And so, it begins… well almost. Before a ball has been kicked, this is how we rank the 32 teams. You may consider this is pure nonsense (we specialise in it). Feel free to disagree, in fact we insist.
A nation desperate to right the wrongs from four years ago, when the Seleção were humiliated 7-1 by Germany on home soil. On the road to retribution, Brazil claimed the Olympic title in Rio 2016, breezed their way to World Cup qualification and secured a 1-0 ‘friendly’ victory over the Germans in Berlin, back in March of this year.
Fears that their talismanic poster boy, Neymar, would miss the tournament through injury were alleviated when the PSG forward made a goal-scoring return off the subs bench in a routine win against Croatia. Neymar joins the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Coutinho, Willian and Roberto Firmino in a forward line that is frankly terrifying and brings FIFA’s fair play rules into question.
But crucially, head coach Tite has brought genuine balance to a side which has rediscovered its mojo since he took over from Dunga. Brazil enter the tournament as the bookies’ favourites and with good reason. SC
With a perfect P10, W10 record in qualification, four-time winners and reigning champions Germany head into the tournament at #1 in the FIFA rankings and are looking to become the first team to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962.
Throughout qualification, Joachim Löw struck an almost perfect balance of defensive resolve and attacking potency (other German coaches take note). However, since then, things haven’t exactly been plain sailing. An embarrassment of midfield riches led to the somewhat surprising omission of Man City’s Leroy Sane from the 23-man squad, alongside unwanted controversy surrounding Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil.
Scraping a solitary win from their last six friendlies would be cause for concern for many. But this is Germany and everyone knows about their uncanny knack of getting it together in major tournaments
“The World Cup is a football tournament competed by 32 teams in which Germany contest the final”. SC
1998 winners Les Bleus will be undoubtedly considered favourites for the tournament as they embark to Russia. The quality present in that squad is unquestionable, yet the French’s ability to self-implode and mutiny is another matter.
Dider Deschamps will be hoping for a cohesive team which utilises the strengths of his breadth of talent in a squad which is well bolstered. France is unpredictable, but with a favourable looking group, many French supporters will be praying for a reunion with a trophy they have kissed merely once.
The memories of 98’, the heartbreak of ‘06 including that Zidane headbutt and disappointment at the Euro’s they so desperately wanted on home soil. With Griezmann, Mbappe and Fekir amongst their midst, they will arrive with great expectation.
Will the weight of those expectations prove too heavy or can the French end 20 years of hurt? CS
It is now or never for Lionel Messi and co., with the five-time Ballon D’or winner stating in December: “If we don’t win, all of us must disappear from the national team.”
The ‘us’ Messi alludes to includes arguably the greatest abundance of attacking talent international football has ever seen. Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Messi (Mauro Icardi, who scored 29 goals this season, wasn’t even picked) will have won nothing together if the World Cup again eludes them in Russia.
As it is, Messi has already failed to triumph with supporting casts including Carlos Tevez, Juan Roman Riquelme and Hernan Crespo – as Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli put it: “The World Cup is like a gun pointing to Messi’s head.”
After seven consecutive international finals lost – including three in the last four years – la Albiceleste have proven they can go far, but not far enough. Messi can pose with as many goats as he likes, but without going one step further this summer, he’ll never be the GOAT in his homeland. JG
Spain could become worthy champions again after that horrific display in the World Cup in Brazil. After getting thumped by the Netherlands 5-1 and beaten by Chile 2-0, the reigning champions in 2010 were said to have taken defeat on the chin after they failed to make it out of the group stages in 2014.
Spain, under new Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui, now have a real swagger about them and could return to success with players such as Isco and Rodrigo having made a big impact with the national team of late.
One to look out for is Marco Asensio, a young player at Real Madrid who may not start every game for the national team but is already a first-team player at Real and scored in the Champions League Semi-Final.
