After the success of my predictions for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, I have decided to not quit while I’m ahead, and put my neck and footballing knowledge on the line and hand everyone in the internet the chance to mock me relentlessly if I get things wrong. Please note I’ve been extremely busy with my book and have not had time to review this properly or edit it, so it might have mistakes, but you are not paying me for it so please don’t waste even more time complaining and arguing with me. We’re both better off spending that time watching the games!
Football is an industry built on delusion. I don’t mean to imply that is a bad thing. On the contrary, that is an essential part of the beauty of the game. Billions of boys all around the world, including your humble correspondent, grow up with the utterly delusional dream that one day they will lift the World Cup, leading a team of their countrymen against the best players of the world, fighting hard to get to the final, scoring the winning goal, and then lifting the trophy and spending the rest of their life basking in the glory and admiration of the entire planet. Almost every 8 year old in the world told their friends they will win the world cup one day, and they all got mocked relentlessly for it. For many, the delusion remains strong, for a smaller number, a lifetime of dedication, focus, training and hard work will result in becoming a professional footballer. A much smaller number will become international footballers, a smaller number still will get to play in the world cup, and astonishingly, once every four years, for a select group of 23 lucky bastard supermen, the 8 year old boy’s delusion does indeed come true by defeating the delusions of billions of other kids.
While your humble correspondent’s delusions of winning the world cup have never moved past the stage of the mockery of friends (and family, thanks dad!), I am nonetheless here to sell you another delusion. And that delusion is that Mohammad Salah, currently the world’s best player, will lead his country to win the world cup. Now I obviously don’t think Egypt will win the world cup, but why let thinking get in the way of a good delusion! Also, while Egypt might not win it, merely progressing past the group stage would be a thrilling achievement for that country, and who knows how far they can go.
Salah’s season for Liverpool was out of this world. His goalscoring record is something that has never been seen in English football, being restricted for the Messi and Ronaldo superhuman duopoly, and is all the more impressive given that it came in Salah’s first season at Liverpool. For all the importance of a team, Salah’s form is so much better than everyone else they’re likely to come up against in the first or second rounds that it is quite possible that he can single-handedly drag them to the quarter-finals. The problem is that the animal Sergio Ramos broke Salah’s shoulder in the Champions League and it’s not even clear when Salah will be back to the first team, and what kind of form he’ll be in. But if his mental strength is anything to go buy, he should have no problem bringing his top form to the world cup, broken shoulder or not.
Beyond Salah, the team has some solid players like Arsenal’s El –Neny, and is coached by the very experienced Argentine Hector Cuper, who is a strict defensively minded coach who can drill a team into shape. This would actually suit Salah who thrives on running into space cleared by the opposition trying to press against a disciplined Egyptian defense.
It’s an old joke in football that if there were a competition for finishing second, Hector Cuper wouldn’t win it, he’d finish second, such is his penchant for always securing silver. Should Egypt indeed finish second, it would possibly be the biggest surprise in World Cup history. Completely delusional, of course! But then again, no more delusional than any 8-year-old dreaming of winning the world cup, and yet 23 of these delusions come true every four years!
Russia and Saudi Arabia
Russia and Saudi Arabia are among several teams that really have no business being in the World Cup. Russia have spent enormous amounts of money on developing their game over the past couple of decades, and on having a team that would make them proud in this tournament, but they enter with a squad well below the tournament average and unlikely to do anything worthwhile. It is highly unlikely this Russia squad would have qualified from Europe to the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia are only in the World Cup because of FIFA’s perplexing continued to decision to give Asian teams four spots (plus a play-off against North American teams) in the World Cup. Although they did have some encouraging performances in narrow defeats against Germany and Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely they will qualify out of their group.
Uruguay on the other hand, are footballing royalty who have thoroughly deserved their spot in this World Cup after an impressive qualification campaign in the toughest, and most criminally underrepresented continent. This Uruguay squad is probably the most experienced in the tournament. The manager, goalkeeper, and most first-choice defenders and strikers are returning for their third World Cup together, after impressing and reaching the semi-final in 2010, losing to Colombia in the second round in 2014, and picking up a Copa America along the way. This remains one of the most successful Uruguay generations since the world champions of the 1950s. Their old coach Tabarez deserves enormous credit for what he’s done with this group of players, and for staying together for such a long-term team-building project, a team whose main players might just be playing their last World Cup together. They may be older, but they are also wiser.
