From Russia With Love: A 2018 FIFA World Cup Preview

Calum walks us through the initial 2018 World Cup groupings.

After 1433 days, the FIFA World Cup will begin its 21st edition in Moscow after a long and bumpy road to get to the ultimate soccer festival. Russia was awarded the honour of hosting the World Cup back on December 2nd, 2010, and thus began the most turbulent time in the history for FIFA, and soccer as a whole.

Since the controversial vote, a number of highly influential members of the FIFA Executive Committee and their associates have gone by the wayside, many of them arrested and found guilty of corruption. Sepp Blatter was ousted from his ivory tower in Zurich, and whilst he still pleads his innocence, he is serving a six-year ban from any football activity (including attending matches as a fan) and as such, this will be the first Blatter-free World Cup since Spain 1982.

And if the final tournament can match the drama of the run up to it, we are in for a treat. Qualification for the tournament began a scant nine months after the 2014 final in Rio de Janeiro, and this was not the formality it was assumed it would be, with the usual suspects qualifying with little difficulty – there were some major shocks before we even got to Russia!

Teams that we won’t see compete in the World Cup could make up a world class tournament of their own and almost did  — the US Soccer Federation had begun the early stages of planning their own tournament of teams not playing this summer. These nations are a who’s who of world soccer with the likes of three-time runners up Holland, four-time winners Italy, and the United States all missing out. And yes, after 20 long years, my beloved Scotland are still to compete at the top table after the latest in a long run of glorious failures.

Amongst others to miss out include recent European Championship semi-finalists Wales, Chile, and Cameroo — who are the current South American and African champions — and recent tournament regulars Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ukraine, and Czech Republic. However, possibly the biggest story of a team not qualifying, and one which would’ve been the biggest underdog story in World Cup history, where war-torn Syria were within 10 minutes of taking Australia to a penalty shoot-out to take the 32nd and final place at the World Cup. Ultimately, a Tim Cahill strike with nine minutes of extra time to play was enough to send the Socceroos to Russia and break Syrian hearts.

The focus of the world will not be on those nations who did not make the cut however. Instead they will be watching the 32 teams that qualified to spend their summer vacationing in Russia, hopefully for the full four weeks.

The format of the tournament has remained unchanged since 1998, when it was first expanded to 32 teams. The qualifying nations have been drawn into eight groups of four nations, where each team will play each other once for a total of three group matches. From there the top two teams in each group will progress to the Round of 16, where the route to the final will be set. This is set up with the Group A winner playing the Group B runner up, the Group B winner playing the Group A runner up, the Group C winner playing the Group D runner up and so on.

From the Last 16 to the final, one team will be only four wins away from immortality, and unique to the World Cup, there will be a third-/fourth- place playoff match for the losing semi-finalists.

The hosts are always given the distinction of being drawn out first in Group A to allow them to play in the first game of the tournament directly after the opening ceremony. Russia will have the pleasure of walking out in front of 80,000 passionate countrymen to face Saudi Arabia, before Egypt and Uruguay join them on Day Two. Group A is a wide-open group, which any team can progress from. Uruguay are undoubtedly the strongest on paper, with the front two of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez one of the best pairings in the world. Uruguay’s golden generation are in the twilight of their careers with Cavani and Suarez, along with stalwarts Maxi Pereira and Diego Godin, unlikely to make it to the 2022 tournament.

Elsewhere in the group, Russia and Saudi Arabia will be buoyed by the uncertainty around Mohammed Salah’s fitness after dislocating his shoulder in the Champions League final. With Salah in top form, Egypt were my pick to finish second, given the outstanding performances he has put in this year, but a half-fit Salah will not have the same impact, and unfortunately Egypt’s progression chances have been dashed. Saudi Arabia are one of the only teams to name a fully domestic-based squad, so the players may have greater familiarity with each other, but I now feel that the hosts will be too much for Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Group A Prediction: 1) Uruguay 2) Russia 3) Egypt 4) Saudi Arabia

Group B will open with a matchup between two genuine contenders to win the whole tournament with Iberian rivals Spain and Portugal facing off in Sochi. The current European champions could come into that match as the underdog, purely because of the rich vein of form that Spain are in. Having recently demolished a full-strength Argentina, 6-1, in March in a match that made King Kong Bundy-SD Jones at WrestleMania 1 look competitive, Spain will be going into the tournament with an extremely talented squad with full confidence. This is the recipe for success, but Portugal will be out to rain on their parade.

Much like Uruguay, this is likely to be the last time many of the Portuguese players play in a World Cup, with the likes of Bruno Alves, Pepe, and Ricardo Quaresma probably playing in their last major tournament. Portugal will obviously be heavily reliant on five-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean anyone should take the rest of the squad lightly, young talents like Joao Mario and Bernardo Silva can certainly play with the big boys.

With no disrespect to the other teams in the group, Iran and Morocco, who themselves have some extremely talented players, will be cursing that they were drawn in this group. It will take a minor miracle for either of these teams to progress, however soccer is known for its fairy tale stories (just ask Leicester City fans) so anything is possible.

Group B Prediction: 1) Spain 2) Portugal 3) Iran 4) Morocco

Group C is another wide-open group, with a clear favourite, but with four teams that, on their day, could very well progress. France are the favourites to progress, but they have a tendency to struggle to break teams down and therefore, it’s not inconceivable that they could be on the first plane back to Paris after the group stage. Nothing typifies this notion more than when they pummeled the Netherlands 4-0, only to draw 0-0 with tiny Luxembourg four days later earlier this year. To put this in perspective, Holland have been in three World Cup finals, and Luxembourg’s squad is made up entirely of amateur players. To make matters worse, Luxembourg hit the post late on and could have stolen the win.