Unbeaten in 18 matches, Spain have a tough opening game on June 15 against Portugal; this will be a great showcase for both teams. ABP
Roberto Martinez’ boys arrive in Russia in fine fettle and start the tournament as one of the fancied teams. In their favour, they have a group of quality players who have played together for several years – their nation’s ‘golden generation’ – and a form guide that shows them unbeaten in their last 19 games.
But, and it’s a big but, they have yet to deliver at the highest level and most recently crumbled under the pressure of Euro 2016 when they were beaten by Wales in the quarter-finals.
Under Martinez, they have found a way of playing that utilises the mesmeric skills of Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard – two of the best players in Europe – and with Man Utd’s Romelu Lukaku leading their line they have all the tools needed to go deep in this tournament. GG
Fernando Santos’s team surely could (and maybe should) be higher in the rankings after winning the Euros in 2016.
However, can Portugal afford to have the same slow start they experienced two years ago? In a traditional European Championships they would’ve gone home, but in the expanded format they were allowed to continue as one of the best-placed third teams. Then again, with Cristiano Ronaldo in your team and 10 other competent players, you always stand a chance.
On just day two of the World Cup, we have the Iberian Derby. Who is your favourite here? ABP
In their first World Cup since 2006, the Poles will be backed by huge numbers of supporters. This in itself could have an impact but so too the fact that it is an experienced, ageing squad, laced with talent, that may see Russia 2018 as its final hurrah.
In the striking department, Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who will be 29 and 32 respectively, offer experience and goals and both may well see this as their best, possibly last, chance to make an impact on the game’s biggest stage.
Their team will be largely unchanged from the one that reached the quarter-finals in Euro 2016 –where they lost on penalties to eventual champions Portugal – and they do have a defence that is known to wilt under pressure; a 4-0 hammering by Denmark in September 2017 being a classic example. GG
The second-best team in South America during qualifiers, due in part to the penetrating attack of Luis Suarez (not with his teeth let’s hope) and Edinson Cavani and the world-class defender Diego Godin at the back, giving Uruguay as good a chance as any to contend.
However, with a lot of talented youth in midfield will the next generation of stars mix with the experienced veterans? Manager Oscar Tabarez is attempting just that, and if his squad transition well there is no reason why Uruguay can’t have a good run. ABP
The Swiss are to be ignored at everyone else’s peril. In fact, considering they are ranked at #6 in FIFA’s world rankings, you could argue they are being underestimated here.
Vladimir Petkovic’s side are of course relentlessly well-organised, but were also the sixth highest qualifiers from Europe too – no mean feat for a side renowned for being dull, and whose main striker, Haris Seferovic, has scored just 11 goals in 49 games.
With Xherdan Shaqiri, who provided seven goals and six assists for Stoke last season, also back in form, Switzerland can be almost assured of a Round of 16 berth. JG
It’s been 35 years since Peru last performed on a global stage, and similarly to Australia, an ageing squad may mean the tournament is about damaging limitation for the Peruvian’s.
That said, however, Peru could provide a surprise, of sorts, and make it to the round of 16 at their first World Cup since 1982. They’ve been buoyed by captain Paolo Guerrero having his doping ban put off until after the tournament finishes and have a close-knit, robust team capable of squeezing out results.
Supporters back home will undoubtedly be drunk on World Cup fever, and this failure to qualify since 1982 will result in an emotional and hefty chunk of support from back home. CS
Blimey, where to start! What this lot won’t be is weighed down with the weight of expectations of a nation, as has been the case for so many England’s squads of the past. In fact, in an odd case of role reversal, I suspect Gareth Southgate’s lads expect more from themselves than the rest of us do.
Where Southgate’s squad differs from those who have gone before is that there is a hint of likeability about them; the complete antithesis of the swaggering, prancing ‘Golden Generation’. And with that vague likeability and lack of expectation comes the space for the Class of 2018 to play with freedom and expression, the very thing that Southgate is trying to nurture.