The hopes of the team rest on their two strikers, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who have been two of the world’s top strikers for the past several years. These are classic no-nonsense center-forwards who know how to work a defense and get the ball into the back of the net. Their experience and trophy cabinet is testament to their pedigree, and their goalscoring record this season for Barcelona and PSG, yet there is an inescapable sense that these two have peaked and are verging on decline. Barcelona fans will tell you that while Suarez still scores goals, he’s not scoring or contributing as much as a team like Barcelona needs and requires. And while Cavani’s exploits with Paris Saint Germain are impressive, one must remember he plays for one of the richest and most expensive squads in the world in a league that is well below the standards of the top leagues of Europe. How Suarez and Cavani perform will be pivotal to Uruguay’s chances, and if they can get their act together for one last hurrah, Uruguay could go very far in the tournament.
In defense, Uruguay have the significant advantage of fielding a center-back pair who also play together at club level, Atletico Madrid’s reliable, and reliably sinister Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez.It is the midfield where Uruguay are most changed over the past. Whereas in the previous years they mostly relied on an industrial functional midfield who bullied the opposition and thumped the ball forward for the strikers, this year a new crop of excitingly talented young midfielders is emerging across some of Europe’s top clubs, and they have given this team a more tactically astute and creative core.
If there is one certainty in this World Cup, it is that Uruguay will make it out of this very week group. With an experienced and well-respected coach, solid defense, a promising midfield, and potentially the best forward pairing in the entire tournament, Uruguay have the chance to progress far in the tournament. They have a good chance of winning a likely second round meeting with Portugal but their chances of winning a quarter-final against France are less encouraging.
Until this morning, Spain were my second-favorites for the title, and seriously causing me to question my choice of favorites. Then their coach decided the day before the World Cup would be a good time to announce he will quit his job after the World Cup to join Real Madrid, fresh after he had extended his contract with the Spanish national team. The Spanish FA were understandably incensed, but to react by sacking their manager the day before the World Cup is an astonishing act of self-sabotage which leaves the team in the hands of a young coach with nowhere near the experience or pedigree to lead a team at the World Cup. This unexpected turn of events is a promising developed for us, the many millions of football fans around the world who enter this World Cup hoping for nothing more than the complete and abject humiliation of Sergio Ramos after his antics in this season’s Champions League.
You see, my team, Liverpool FC had their most brilliant season in memory this year. They scored goals for fun and had the best attack in the world, led by the most in-form player in the world, the great Mohammad Salah. Liverpool reached the final of the Champions League, where they completely dominated a Real Madrid team in the opening stages of the game, before Sergio Ramos decided to take matters into his own hands, literally, grabbing Mohammad Salah’s arm and dragging him down to the floor, in the most despicable and shamelessly blatant attempt to hurt him and stop him from threatening Madrid. Salah broke his shoulder bone from Ramos’ criminal assault and could not finish the game. With Liverpool’s squad already depleted by injuries, a half-fit Adam Lallana was the best Liverpool could field as a replacement, and the match began to turn in Madrid’s favor. Yet this was still not enough for Madrid to score or dominate the game, and so Ramos would not quit. He would then proceed to elbow Liverpool’s goalkeeper in the face, giving him a brain concussion which was only medically diagnosed, but whose effects were obvious on the game as the German who had a solid game until then proceeded to commit two absolutely catastrophic errors that handed the trophy to an underserving Madrid team.
It is a twist of beautiful fate that it was Ramos’ Real Madrid team who brought about the sacking of Spain’s manager, which will hopefully ensure that Ramos does not get to add to his trophy cabinet, which is great because the Spanish squad, with a decent coach, does have enough quality to challenge for the title. Spain’s squad is a continuation of the same system that has been built over the past 12 years by Luis Aragones and later Vicente Del Bosque, which has won two European Championships and a World Cup. They even have three players that have been in every major tournament since their memorable Euro 2008 win: Andres Iniesta, David Silva, and the disgusting Ramos. The wealth of experience in this squad, and the insane number of national and club trophies won by these players will mean they will still be a serious team even without their manager.
