A disclaimer up-front for those who don’t keep up much with soccer: don’t fall for the bar signs that tease, “Free drinks during all USA World Cup matches!”
In case you were unaware, the USA failed to qualify for this year’s tournament (first time since 1986). However, the long-term great news is that the 2026 World Cup will be played in the USA, Canada and Mexico, which was announced Wednesday.
As for this year’s tournament which kicks off Thursday, I’ll break down what to expect and which surprise teams may hang around in Russia for a while.
THE FAVORITES: (All of these teams are well-balanced, have depth, and are chock full of star players)
Brazil (4/1 odds):
Best player: Neymar (forward)
The “Little Canary” has a BIG chip on its shoulder after a humiliating 7-1 semifinal exit at the hands of Germany when they hosted the tournament in 2014. The Brazilians are the odds-on favorites to win their first title since 2002, when in the finals they took down….
Best player: Toni Kroos (midfielder)
The defending World Cup champions may have an even better team than they did four years ago. Perhaps the deepest squad in the tournament, though there are health concerns for goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Still, having another of the world’s best (Marc Andre Ter-Stegen) waiting in the wings, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the Germans.
Best player: Andres Iniesta (midfielder)
BREAKING NEWS: Spain dropped a bombshell Wednesday, firing its manager Julen Loptegui the day before the World Cup begins! (He agreed to coach club team Real Madrid just days ago, which rubbed some the wrong way).
Spain is loaded once again and tends to hold possession most of the time, but the key for them will be putting the ball in the net and not giving up counter-attacks. Their road starts out tough, however, with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the opening match. Oh…that and getting past the distraction of firing your coach the day before the tournament starts.
Best player: Antoine Griezmann (forward)
France seems poised for a deep world cup run, despite the squad suffering a few injuries leading into the tournament. Les Blues are a squad that has underachieved in terms of the wealth of talent on the roster the last few years, but could put it all together in 2018.
THE CONTENDERS: (these teams don’t have quite the depth as the favorites, but have enough talent to shake things up and make a run toward the finals)
Best player: Kevin De Bruyne (midfielder)
Speaking of underachieving…Belgium has written the book on this lately. However, their squad does have the talent of the four favorites….the problem is it lacks cohesiveness at times and just can’t seem to put a performance together on the big stage. It’s now or never for this generation of Belgian footballers, who shouldn’t squander this year’s opportunity in Russia.
Best player: Harry Kane (forward)
Another talented group of stars from the Premier League (the most competitive league in the world), England has gotten younger and faster this time around. These players aren’t held down by the futility of previous older squads, so perhaps the kids can shed their country’s label of being knockout stage losers.
Best player: Lionel Messi (forward)
Unlike England and Belgium, this squad isn’t as balanced or deep. It’s heavy on attackers, but there’s uncertainty in defense. Messi is “the straw that stirs the drink” and Argentina will go as far as he can take it, which was all the way to the final four years ago in Brazil.
Best player: Cristiano Ronaldo (forward)
Any team that has Cristiano Ronaldo can win any competition there is. Portugal proved that in the Euros two years ago, taking down much more talented squads than theirs. The Portuguese are getting older, though, and if injuries chip away at their aging veterans, it’s going to be tough to go far.
THE UNDERDOGS: (two teams I feel might overachieve and get further than expected)
Best player (tie): Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (forwards)
These two up front will be crucial to Uruguay’s chances. However, they’re in Group A (with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt), one of the weakest of the tournament. They’ve also got defenders who have played a lot of soccer together at the club level. If they win the group, they’ll likely get whoever finished second between Portugal and Spain, which would be a tremendous (but winnable) matchup in the opening knockout round.
Best player: Paolo Guerrero (forward)
Now that a Swiss court has cleared Guerrero to play despite testing positive for doping, Peru has a fighter’s chance in Group C (with France, Australia and Denmark). The Peruvians barely snuck into this competition, having to win a playoff against New Zealand to qualify. Their defense is stout and reliable, and I have a feeling Guerrero is going to score some goals. Peru should get past Australia, and if it can outplay the Danes over three matches, it’s likely they’ll face Argentina in the knockouts. Again, this is a longshot of longshots, but hey, let’s have some fun!