Australia, Peru, and Denmark have each qualified for their fifth World Cup and will all be hoping to progress from the Group Stage. Peru will be buoyed that their captain Paolo Guerrero has had his drugs ban temporarily lifted, allowing him to play in the World Cup. Having not featured on the big stage since 1982, the Peruvians have come from nowhere to qualify for this tournament and currently sit 11th in the world and will be full of confidence. Australia and Denmark are very similar in that they will take a 23-man squad filled with good solid players and a couple of stand-out talents, but don’t let that fool you, these teams will definitely be in with a very good chance of qualifying for the round of 16. In my eyes, however, I cannot see past France and Peru based on what I’ve personally seen, but this is certainly not a given.

Group C Prediction: 1) France 2) Peru 3) Denmark 4) Australia

Group D provides another potential banana skin for one of the favourites with Argentina, who have been extremely hit-and-miss recently, far from guaranteed to progress. Beaten finalists four years ago, the Argentines will be looking to go one better and have possibly the best attacking options in the tournament with Lionel Messi being joined by veteran Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Aguero. This is where the party ends however, because despite being very good players in their own right, there is quite a disparity between the other 19 players in the squad and the aforementioned attacking quartet.

Up against Argentina are former African champions Nigeria; the heroes of the 2016 European Championships, Iceland; and an extremely talented Croatian side. Both Nigeria and Iceland have a good level of talent in their squads, it is Croatia that I’m most excited about in this group as they have a number of quality players in every area of the pitch. With the likes of Luka Modric (who will have a perjury charge hanging over him but that’s a whole other story) and Ivan Rakitic supplying forwards Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric, there is likely to be goals aplenty. If they can remain solid in the defensive side of things, Croatia could ruffle some feathers and go very far in the tournament.

Group D Prediction: 1) Argentina 2) Croatia 3) Nigeria 4) Iceland

Group E favourites Brazil will be hell-bent on exorcising the demons of the 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany four years ago and they could even play the Germans in the last 16 should either team fail to win their group. Standing in the Selecao’s way are perennial tournament qualifiers Switzerland, Serbia, and 2014 surprise package Costa Rica, all of which can cause any side a problem.

Brazil have talent all over the pitch with the likes of David Luiz in defence, Philippe Coutinho in the midfield, and an insatiable front four spearheaded by their poster boy Neymar. But please don’t be fooled by the relative lack of superstar players in the other three sides, as I’ve said they have the ability beat the Brazilians. Players such as Switzerland’s Xherdan Shakiri, Serbian Dusan Tadic, and Bryan Ruiz of Costa Rica can turn any match around instantly their teams’ favour, making this group one of the most interesting in the tournament.

Group E Prediction: 1) Brazil 2) Switzerland 3) Serbia 4) Costa Rica

Current world champions and Group F favourites Germany caused the biggest shock of the squad announcements with coach Joachim Löw leaving Manchester City’s Leroy Sane out of his squad in favour of teammate Ilkay Gündogan, who has spent much of last season on the sidelines with a knee injury. Despite this, the Germans are head-and-shoulders above the rest of this group and should have no trouble whatsoever in coming through. With players in the calibre of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller in attack, along with a myriad of excellent defenders, Die Mannschaft, are definitely one of the favourites for the tournament.

The battle for second place, however, is not so cut and dry. Sweden, despite not having as many standout superstars in their ranks, are one of best teams in the tournament, and teams always have the ability to overcome individuals. Sweden’s victory over Italy in the European qualifying playoffs typifies this. Mexico and South Korea are both giants in their continents and do have pedigrees on the international stage, however, their best performances have only ever come in World Cups in which they have hosted, much like Sweden, which makes this a very intriguing race for second place.

Group F Predictions: 1) Germany 2) Sweden 3) Mexico 4) South Korea

If World Cups were decided on the strength of their World Cup songs, then Group G’s England would have won in 1990 and again with 1998 with “World In Motion” and “Three Lions”, songs so fantastic that they are on this Scotsman’s iPod. Unfortunately for them, tournaments are decided in seven matches every four years, and it is here where England have a tendency to underachieve. Head coach Gareth Southgate has gone for a youthful and fairly unexperienced side, which means they travel to Russia with less expectation, but are unlikely to trouble the other big nations come the later stages of the competition.

One team that will be expecting to challenge come the business-end of the tournament is Belgium, who are in the midst of their own golden generation and have gotten to the quarterfinals of the last World Cup and European championships. With Eden Hazard playing the best football of his career right now, and he is as good as anyone in the world just now, he will be the main focus point of the Belgians’ success. If he can continue his form into the next few weeks, then Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku will have plenty of opportunities to bag goals. Group G is a two-horse race, with Tunisia and debutants Panama unlikely to trouble either of the big guns.

Group G Prediction: 1) Belgium 2) England 3) Tunisia 4) Panama

The final group, Group H, is a group of mid-carders, to use wrestling parlance. Poland qualified as top seeds only by playing the world-ranking system. Whist Japan and Senegal are solid teams, they will require some luck to go far in the tournament. The two teams who should progress from the group are Colombia and Poland, who have Bayern Munich standouts James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski amongst their ranks.

With no disrespect intended to either team, they probably will not get past the quarterfinals, however, anything can happen once the tournament gets up and running.

Group H Predictions: 1) Colombia 2) Poland 3) Japan 4) Senegal

As you would expect when you hold a world championship, there is a a wealth of talent on display and a number of different sides who could win the tournament. The only guarantee is that this will be four weeks of the best soccer stars doing what they do best, and whilst it may be a cliché to say, it is very true in this instance — we the fans will be the real winners of Russia 2018.