In goal, Spain have one of the world’s top goalkeepers in David De Gea, although worryingly for them, his form over the past season has declined slightly, and he’s made a few uncharacteristic big errors that no longer allow me to rate him as the best keeper in the world, as I did until recently. Their defense is very solid with Ramos and Pique in the center, and Jordi Alba, one of the world’s best left-backs. Midfield should also be strong with Iniesta and Silva combining with a wealth of young talent like Isco and Asensio, whom I consider one of the best young players in the world. Real Madrid fans agonizing about the superstar replacement for Ronaldo might not need to look too far; Asensio has the potential to be the best player in the world, and is the kind of young player with the potential to take the World Cup by storm, become one of the best players in the tournament, and leave it as a global superstar.
But it is in attack where Spain have their biggest problem. While Diego Costa has been a highly effective striker for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, he is far better suited for these teams’ direct and physical style than Spain’s gentle tiki-taka death by sly hypnosis. Costa has never fit well with Spain’s system, and it is unlikely he will do it now. The alternatives to Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo, don’t inspire much confidence given their lack of international experience or successes at the top level.
Before Lopetegui’s sacking, I had tipped Spain to make the final. I am not sure any more. They should make it out of a winnable group, but how far they go is extremely unpredictable what with Fernando Hierro in charge, a man with no experience whatsoever of managing a first team.
After the huge surprise of winning the European championship two years ago, I find it highly unlikely Portugal will pull off a similar feat this time around. Cristiano Ronaldo has begun to decline noticeably, and can now be relied upon to go missing in big games, as his embarrassingly bad performance in the Champions League final highlighted. The rest of the Portuguese squad has a lot of players who are getting older and noticeably declining. One exciting young player to keep an eye on is young striker Goncalo Guedes.
The World Cup is a tougher tournament than the last European Championship, which was expanded to 32 teams and thus had some very low quality sides in it, and that favored teams that played conservatively, as Portugal did. Portugal could exit in the first round, but will more likely qualify, but will then find it difficult to navigate past a likely meeting with Uruguay in the second round, and should they do that, I would not expect them to go past the quarter finals, where they’d likely meet France.
Possibly the only Asian team that deserves to be in this World Cup, Iran have come a long way since their terrible and extremely defensive showing in 2014. They now boast some talented players who are succeeding in European clubs, particularly Sardar Azmoun, who is a star of the Russian league, which should make him feel familiar around the tournament stadia. It’s still highly unlikely Iran will manage to pip Spain or Portugal to a second round berth, but at least if they go out this time, it will not be with the suffocatingly dull football they played in 2014.
A solid squad that has been improving stedily over the past few years, Morocco were very impressive to qualify by beating Cote d’Ivoire in their own home. In Mehdi Benatia they have a world class center back, in and in Hakim Ziyech they have one of the potential young stars of the tournament. Beyond that there is just not that much quality in the squad, and while Morocco will put up a decent performance, it is unlikely to see them make it out of the group stage, though they’ll likely have a better chance of causing an upset than Iran.
France have an incredible amount of very talented players, and could lay a claim for being the squad with the best individual players in the tournament. The attacking talent they have, in particular, is astonishing. Kylian Mbappe, at the tender age of 19, has in the past two seasons established himself as one of the top strikers in the world. Antoine Greizman has been playing really well for Atletico Madrid for a few seasons now. And they are joined by the wonderful Nabil Fekir, the exciting yet inexperienced Thomas Lemar and Ousmane Dembele, as well as the older and nowhere near as exciting Olivier Giroud, who can still come in handy, particularly if France want to play long aerial balls. France also have a wealth of talent in midfield and defense, but there are still many reasons to temper optimism. While the players are unquestionably talented, they have not been gelled into a cohesive unit with a clear strategy yet. This isn’t entirely Deschamps’ fault, it is partly a result of the blessing of having many youngsters force themselves into the first team and him trying to figure out how to get them to play together. Paul Pogba has had two underwhelming seasons with Manchester United, where he often seems lost on the pitch, and suffering from the suffocating negativity of his coach Mourinho. Right back Benjamin Mendy and left back Djibril Sibide have spent the majority of the season injured, so it’s unclear how fit they’ll be for this world cup, or how competent their less experienced replacements are.
France should have no problems qualifying from the group stage, but how far they go beyond that will depend on the draw and how well their team clicks together.
