It is discomforting and not to my credit the extent to which the United States’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup mirrored the 2016 election in my mind. The World Cup is one of the few arenas in which I felt comfortable expressing any sort of nationalism (and got to feel, if only momentarily, that America was a scrappy underdog rather than a hegemonic superpower) and having that robbed from me did hurt more than I’d care to admit. But there were a number of incongruous parallels. In both cases an overwhelming favorite, declared all but inevitable by statisticians, lost in a crushing last minute reversal. In both cases a seemingly impossible amount of bad luck (all three results on the final day of qualifying went against us, including multiple upsets) and coincidence were major factors, but only when combined with staggering ineptitude on the part of the presumptive favorite, revealing long-existing structural problems (coaching issues, pay-to-play youth teams and a college system that stifle youth development) that probably won’t ever be fixed.
Watching the recent winter Olympics, I realized that the Mueller probe and the thirty minutes I watched of a doping documentary had combined to make me into some sort of cold war hardliner whenever I watched a Russian team. I had no stake in any of those dumb winter sports, but I always assumed Russia was cheating and hoped they’d lose. This clumsy application of domestic politics onto international sports along with the US team’s failure to qualify mean that all my patriotic impulses will be diverted toward rooting for this Russian team to be humiliated. Luckily, the Russian team is shitty, and comforting proof that doping isn’t very effective in soccer.
Traditionally an underdog that overachieves, Uruguay finds itself in the strange position of being heavy favorites in this exceptionally weak group. Star player Luis Suárez should also enjoy some support from Russia fans given their shared proclivity for doing very racist things and then denying they are racist once they get in trouble for doing those things.
Saudi Arabia’s presence at this World Cup is the best argument you could make for why it should be harder to qualify for the World Cup.
Egypt are the team that is hopefully good enough to knock Russia out in the first round. It’s their first World Cup since 1990, but they have Mohamed Salah, a player so talented and popular that he recently finished second in the Egyptian presidential elections as a write-in candidate, despite expressing no interest in the job.
This is hopefully the last World Cup where we have to watch Cristiano Ronaldo. Ideally by 2022 Ronaldo will have retired to spend more time with his son, who needs a strong father figure because Ronaldo, per a number of disreputable British tabloids, paid the boy’s mother 10 million pounds never to see her son again. Portugal won the 2016 European Championship, despite being no more than the fifth best team in Europe, but at the World Cup, in a longer tournament against stiffer competition, they should be found out by the quarterfinals at the latest.
After a disastrous 2014 World Cup, and a fairly mediocre 2016 European Championship, Spain has quietly rebuilt and fixed some of the problems that plagued them previously. They replaced their aging and increasingly error-prone goalie (Iker Casillas) with a young star (David De Gea), seem to have found some tactical cohesion, and key defender Gerard Pique walked back on his threat to quit the team after he was booed for supporting Catalan independence.
Can Morocco trouble traditional powers Portugal or Spain to make this group competitive? The answer is no, but watching them try will be more entertaining than watching Iran try.
Iran has never advanced out of the group stage of the World Cup. There is a reason for this, and that reason is not a string of improbably bad luck.
France has a good team this year, and is one of the favorites to win the whole thing. However, I can’t help but think they’d be even better if they brought back star striker Karim Benzema. Some commentators have claimed that Benzema isn’t in the team because coach Didier Deschamps is prejudiced against players with Algerian backgrounds, but Deschamps claims Benzema was banned because of his involvement in a bizarre scandal where he allegedly helped blackmail teammate Mathieu Valbuena about a sex tape. Deschamps does have, at best, a questionable history with French-Algerian players, but Benzema was caught on tape consorting with Valbuena’s blackmailers, so it’s unclear which was really the deciding factor.
If the US national team had merely been a huge disappointment rather than a historic embarrassment this qualifying round, we would have played Australia in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. The depressing thing is that Australia is so bad that even this American team probably could have beaten them.
