts during three group-stage exits. The midfield and front-line personnel is individually stellar: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus).
In its sixth attempt, Nigeria is looking to finally fulfill the enormous promise that took root in the 1990s. It has never ventured beyond the round of 16. Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses leads the way.
Predicted order of finish: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica
Brazil did not just fall short of winning the World Cup on home ground four years ago, a grand disappointment in itself. Selecao was humiliated in the semifinals by eventual champion Germany, 7-1, rivaling the despair caused by the home defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 final.
Four years have concealed, if not fully healed, old wounds, and on the heels of a stellar qualifying campaign, Brazil is back in the championship conversation.
“We have a chance to play another World Cup,” captain Thiago Silva said, “and rewrite our story.”
No one has a better story than Brazil, which has raised the most World Cup trophies (five) and takes immense pride in the manner in which it plays. The aim is to both win and entertain, a duality that for decades made it the envy of the soccer world. The program has also had to adapt to evolving global tactics, often at the cost of style points.
Few on the world’s stage play the game with the artistry of Neymar, the superstar in a race against time to regain full fitness and form after recovering from a foot injury.
Brazil is about more than Neymar. The midfield features Willian (Chelsea) and two Barcelona players, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho. The front-line riches include Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, 21.Brazil’s Neymar. Photo / AP
Switzerland and Serbia will vie for second place, though Costa Rica shocked a more difficult group four years ago. The Swiss have risen to No. 6 in the FIFA rankings and have designs on their first quarterfinal appearance since 1954.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia has remained an incubator for high-end players. Oddly, that just hasn’t translated into success for the national team, which has faltered twice at the World Cup and failed to qualify for the European Championship.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, 23, helped Fulham gain promotion by scoring 12 goals. He also had six goals in nine World Cup qualifiers.
Costa Rica was a delight in 2014, topping England, Italy and Uruguay in group play and reaching the quarterfinals before falling to the Netherlands on penalty kicks. The task remains tall, however, and Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas will have to be at his world-class best.
Predicted order of finish: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
We all know how this works: Germany cruises through group play with a slight wobble along the way, then passes each knockout test until landing in the semifinals.
In the 13 tournaments since 1966, Die Mannschaft (The Team) has raised the trophy three times, collected four runner-up medals and finished third in three other attempts. The 2014 title ended a 24-year championship drought, and four summers later, back-to-back crowns are within grasp.
After losing in the semifinals of the 2016 European Championship, Germany went 22 matches without a defeat, a streak interrupted when a lighter squad lost to Brazil in March. An undermanned unit won the FIFA Confederations Cup last summer. World Cup qualifying featured 10 victories in 10 outings and a 43-4 scoring margin.
Joachim Loew, who has spent 14 years as an assistant and head coach implementing a velvety and merciless system, assembled a deep and experienced squad for the next adventure. There wasn’t even room for Mario Goetze, who scored the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 final, or Leroy Sane (Manchester City), the Premier League’s young player of the year this past season.Die Mannschaft. Photo / AP
The foundation features Bayern Munich’s Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Mueller; Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos; Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil; Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus; and Paris Saint-Germain’s Julian Draxler.
With about a dozen players competing in European leagues, Mexico is more sophisticated these days. Had the draw worked in its favor, El Tri might have ended its string of six consecutive defeats in the round of 16. Alas, a second-place finish would almost certainly lead to Brazil. Top talent includes Hirving Lozano, a 22-year-old forward with PSV Eindhoven; West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez; and Porto’s Hector Herrera.
Sweden’s return from a 12-year absence, made possible by upsetting Italy in a qualifying playoff, raised the tantalizing possibility of superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic rejoining the squad. But the Swedes have functioned better without him, though they could use his scoring punch this summer.
South Korea has been a model of consistency, qualifying for nine consecutive tournaments. Only Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain have longer streaks. Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min is the key man.
Predicted order of finish: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama
Ah, Belgium’s golden generation. Last chance at glory? Probably. Hopes died in the quarterfinals of the past two major tournaments.