In 2016, France hosted the European championship, and they had the squad that should have won it. Yet, somehow, they managed to blow it away on the day of the final, in a demonstration of mental weakness, particularly Greizman, who missed a penalty. 2016 was a funny year for Greizman. He spent the first half of the year putting in a very persuasive case for winning the Ballon d’Or as he led Atletico to the champions league final. He won a penalty in that final, and scoring it would have probably secured the title for Atletico and secured him the Ballon d’Or. Yet he missed it. A month later, he also did well to lead France to the final of the Euros, where he also had a penalty to convert and give France a vital lead. Yet he missed again. One must question the mentality of a player who does this, and that of a team like France, who played the final on home soil with a vastly superior team to the Portuguese and still failed to score in 120 minutes.
Most likely, France will go very far, but not all the way. Going into every major tournament, there seems to be the sense around the France squad that this is a promising young team that will win major tournaments, but not this one, which comes too early. That this tournament is no exception is a worrying sign for the development of the national squad, which seems to manage to move from promising young team to another without ever having one mature to a coherent squad. This should be the last chance coach Didier Deschamps has with this squad. Anything less than a semi-final appearance should be considered failure and call for a new manager. My prediction is they’ll lose the semi-final to Brazil.
Solid team that should qualify from the group with France, but unlikely to trouble the winners of group D in the second round.
Decent team who’ll battle the Danes close for the second qualifying spot from the group, but unlikely to go any further than the second round should they make it out of the group.
A leading contender for worst team in the tournament. Absolutely nonsensical that such a mediocre squad can make the world cup when the Italy, Holland, and Chile players are watching from their TVs.
This is the most interesting, open, and exciting of all the groups.
To understand the depth of incompetence of the Argentinian Football Association and the way they have mismanaged their squad and ruined their potential, it is enough to observe that a squad going into the World Cup with Messi, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, as well as an abundance of attacking talent, but have little realistic expectation of lifting the trophy. This tournament is likely the last hurrah for the greatest generation ever of Argentine footballers, and it is unlikely to end like all the previous ones: trophyless. Time and time again, decisions off the pitch have sabotaged the players’ chances, and this World Cup looks to be no different.
In 2006, Argentina were my favorites to life the World Cup and justified that with some impressive performances, culminating with taking the lead against hosts Germany in the quarter-final, before idiotic disaster decided to strike, in the form of coach Pekerman astonishingly taking off his best player, and the man who had been on his way to being the player of the tournament, Riquelme, to rest him for the semi-final. You don’t take off your best player to rest them from a World Cup quarter-final, especially not when you only have a one goal lead, especially when it’s against Germany, and especially when it’s against Germany on their own backyard. Predictably and tragically, Germany equalized and then qualified.
In 2010, with Messi at his peak and with arguably the best Argentina squad ever around him, disaster decided to strike in the form of the absolutely flabbergastingly idiotic decision of the Argentine FA to appoint Diego Maradona as coach, who, in the famous words of Michel Platini was: “Maradona as a player was a great player, Maradona the coach, was a great player.” Maradonna decided to not call-up Walter Samuel, then one of the best defenders in the world and fresh, and Esteban Cambiasso, one of the world’s best defensive midfielders, both of whom were instrumental in leading Internazionale to the Champions League a few weeks earlier. Maradonna did however make room in his squad to some of his pals like Martin Palermo, choosing to take a sixth-choice striker whose career had practically been finished, over crucial defensive players. This astonishing act of self-sabotage saw Argentina walk into the World Cup with the preparation of a group of friends going for a Sunday morning kick-about, of which they forgot to inform some of their best players. The predictable sad outcome was a complete thrashing at the hands of a Germany team with nowhere near the level of individual talent, but an actual competent coach, in a beautiful illustration of one of the most adorable aspects of the beautiful game: individual talent, no matter how good, is useless in front of intelligent tactics and coaching.
In 2014, Argentina had a far better coach in Sabella, but still a limited coach with very little experience of the big stage. They stuttered their way unconvincingly to the final where the gods did everything to help Argentina win. Germany’s key midfielder Sami Khedira was injured during the warm up for the final, and his replacement, Kraminer, suffering a serious concussion in the early stages of the match, meaning Germany were playing the majority of the match with their Plan C, which had a serious imbalance with the absence of a central midfielder, replaced by the more attacking Schurrle. And yet, instead of capitalizing on that, Argentina blew it. They simply lacked the belief, with Higuain missing some great chances, and Messi being an uniniterested spectator for most of the game, culminating in an absolutely embarrassing free-kick effort in extra time which sailed many meters above the crossbar—the sort of effort that would embarrass a pot-bellied Sunday morning amateur player.
