Looking ahead to the 2018 World Cup, the initial storylines focused on the countries who had failed to make the tournament. The United States? Out. Italy? Out.
But now that the 31 teams, plus the Cup’s host Russia, have all qualified, we turn our attention to the teams who will be playing next summer in Russia. The tournament has the usual familiar names in it such as Argentina, Brazil, Columbia and Germany, the defending champion. But there are also some surprises and newcomers. Morocco is playing in the World Cup for the first time since 1998, while this will be Egypt’s first appearance on soccer’s biggest stage since 1990. Panama will be playing in their first ever World Cup.
Not surprisingly, Europe is sending the most teams to Russia, with 14 going (Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.) South America (Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru and Uruguay,) Asia (Australia, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia) and Africa (Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia) are all sending five, while North, Central America and Caribbean are sending three teams (Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama.) No team from Oceania, which consists of Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa, among others, qualified.
Here is what you need to know about the 2018 World Cup.
1. As Host, Russia Received an Automatic Bid
Russia is currently ranked 65th in the most recent FIFA rankings, so it’s not a stretch to think that if not for being the host country, they would have most likely missed out on the 2018 Cup. Now they will look to be more like Brazil than South America in the June 2018 tournament.
Brazil, who hosted the 2014 World Cup, made it all the way to the third-place game, losing to the Netherlands 0-3. South America on the other hand, well, they didn’t make it out of the first round in 2010. They finished the group stage in third place, becoming the first host nation to fail to advance to the knockout stage.
Russia is led by 21 year old Alexander Golovin, as well as strikers Alan Dzagoev and Fyodor Smolov. Russia’s last success on the national stage was in 2008, when they made it to the semifinal of the 2008 Euro Cup. Their best ever finish in World Cup play came back in 1966 when they finished in fourth place.
2. Germany is a Favorite to Repeat as Champion
The 2014 champion Germany is coming in hot, having qualified for the 2018 World Cup on the back of a perfect 10-0 record and a Confederations Cup championship. Westgate Las Vegas Sports Book currently has Germany down as a 5-1 favorite, putting them side by side with France and a tick above Brazil, who is a 6-1 favorite. Argentina, who lost to Germany in 2014, is sitting at 8-1.
If Germany were to win, they would be the first team to ever repeat as World Cup champion. A victory would give Germany their fifth World Cup championship, tying them with Brazil for the most World Cup championships ever.
3. If Germany Doesn’t Win, Who Will?
Not many surprises here. If the Germans fail to repeat, it will most likely be Brazil, Spain, France or Argentina taking home the championship. You’d be wise not to sleep on Portugal, Belgium or Uruguay either. A case could be made for any of these squads and no one would be all that surprised if any of them left Russia as champion.
Brazil looked oddly vulnerable early on in qualifying, only winning twice. A change in management has helped though, and Neymar and Brazil won ten of their last twelve games, with the other two games resulting in draws. Their last World Cup championship was in 2002 and one would expect they’d be eager to avenge their 2014 loss.
Spain is on the comeback trail after disappointing finishes in the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. As with Brazil, a change in management has helped turn things around for the Spain, who last won the World Cup in 2010. Similarly, France is looking to get back on track and after just missing out on a Euro championship last summer, the team is riding a talented young team with the hopes of bringing home their first World Cup since 1998.
And then there’s Argentina, who will always be a threat as long as Lionel Messi is playing for them. The 2018 Cup is likely to be Messi’s last and Argentina would love to respond to 2014’s heartbreaking loss to Germany with a championship in 2018.
4. Who is a Sleeper Pick in the World Cup?
When it comes to the World Cup, you don’t really have to venture too far down the list when looking for a sleeper. It’s usually the teams in the top ten who make it to the final rounds and 2018 doesn’t appear to be any different.
With that being said, as far as sleepers go, Mexico could be an interesting team to keep an eye on. Mexico is currently ranked 16th in the world according to FIFA, one behind Italy, who is not in the tournament, making it the first time since 1958 that Italy has missed the Cup. Of course if we’re looking backwards, history isn’t all that kind to Mexico when it comes to World Cup play. Mexico’s two best finishes happened when they reached the quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986.
Mexico had two wins and one draw in group play in 2014 while failing to advance to the next stage. Yet since then Mexico had finished at the top of CONCACAF qualifying and were able to advance past their group stage in the Confederations Cup. It’s certainly not a lock that they’ll make any significant noise in 2018, but if you were to look at a squad that is outside the top ten, Mexico is worth a look.
5. What Happens Next?
All 32 teams that have qualified have been separated and placed in 4 pots. Teams are placed based on the October 2017 FIFA rankings.
Pot 1: Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France
Pot 2: Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Columbia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia
Pot 3: Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran
Pot 4: Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia
From there, teams will be drawn into groups on Friday December 1st. Eight groups will be constructed, with one team from each pot put into a group. No more than 2 European teams will be put into a group together.