Where they fall short is in the ‘world class player’ department – arguably only Harry Kane ticking that box – but maybe, just maybe they could qualify for the knockout stages and win a game! GG
A word of warning – I have a friend who, after Portugal came third in their Euro 2016 group two years ago, decided to put £20 on them to win (I told him Westeros had a better chance of winning, which goes to show that I know nothing, Jon Snow…) Mark’s dark horses for Russia? Well, Croatia of course.
It would be absurd to write off any team with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings. But, with their own fans seeing many of the players as villains for co-operating with an allegedly corrupt FA, and Modric facing a perjury charge at home, 13th will do for now. JG
For the Danes it feels a bit strange going into a major tournament without Morten Olsen. The former player and national coach has had, by some distance, the greatest influence on Danish football over the past five decades. During the 1970s and 1980s he was a great leader and captain of the national team that enchanted the world with attack-minded football, especially at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. And then, from 2000 to 2015, he was the national coach.
Following Olson resignation, the Danish football federation turned to Norwegian Åge Hareide (a former City centre-back – Ed), who was tasked with maximising the performances of Christian Erikson. The style is direct, aggressive and fast. This has created space for Eriksen and the Tottenham midfielder was extremely important for Denmark during the qualifiers.
With an exciting 4-3-3 formation, expect goals and plenty of entertainment from the Danes who will be hoping to break through the group and The general feeling in Denmark seems to be that Peru have little World Cup experience and a team with players at smaller clubs, and that Australia have a new head coach after a weak qualification tournament.
Optimism and confidence coupled with an altogether avant-garde approach. CS
Having reached the quarter-finals four years ago, the Colombians will be confident of repeating the feat again this time around. And a quick perusal of their squad suggests they do indeed have what it takes.
At the back, Tottenham’s emerging centre-back, Davinson Sanchez will be key to offering their flair players a solid base to perform from, among them Juventus’s Cuadrado, Radamel Falcao and the reigning golden boot winner (from 2014) James Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, in particular, has a point to prove after struggling to build on his burgeoning reputation at club level – a big money move to Real Madrid didn’t work out and he is currently on loan at Bayern Munich. Argentinian coach, Jose Pekerman has World Cup previous too, having led his native Argentina to the quarter-finals in Germany 2006. GG
Russia have gone seven matches without a win and have had no victories in 2018 as yet but being the host nation can always make a team dangerous.
Unlike previous tournaments, this is a weak Russia squad on paper, and though they could have enough to get out of the group stages it’s difficult to see them progressing much further.
Despite this, manager Stanislav Cherchesov has made several high-profile changes, with the primary one the decision to switch to a three-man defence. If Russia are to escape the groups, they will also be reliant on CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev, who is their standout player.
The hosts will be in Group A and will face Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay, so it is possible they could manage a runner-up spot. ABP
Drawn in a group with the reigning champions, it looks likely that Mexico are looking to progress as runners-up, which would likely mean a knock-out tie against Brazil. [Insert Mexican phrase for ‘gulp’ here.]
Mexico qualified comfortably enough based on a solid defence and being hard to beat, but head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has struggled to settle on a preferred formation or style of attacking play and has been heavily criticised.
Osorio will be heavily reliant on the experience and attacking talents of Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, alongside the promising young winger/‘wonderkid’, Hirving Lozano, who plays for PSV. Like Hernandez (Chicharito), Lozano likes a nickname so keep an eye out for ‘Chucky’. SC
Iceland may be below Croatia in these rankings, but they actually finished above them in their qualifying group. Apologies for putting reputation before form but make no mistake – the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup could well survive their group.
Whether they can spring another surprise this summer will largely rely on the form of Gylfi Sigurddson, who had a very poor season with Everton this year. If the 28-year-old can leave club form behind, Iceland will qualify for the Round of 16. If he doesn’t, they could struggle. JG
Egypt have secured a place in the World Cup for the first time in 28 years and it comes with no surprise that a certain Liverpool forward scored the two goals that sealed the victory that took them there.
If Mo Salah is deemed fit enough to play, he’s going to have to put the ball in the back of the net a lot to give Egypt a chance of going through to the next stage.