Argentina have also failed to win many Copa Americas of the past few years, embarrassingly failing to score in the finals and semi-finals of all these tournaments. With all these disappointments, it is no wonder Argentines come into this world cup with tempered expectations. The steep decline in the quality of the squad is another factor for pessimism. Javier Mascherano is nowhere near the monster he was 4 and 8 years ago, having moved to the Chinese league. The majority of defenders and midfielders they field are not top level stars, and they have nothing close to a coherent gameplan or strategy. Coach Sampaoli is a highly-respected tactical and motivational coach, but he has only taken over the team very recently, when they were very close to not qualifying for the World Cup, after a series of embarrassingly bad results.
Given that Argentines Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone are two of the best coaches in the world, it is staggering how Argentina have made to spend so much time with mediocre coaches failing to make the most of their talent. With the current decline in the quality of the squad, it is not reasonale to expect them to go very far. With the very tricky group in which they find themselves, a first round exit is not entirely out of the question.
While I’m not Croatian, and have only ever visited the country once for a vacation, I have been a fan of Croatian football since their astonishing performances in the 1998 World Cup. For a country of only four million people, the quantity and quality of top talent produced by the country is truly astonishing. The way their young players transition seamlessly from small Croatian clubs to the top European clubs is as amazing as the regularity with which these players are always featuring in the biggest games in club football. Lovren and Modric contested the Champions League final, while Kovacic was on the bench. In the Spanish classic between Barcelona and Real Madrid has recently usually featured more Croatian midfielders than from any nationality, with Rakitic playing for Barca and Modric and Kovacic for Real Madrid. This current generation of Croatian is pretty special. Modric is one of the world’s best central midfielders, almost a superior form of intelligence among mortals on any game pitch, a man who has seemingly never committed a mistake in his entire career. Rakitic has had several seasons performing greatly for Barcelona and before that Sevilla and Schalke. Mandzukic is excelling with Juventus. Kovacic is a very talented young midfielder on the edge of the Real Madrid first team. They also have a wealth of impressive young players.
In 2014 Croatia’s tournament was sabotaged by terrible refereeing in favor of Brazil in their opening encounter, and a grueling travel schedule that saw them play games across the huge country and travel to the Amazon. It’s a shame because their players were arguably more impressive back then than now, with Modric and Rakitic in particular beginning to show signs of aging. I for one will certainly be cheering them on, but I realize anything can happen in their group. If they do make it out, they have the big game mentality and players to possibly have a long run. Or so I hope, at least!
What can be said about this astonishing team from a country of a mere 300,000 which made the quarter-finals of the European championships two years ago, and now became the smallest nation to ever make the World Cup. Lots of articles on the internet have written about the astonishing achievements of this team, so I won’t regurgitate that here, except to say that they will NOT be coming to the World Cup to enjoy the experience, but to compete. They constitute a potentially fatal banana skin for Argentina and Croatia, and their match-ups will be very interesting to watch.
This is a rather week Nigeria team compared to many of the previous ones they’ve fielded. They do not have the kind of top level players to see them through the group stages, but you should not write them off completely.
It’s Brazil’s year. Their first team is better and more experienced than any competitor. After their horrendous 7-1 mauling by Germany in 2014 on home soil, they are going to be the most motivated team in the tournament. In Tite, they have an excellent coach and have been playing under a very clear system and an almost unchanging formation and selection since he took over. The transformation that Tite affected in this team is extraordinary. The team was lost and had started their qualification campaign badly, to the point where the unthinkable seemed possible: The first world cup without Brazil. But Tite turned things around and built a team with a real identity, a clearly laid out elegant 4-3-3 formation that brings out the best of his players, and the kind of beautiful football that has Brazilian fans justifiably dreaming and remembering the glory days.