None of the current Peruvian players had been born the last time Peru appeared in a World Cup. But the team is good; qualifying out of South America is just very hard. They have a real shot of making it out of the group stage this time around, now that they are finally assured of having captain and star striker Paolo Guerrero. Guerrero had initially been banned for testing positive for cocaine, had his ban reduced once he argued that he had merely accidentally drunk cocaine-tainted tea, then argued that he wouldn’t “be crazy and drink coca tea, knowing it is detrimental to me. I always ask what I can or cannot drink, which sauce I can add, and which shampoo I can use, everyone knows that.” He had his ban reinstated when the anti-doping agency appealed, and then had that second ban repealed by the Swiss Supreme Court.
The World Cup won’t be made worse by Denmark’s presence, but it won’t be made better either.
Argentina were terrible in qualifying, not clinching a berth until the last possible day and struggling to score despite possessing the most talented group of attackers of any team in the world. Lionel Messi has lost three major tournament finals in Argentina colors, and the failures, along with the immense pressure and suspicion heaped on him by Argentine fans skeptical of a player who has lived in Spain since he was 13 and never seems to perform as well in a national team shirt as he does for his club, weigh heavily on him. This is probably his last chance to cement his status as possibly the greatest ever player and appease Argentine fans, but continued poor performances from his teammates that are talented, and too many teammates that aren’t, might be obstacles too big even for him.
Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup, so small that there is an app to help stop Icelanders from accidentally having sex with their cousins (a real risk because Icelandic naming practices make it hard to identify relations by name). Their team is actually pretty good, thanks to excellent player development infrastructure and an intimidating viking chant that their fans do.
This is probably the last World Cup for all of Croatia’s best players, who will be well past their prime by 2022. This generation has achieved a lot for their respective club teams—there are Croats on most of the best teams in Europe—but has struggled to replicate that success internationally. Perhaps being at the tail ends of their careers and knowing that this is their last chance will motivate them to do well this time around, or it just means their players are a little bit too old.
Nigeria are the only African team to qualify for both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups. The structure of African qualifying, with fifty-four teams narrowed down to five over three qualifying rounds, coupled with the lack of any sort of runner-up playoff, make it difficult to qualify from Africa consistently, hindering progress for many African teams with talented players. Strong African teams frequently don’t make the World Cup, in stark contrast to Asia and CONCACAF, where a good team has to pull a performance as miserable as the United States this time around to fail to qualify. Although faced with a difficult group, Nigeria should draw confidence from the fact that, of the five teams at this World Cup with bird of prey nicknames, theirs is by far the coolest (The Super Eagles).
Brazil’s last World Cup ended with a humiliating 7–1 defeat on home soil to Germany, saved only from total disaster by hated rival Argentina’s failure to win the competition in Brazil. Some semblance of redemption was achieved in 2016 when Brazil beat Germany to take Olympic gold in Rio, an admittedly much less important tournament, but the only remaining soccer competition Brazil had never won. Still it remains to be seen if any psychic scarring remains.
Switzerland snuck into this World Cup after winning a two-legged playoff against Northern Ireland that featured roughly 177 consecutive minutes of scoreless soccer, and from which probably neither team deserved to qualify.
Costa Rica were the feel-good surprise story of the last World Cup, beating Uruguay and Italy, eliminating England and Greece, and almost making the semifinals. Most of the stars from the 2014 team are back, but it is unclear if their deep defensive block and counter-attacking style will work against Brazil, who are very good, or against Switzerland and Serbia, who are difficult to counter-attack against because they don’t do much attacking.
When Serbia played Albania in 2016, Serbian fans chanted “Kill the Albanians,” someone flew a drone carrying the flag of Greater Albania onto the field, the Albanian captain punched a fan, and the Serbian fans threw flares, causing the game to be abandoned. There will be at least two and possibly three or four ethnic Albanians on the field for Switzerland when they play Serbia, and a couple of players of Croatian and Bosnian descent as well. Violence is a real possibility, and also the only likely source of excitement in a game between two dour, defensive teams.
The defending champions are probably the most likely team to win this time around. They have so many good players they could probably field two full teams with realistic chances of winning the competition. If Germany were to win again, they would equal Brazil’s record of five World Cup wins, pouring further salt into the wound they inflicted in the last World Cup, an event the German players gloated about so frequently to their Brazilian club teammates that Brazilian defender Dante had to tell Thomas Müller, “if you don’t stop I’m going to hit you.”