Essam El-Hadary, their goalkeeper, is 45 years young and will be the oldest player to play at a World Cup, should he take the field (the current record is held by Colombia goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who was 43 years and three days old against Japan in 2014). ABP
Whilst the man himself would doubtless disagree, there is life after Zlatan. Written off by many following the iconic front-man’s international retirement, the Swedes qualified for the World Cup by finishing ahead of the Netherlands in their group and then dumping Italy out in the two-legged play-offs.
Sweden are a team without household names or superstars but they are a genuine team. Strong, united and well-organised, they enter the tournament without the burden of expectation but with self-confidence high.
Emil Forsberg, who plays for Leipzig in the Bundesliga, is perhaps the stand-out player but with a squad that features one-time City target Ola Toivonen and lacks genuine quality or strength in depth, the Swedes might find it difficult to progress to the knock-out stages on team spirit alone. SC
The Eagles of Carthage (some nickname eh?) were unbeaten in qualifying, edging out Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea along the way, and so will consider themselves in decent shape. But with England and Belgium firm favourites to take the top two qualifying spots, it’ll take something exceptional for them to progress to the knockout stages for the first time.
With this being their first tournament since Germany 2006, they have a squad that is sampling major tournament football for the first time and which includes a new exciting generation of players, including Wahbi Khazri and former Monaco defender Aymen Abdennour.
For goals they will be relying heavily on Youssef Msakni – a 27-year-old striker who played a key role in their qualifying, scoring a hat-trick in an away win to Guinea. GG
This Japan squad may not have the big names of previous World Cup squads but what it has is European experience by the bucket load, something that will stand them in good stead. In particular, they will lean on Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund (formerly of Man Utd) and Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki.
They have momentum and their comfortable Asian qualification campaign, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia, has set them up nicely for a crack at the knockout stages – even if it will probably need them to beat one of either Poland or Colombia.
Kagawa – with 89 caps to his name – will lead but Okazaki, defender Yuto Nagamoto and midfielder Keisuke Honda add quality to a squad that *could* cause a surprise. GG
23. Costa Rica
Costa Rica were the underdog story of 2014, winning the ‘Group of Death’ (although they somehow couldn’t beat England…) before eventually going out in the Quarter-Finals, to the Dutch on penalties.
This isn’t the team of four years ago, though. Well, actually it is – and that’s the problem. Almost all their players are 28 or older, but if Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges have good tournaments they might scrape through the groups – that will require absolute heroics from Real Madrid #1 Keylor Navas, though. JG
The Senegalese rocked the footballing world back in 2002 when they stunned the reigning champions, France, in the opening game of the tournament with a 1-0 win. They went on to make it to the quarter-finals.
In a controversial qualifying campaign, Senegal benefited from an unprecedented decision by FIFA when they had to replay their 2-1 loss in South Africa because of alleged match-fixing by the referee. They won the replay and in doing so took control of the group and ultimately earned their ticket to Russia.
They lack big names but do have one Sadio Mane in their ranks – the Liverpool man now producing his exceptional club form for his country – and so, if they keep him fit, will always carry a goal threat. GG
If this was a power-rankings purely for World Cup kits, Nigeria would be #1 hands down. As it is, despite having a side abundant with pace and power, the Super Eagles have a tough group that they are unlikely to get out of.
Not that this has stopped Brighton defender Leon Balogun speculating on what might be. Asked by World Soccer Magazine if his team can make the semi-finals, he said: “Yes, why not? We can be a big surprise. I’m not saying we are going to be one [of the semi-finalists] but the chances are there.”
Steady on, Leon. JG
Serbia are seriously hampered by a very tricky group – it will take a minor miracle for them to progress ahead of Brazil or Switzerland – but they aren’t short on talent.
Manchester United target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is coming off the back of a terrific season for Lazio, whereas Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored 12 goals in 17 games for Fulham last season, provide good attacking intent ahead of Nemanja Matic.