In Neymar, they have one of the best players in the world arriving to the world cup at his peak. Neymar is the kind of player who will win a World Cup in his career, and this is his time. The major doubt for Brazil’s World Cup was Neymar’s injury which kept him out of the end of the season. But his performances in the pre-World Cup friendly wins of Croatia and Austria leaves no doubt that he is ready and in top form. In Coutinho Brazil have the sort of creative attacking midfielder that managers and fans dream of, and I would bet he will end up as one of the stars of the team of the tournament. Gabriel Jesus is one of the best young strikers in the world, seemingly destined to become the best striker in the world in a few years. They also have the criminally underrated uber-footballing-brain of the majestic Roberto Firmino, whose movement, positioning, pressing are probably the best of any forward in the world. In Casemiro and Fernandinho, Brazil have two of the best deep-lying midfielders in the world, providing the perfect balance to the highly attacking front four that will likely line up before them, a historically crucial position for Brazil. Whenever Brazil have won the World Cup, they did it with two deep midfielders who provided cover to allow the attackers and wing-backs to advance. In 1994, they had Dunga and Mauro Silva. In 2002, Gilberto Silva and Kleberson put in a great performance. Meanwhile, Brazil’s disastrous performances, such as in 2006, 2010, and 2014 have all come when they failed to field good midfield cover, leaving their defenders exposed. In Marcelo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, and Danilo, Brazil have a solid enough defense. And for possibly the first time ever, Brazil go into the World Cup with one of the world’s top goalkeepers lining up for them, thanks to Roma’s Allison.
An important thing to understand about Brazilian players is that they live for the World Cup more than anything else. If you ask the average English player what their dream is, you’re likely to get a majority of players mentioning winning the league or the Champions League. Ask Brazilian players and you’ll likely get 99% saying it’s the World Cup for them. Club football is what Brazilians do to pay the bills; their club victories matter to them because they further their career, earn them money, and most importantly, get them into the national team to play in the World Cup, of which they all obsessively dream, having grown up to generation after generation of players who brought the trophy home, or whose life was defined by their failure to bring it home (Hello, Zico!)
Whether through coincidence, cunning, or a nifty subconscious fine-tuning their physical preparation for them, most of the Brazilian first team arrives at the World Cup having not played full seasons. Thiago Silva, Danilo, and Willian were not first team regulars, while Coutinho’s mid-season move to Barcelona meant he could not play Champions League football and had a relatively easy schedule as his team coasted to the Spanish title. Neymar and Gabriel Jesus were injured for significant periods but have returned just in the nick of time, ready and rested for the biggest occasion of their career. This reminds me of 2002, when Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho also had less than full seasons with their clubs and arriving at the World Cup rested and ready to peak. With the kind of focus, motivation, and perfectionism Tite has instilled in the team, the prospect of a collapse or an expensive mistake seems increasingly remote. And their squad has enough depth to likely cope with an injury to any one of their starting eleven, even Neymar. There is just no escaping the conclusion that the stars are aligning perfectly for Brazil this year, and I really struggle to see how any team can stop them. Their path to the final is unlikely to be easy, with a likely meeting with Belgium in the quarter-finals and France in the semi-final, which for me is likely the hardest test for them.
In 2010 and 2012 Switzerland seemed like they had a promising team, but they failed to capitalize on it with good performances. They do not look very convincing this year round, and while they might make it out of the group, they will almost certainly not make it to the quarter-finals.
As a football fan, I still to this day resent the break-up of the old Yugoslavia, for depriving us from seeing what a united Yugoslavia team looks like. Their golden generation of the early 1990s would have probably won a World Cup or European Championship, and since then, I have been part of a small fringe cult of people who regularly sit down and look at all the former Yugoslav countries’ players and try to imagine what a united Yugoslavia team would look like. The answer is always: incredibly good.
Serbia have usually found it difficult to qualify to the World Cup as a European team, thanks go to FIFA assigning an absurdly high number of spots for Asia and North America to provide the uncompetitive lulz-generating teams. But that should not detract from the very high quality players they are able to field this year. I would expect them to qualify from the group behind Brazil. In the second round, they will most likely face Germany, and do not write them off from pulling off an upset. Along with Egypt and Croatia, I will certainly be rooting for them.