If everything is working properly, the third-ranked Red Devils could win the whole darn thing. The roster rocks: Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany (should he recover in time from a groin injury) and Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku and Napoli’s Dries Mertens.
The ratio of world-class talent to population (just 11.4 million) is mind-blowing.
They’ll begin the foursome as favorites, but in a top-heavy group, the England clash on the final day of the first round is likely to decide first place and a more favorable pairing in the round of 16.
Belgium’s coach might look familiar to the U.S. audience: Spain’s Roberto Martinez is a former ESPN studio analyst for multiple World Cups and European Championships. He guided Everton for three years before accepting his first national team gig in August 2016.
After losing to Spain in his debut, Martinez oversaw a 9-0-1 record and 43-6 scoring margin in World Cup qualifying.
England has always carried an oversize mystique, like UCLA or Notre Dame on the NCAA scene. Substance often falls short of perception. Aside from runs to the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and ’96 European Championship, England has failed to reach the quarterfinals in eight of the past 12 major competitions.Harry Kane celebrates scoring a goal for England. Photo / AP
Is something special brewing this summer? Eh. Harry Kane posted 30 goals for Tottenham Hotspur this season – second in the Premier League to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah – and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling is a menacing forward.
Inexperience in goal is an issue for Gareth Southgate, a former England international who previously guided the U-21 squad. The cast does not include anyone with 10 international appearances. A new three-man formation on the back line began training camp having not conceded more than one goal in a match since last summer.
Tunisia returns to the World Cup after missing two tournaments, but with top scorer Youssef Msakni sidelined with a knee injury, the outlook is grim. Midfielder Wahbi Khazri is the ringleader.
By beating out the United States, Panama joined Iceland as the tournament’s only first-time participants. The roster features six MLS players, including Seattle defender Roman Torres, and seven who previously played in the U.S.-Canadian league.
Predicted order of finish: Colombia, Poland, Japan, Senegal
Six months ago, FIFA conducted the draw using the most recent rankings to determine the top eight seeds.
The exception to the rule was Russia, an automatic seed. Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal and France didn’t surprise anyone. And then there was Poland.
Poland, which failed to qualify for five of the previous seven World Cups and didn’t get out of the group stage in the other two? Poland, which needed 48 years to qualify for its first European Championship?
There are explanations.
The rising Poles enjoyed a fruitful Euro ’16 by equaling Germany’s point total in group play and defeating Croatia in the round of 16 before losing to Portugal on penalty kicks. They steamed through qualifying with an 8-1-1 record. And by playing only one friendly between the end of the Euros and the draw, they didn’t expose themselves to a potential plunge in the rankings.
Although they avoided the titans in the group stage, they still have their work cut out for them. The marquee figure is Robert Lewandowski, who scored 89 league goals the past three Bayern Munich campaigns and 10 in World Cup qualifying.
Poland will need his scoring to finish ahead of Colombia, which is more talented and tested to go deep in the tournament. Top billing goes to James Rodriguez, the 2014 Golden Boot winner with six goals during a quarterfinal run.
The strength of Los Cafeteros (Coffee Makers) goes beyond Rodriguez. Radamel Falcao, who has enjoyed a prosperous European career, is a proven forward; Juan Cuadrado serves with Juventus; and Yerry Mina (Barcelona) and Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) form a young, athletic central defense.
Senegal is making its first appearance since reaching the 2002 quarterfinals and, with almost the entire squad plying its trade in top European countries, the Lions of Teranga could very well claim a round-of-16 berth.
Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leads a high-powered attack and Kalidou Koulibaly brings four years of starting experience on Napoli’s back line.
Japan has appeared at the World Cup each time since its 1998 debut, having alternated group failures with round-of-16 slots the previous five tournaments. There isn’t much optimism this time after a series of disappointing results and the March firing of coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe will need to apply their vast European club experience.
By Steven Goff, Washington Post