Despite this, their manager, Mladen Krstajic, has taken charge of just six games in his entire career, while murmurings of discontent grumble close to the surface within much of the squad. An early exit it is. JG
With an ageing squad and a manager who is set to be replaced upon the culmination of the tournament, this does seem like the end of an era for the Aussies.
The Socceroo’s will be hoping the new generation of Tom Rogic and Matthew Leckie can fill the shoes of the ageing Tim Cahill. After conquering Syria in the playoff to gain a spot in Russia, then manager Ange Postecoglou elected to resign, putting all World Cup plans into disarray.
In honesty, Australia might be one of the weaker teams in the tournament. A limited squad in regard to technical ability combined with a lack of athleticism beyond Leckie could prove damaging. The tourists may well have to settle for immersing themselves within the sights Russia has to offer.
They may find themselves ‘down under’ the rest of their group. CS
28. South Korea
An uninspiring qualification campaign saw South Korea secure their place in the tournament by basically being less rubbish than the others, which cost coach Uli Stielike his job.
Whilst results and performances have picked up following the appointment of Shin Tae-Yong, the squad lacks strength in depth and is over-reliant on Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min.
A willing and able support act to Harry Kane at Spurs, Son is Korea’s star man, with the team and tactics selected to get the best from the pacy attacker.
Drawn in arguably the strongest group, hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages are low but they are still more than capable of springing a surprise. Expect fast counter-attacks and the occasional defensive howler. SC
Iran qualified for their second successive World Cup since the competitions origin in 1930. Managed by ex-Manchester United assistant boss Carlos Queiroz, they have proven to be defensively astute and pragmatic, which could be somewhat of an unpleasant surprise for Spain and Portugal as they look to advance.
They have an ability to keep games close thanks to a stellar defence and organisation on the pitch. This, of course, rhymes well with Carlos Queiroz’s philosophy. Queiroz has only lost eight of his 69 games in charge of Iran but will be hoping to add to the nation’s one World Cup victory which came in 1998.
Advancement seems unlikely considering the calibre of opposition present within their group, but Iran are a side who will not be pushovers nor pleasant to operate against. CS
The Lions of the Atlas are ready to roar onto the world stage, for Morocco, this is their first World Cup since 1998. Arguably, they stand as one of the most underestimated sides travelling to Russia. With a competent tactician in Herve Renard, accompanied by a defensively astute outfit, they may be capable of upsetting the applecart in Russia.
After navigating a potentially difficult qualifying group which contained Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali without conceding a single goal, the nation holds high aspirations that this Moroccan side can steal points from all group opponents but they will need to be at their best. Defensively competent alongside offensively capable, a potentially difficult proposition for any nation they face.
Worth noting also that 17 of their 23 man squad was born outside of the nation, including five born of Netherlands descent. So, if you’re missing the Dutch, you may wish to follow Morocco. CS
For a country better known for its hats, panatella cigars and a whopping great canal, qualification came as something of a surprise.
The Panamanians will be playing in their first World Cup courtesy of a controversial ghost goal that saw them finish above both Honduras and the United States.
Whilst replays seem to show that the ball didn’t cross the line, the goal stood; presumably by virtue of the local commentator screaming ‘gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool’ until the referee had no other choice but to give it.
The squad contains three players aged 36 and over, including veteran keeper Jaime Penedo and five other players with over 100 international caps each. However, the complete lack of experience at the highest level means that Panama travel to the tournament with little or no expectations beyond enjoying the occasion and hopeful of causing an upset along the way. SC
32. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia made every World cup from 1994 to 2006 but in the last three of those the team never finished higher than 28th. They are joining the tournament as the lowest-ranked side, although they are ahead of Russia in the FIFA World Rankings.
Current manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi, took charge in November 2017 after three managers left in quick succession between September and November 2017.
To stand any chance of getting through to the next stage, Saudi Arabia probably need to beat Russia in the opener and get a draw against one of the other sides. ABP