For my 2014 preview of the World Cup, I summarily dismissed Costa Rica’s chances of achieving anything of note, only to see them eliminate England and Italy and making it to the quarter-finals, and coming very close to the semi-finals, providing my friends (particularly the half Costa Rican Phil) with rich material to mock me. But since the rest of my predictions for 2014 were largely spot on, I’m going to go ahead and summarily dismiss Costa Rica’s chances again this year, which will hopefully ensure the accuracy of the rest of my predictions, or be correct!
It’s not happening for Germany this year. This team is a pale imitation of the all-conquering juggernaut that took the world cup by storm in 2014 and was able to win even after disaster struck with two injuries for midfielders in the same position before the final. They no longer have Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm, who have retired. Thomas Muller, scorer of 5 goals in the last World Cup and the team’s winning spirit, has declined remarkably over the past few years. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, usually the best in the world, has been injured for the majority of the season, and it’s not clear if he will start and in what form. Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels are a good pair of defenders who play together at club level with Bayern but they may be flattered by the fact that they usually play against much inferior opposition in the German league. Leftback Jonas Hector does not inspire the kind of confidence you had with Howedes in 2014. Mesut Ozil has declined terribly with Arsenal and is a pale shadow of the young player who took the World Cup by storm in 2010. Mario Gotze’s eating disorders and growing waistline mean he doesn’t even make the squad, a remarkable fall from grace for a man who achieved the dream of about 3 billion men worldwide by scoring the winning goal of a World Cup final last time around. I would say that only Tony Kroos and Joshua Kimmich enter this World Cup at world class level, and I do not see that being enough for them to win the tournament.
Having said that, it’s worth remembering that this is Germany we are talking about, and in 80 years, they have not once failed to reach the last 8 of the World Cup. It would be a huge shock if they do not make the quarter-finals this time, but looking at their form leading up to the world cup, this is not as unlikely as it might sound. They lost to a very mediocre Austria team which Brazil had no trouble disposing of 3-0. They struggled to beat a terrible Saudi Arabia team 2-1, and were lucky that the Saudis had a clear penalty denied in the last minutes of the game. Before that they lost at home to Brazil, and drew at home to Spain. Granted these are only friendlies, but Germany were definitely not lacking in the desire to win these games and have a coherent preparation. This if the kind of form you would expect from a team hoping to make the second round, not a serious competitor for the trophy.
I’ve long maintained Mexico is the most pointless team in world football. In their continent, they face no real competition from any actual football teams, given that Canada and the USA do not have professional football leagues to develop players, and are thus their participation in international competitive football is the equivalent of letting in a mentally-handicapped kid to school not because he’ll ever learn anything useful, but because it would not be nice to tell his parents he can’t go. As a country of 100 million, Mexico will always have decent players, but given their league is pretty terrible and hteir national team cannot play many competitive games, Mexican players never develop to become top class, at least not since Hugo Sanchez in the 80s. They can win a game or two, but will always lose to the first good team they encounter. So Mexico have been eliminated in the second round of the world Cup for as far as anyone can remember, which is why their participation always seems pointless. Given that Sweden looks like a good team and Germany is Germany, we can always hope this is the year Mexico is eliminated in the first round. North American football simply does not deserve all the spots it gets at the World Cup, and the fewer spots they are given, the more likely we are to see changes in the way the game is structured and run there, with the introduction of open leagues with promotion and relegation to allow the game to develop like it does in the rest of the world.
After eliminating Italy and Holland to make it to the World Cup against all odds, Sweden better make it up for us football fans with a decent performance. Sweden’s team seems to have improved immensely after the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the best player Sweden has had since the 1950’s. Zlatan’s gigantic ego seems to have gotten in the way of his teammates developing into a team, constricting them into playing a supporting role in the Zlatan Show. The problem for Sweden is that if they qualify from their group, it will likely be as second placed team, which means a likely meeting with Brazil in the second round, and that does not look winnable for them at all.
Serious competitors for being the worst team in the tournament. There is no better testament to the fact that Asia needs to have fewer spots in the World Cup than to see how South Korea can qualify after the absolutely terrible football they played in the qualifiers, including a loss to Lebanon. They only have one world class player, Spurs’ Son, and one man can’t carry a team, particularly in this relatively strong group.
Belgium have been a growingly impressive team over the past few years and have been constantly touted as an outsider bet for winning their last three major tournaments. It’s easy to understand why when you look at the incredible talent in this latest generation of Belgian players, who play their football in some of the top clubs in the world. Kevin de Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens are not too far behind. In defense, Belgium have great options with Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Meunir, and Vermaelen.