Mexico consistently produces teams talented enough to dominate CONCACAF and good enough to make it out of the group stage, but they have been eliminated in their first knockout game at the past six World Cups. They should get out of their group again this time around, but if they do they will then almost certainly play against, and lose to, Brazil, extending their early elimination streak to seven World Cups running.
Sweden play their home games just outside of Stockholm at the Friends Arena, perhaps the only stadium in the world named after an anti-bullying charity. The big question that faced the Swedish team up until the World Cup was whether they would bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the World Cup. Ibrahimovic, perhaps Sweden’s greatest ever player, retired from international soccer in 2016, but he had been hinting that he would be willing to return. However there were some concerns about bringing back a player with knee ligaments that could snap at any moment, and so arrogant that when teammates play well he attributes it to the benefits of watching him in practice. He will not be on the plane to Russia.
Republic of Korea
Last World Cup, while watching a game in a Koreatown sports bar, I got interviewed by a Korean television network. The reporter asked what I thought of Korean fans and I said that Korean fans were the best and that I thought the Korean team would come back and win the game even though they were losing 3–1 and about to be eliminated. I was never able to determine if I made it to air in Korea or if I am now a beloved Korean TV personality, but on the off chance there are now billboards with my face on them in Seoul, I’m rooting for Korea to do better this time around. Unfortunately, given the strength of the other teams in their group, they probably won’t.
Belgium used to produce defensive, uninspiring teams specializing in efficient offsides traps. However, the implementation of a new national player development program that involved increased emphasis on attacking play and skills development, with money being directed toward scouting and training programs and efforts to develop, in the words of one Belgian coach, “intelligent players, not butchers,” led to this current golden generation of Belgian players, with possibly the most talented array of attackers of any team at this World Cup besides Argentina. They have good players in other positions too, but a lack of outside fullbacks (the one position Belgium seems unable to produce) and a coach who always seems a bit better at being charismatic in interviews than at actually coaching, might keep them from realizing their full potential.
Watching how poorly Panama will play at this World Cup will be a solid reminder of how incredibly shittily the US team had to play to let Panama qualify ahead of us.
Tunisia has played in twelve games across four World Cups, but won only once. This year look for them to double their career win total (sorry, Panama), but not do anything else.
Is this finally England’s year? No, but some of the team is actually decent, especially Raheem Sterling, who is probably their most gifted creative player but comes in for abundant racially charged criticism from the English tabloids, who seem to find ways to blame losses where white goalies let multiple easy shots trickle in off their fingers on young black players’ “bling” purchases. In addition to getting grief for buying things like cars or a house for his mother, Sterling has also been heavily criticized for “being seen laughing and bragging with pals” too soon after a loss. Apparently the proper English thing to do is to be demurely sad for days, after which point you are able magically and retroactively to make your teammates defend better and your coach less tactically inept.
Poland’s hopes—in what is probably the only group at this tournament in which all four teams have a chance to win—rest primarily on the performance of star striker Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski, whose atypical career path started in the Polish third division and included early struggles in Germany that led him to be dubbed a Chancentod (literally “the death of chances” to score goals), is now quite possibly the best pure goalscorer in the world.
This is Senegal’s second ever World Cup appearance. In their first appearance, in 2002, Senegal beat defending champions France in their first game, such an impressive result that Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade declared the next day a national holiday. Les Lions de la Teranga are probably the strongest African team in the competition, with enough talent to pull off another holiday-inducing result if all goes well.
At the 2014 World Cup Colombia was awarded the FIFA Fair Play Trophy, an award given each World Cup to the team with the best disciplinary record at the World Cup. With their prize came a golden trophy, a diploma, a medal for each player and official, and $50,000 to be used to buy youth equipment. Also at the 2014 World Cup, Colombia’s Juan Zuniga kneed Neymar in the back so hard that Neymar fractured a vertebra and was nearly paralyzed, so take that award with a grain of salt. Along with Belgium they are probably the strongest team in the competition outside of the traditional powers, and, if they find form at the right time, could be a real threat to go deep in the tournament.
Japan’s coach recently caused controversy by saying something nice about South Korea.