A year ago, dreams of winning the world cup seemed a lot more reasonable than they do now. In this year, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has suffered a drop in form, as has Eden Hazard. Vincent Kompany continues to be almost permanently injured. But in my opinion, Belgium’s biggest problem is their coach Roberto Martinez. It always seemed a strange appointment and he seems to be living up to the doubters’ fears. Martinez as a coach is a lot like Pep Guardiola in his commitment to his philosophy, his stubbornness, and his enormously high opinion of himself. The difference, of course, is that Guardiola has won everything he’s ever competed for as a manager, while Martinez has won an FA Cup with Wigan and led Everton to a bunch of midtable finishes in the premier league, so his egotistical streak appears almost comic to everyone else. The huge mistake Martinez has made going into this World Cup is omitting Radja Nainggolan for inexplicable reasons. Given this omission and the drop in form of some key players, I would not expect them to win it. They shoud have no problem qualifying from their group, and probably winning it. A second round meeting with any team from Group H should also be winnable, but that’s when the joyride stops. A likely quarter against Brazil (or Germany if Belgium finish second in their group) will likely be a bridge too far for Roberto Martinez, who simply does not look like the kind of man who would have ‘world cup semi-finalist’ written on his CV.
England have some excellent players in their squad but they will not go very far in the tournament for two reasons that make everything else irrelevant. They have hired Gareth Southgate as manager, a man who has absolutely no experience as a top level manager, and not someone you want to lead players into the biggest tournament in the world. Southgate has the charisma of a potato and the tactical and managerial expertise of a novice, he is not the sort of person who will be able to motivate and organize the kind of players who work with some of the top managers in world football.
The second reason is that English club football is a huge deal and is far more physically demanding than all other leagues in the world. Whereas all European leagues take time off for Christmas for a much needed break, English teams are given a very heavy load of fixtures around that time, resulting in them arriving at the end of the season exhausted and unable to compete with players who play in other leagues.
As usual, expect England to make it through the group stage. A second round clash against Colombia, Senegal or Poland could go either way. But if they do win, expect the English fans and media to become incredibly irrationally overconfident, and that is always the cue for the team to collapse. In Gareth Southgate, the man who cost England its closest chance to winning a major trophy in 1996 by missing a penalty against Germany in the semi-final on home soil, they have certainly hired the right man to inspire that collapse in their overworked players.
The only reason Panama are in the world cup is that FIFA grants far too many spots to North American teams, so as to make it possible for the American team to get into the World Cup. Such is the wretched state of football in the USA (see paragraph on Mexico) that they could not even qualify from the easiest qualification group in the world, and were pipped to it by a Panamanian team that is unlikely to inspire any fear in its opponents’ hearts.
Some decent players and an impressive coach, but it will be very hard for them to qualify to the second round ahead of England and Tunisia.
Probably the best Africa team in the tournament with a good number of excellent players across the pitch. The excellent Koulibaly in defense stands behind a decent midfield that includes Everton’s Idriss Gueye, and upfront, the incredibly talented and fast Sadio Mane leads an attack that has good options to choose from. Along with Egypt, Senegal are my tip for the surprise package of the tournament, because there’s always delusion to go around, especially when the national team has a player who is winning my heart with his performances for Liverpool. I think they have a good chance of qualifying from their group, possibly even winning it, and could eliminate England or Tunisia in the second round. For a shock giant-killer, perhaps a Senegalese upset over Germany in the quarter-final is on the cards. Don’t bet on it, but I’ll still take credit for predicting it if it happens!
A decent team with one of the world’s top strikers upfront in Robert Lewandowski. Other good players include Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski and Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek. Poland had an excellent qualification campaign but have not looked as convincing in their recent friendlies. They have a good chance of making it to the second round, but I doubt they’ll go far.
Radamel Falcao is back in form, and James Rodriguez is still an excellent midfielder, who finished top scorer in the last world cup. Juan Cuadrado is still fast and threatening. In Davinson Sanchez they have an excellent defender.
Will almost certainly get eliminated in the first round, and if not, in the second. But this preview has gone on too long and Japan are not going to inspire me to write any more.
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