One of the most popular international sports tournaments in the world, the World Cup, will be hosted by Russia across twelve venues including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Sochi. This year’s edition, the 21st in history, features 32 teams from five different soccer federations. Despite controversy over corruption in the bidding process, top soccer nations who hinted at boycotting will be attending, joined by multiple national teams making their first appearances. With so many teams, players, and games, here is everything you need to know prior to the opening kickoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14.
World Cup Favorites
1. Germany. The Germans, led by longtime coach Joachim Löw, are looking to defend their World Cup title after a spectacular victory over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. In order to do so, they must escape a challenging group with three teams ranked in the top 20 of FIFA’s national team rankings. Leading the Germans will be star goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer, the Golden Glove winner of the 2014 tournament. In front of him will be a defense anchored by Bayern Munich teammate Jérôme Boateng. Both Neuer and Boateng are fighting back from injury to be ready in time for June and will be an integral part of the team’s success. On the offensive side, the Germans have numerous weapons at their disposal. Wingback Joshua Kimmich is capable of creating chances with darting runs forward, and world-class midfielders Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil will be looking to distribute the ball to veterans Thomas Müller and Marco Reus and young wingers Leroy Sané and Julian Draxler. If the Germans, equipped with one of the deepest teams in the tournament, play to their potential, they could be the first team to repeat since Brazil in 1962.
2. France. The French are poised to provide their best performance since winning the title in 1998. Les Bleus are coached led by former midfielder Didier Deschamps, who brought the team to the quarterfinals of the 2014 tournament and to the finals of Euro 2016. The most exciting aspect of this team is the youth among the top players. On defense, 25-year-old Real Madrid center-back Raphaël Varane will be joined by 24-year-old Barcelona center-back Samuel Umtiti. Ahead of them in the midfield is one of soccer’s biggest stars, Paul Pogba. The Manchester United star has been in good form recently, with goals against Manchester City and Arsenal. Joining him will either be fellow premier league star N’Golo Kanté or Adrien Rabiot of PSG. Finally, the front three for France looks to be some combination of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, and Ousmane Dembélé. The most exciting is sure to be the 19-year-old wonderkid Mbappé, one of the most promising young players in the world. Another storyline for this French team is who might not make the roster, with Alexandre Lacazette, Dimitri Payet, and Anthony Martial trying to find a way into the 23-man roster. As arguably the most talented and well-stocked team in the tournament, expectations are high for Les Tricolores.
3. Brazil. Neymar Jr., the cheeky, talented, and most expensive man in the history of European football (€222 million), is Brazil’s star. Whether or not the Brazilians can make a deep run is dependent on Neymar’s health status as June approaches. When in form, his name is used in the same breath with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. On the attacking side, he will be joined by rising Barcelona star Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool standout Roberto Firmino, and Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus. The scariest part for opposing defenders? All four players are 26 or younger. In the center of the park, Brazil boasts Real Madrid defensive midfielder Casemiro, Chelsea’s Willian, and Manchester City’s Fernandinho. As if those players aren’t enough, Madrid left-back Marcelo will don the green and yellow as well. Marcelo is the best left-back in the world and gives defenders fits with his ability to get up the field, play crosses, and finish. After a 2014 home showing against Germany resulted in the most embarrassing loss in the nation’s history, vengeance and skill make Brazil a serious title threat.
1. Egypt. Everyone seems abuzz for Egypt in the world cup, fueled by the outstanding form of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah. Salah is currently on pace to break the Premier League goal-scoring record while posting an equally impressive Champions League campaign. The discussion over Ballon d’Or for the past ten years has been the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate, with no other player seriously challenging the two rivals. There are murmurs that if Salah can win the Champions League and carry Egypt out of a relatively weak Group A, he should be considered for the prestigious award. Even if Salah is unable to advance the Pharaohs beyond the group stage, his status as a god-like figure in Egypt won’t be forgotten thanks to a penalty kick that gave the nation its first World Cup berth since 1990.
2. Iceland. It’s impossible not to love the national team of Iceland, which earned its first ever World Cup appearance in last year’s qualifying. In doing so, it became the smallest ever nation to qualify for the tournament with a population of just under 350,000. While its group will be a challenge to escape from, the Vikings are used to being doubted and will provide a welcome change up from the usual World Cup suspects.
3. Belgium. Yes, I’m aware Belgium is the third-ranked team in the world. But it seems like no one is picking the squad as winners for the tournament. Anchored by one of the best midfielders in the world in Kevin De Bruyne, along with forwards Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mertens, the Red Devils can play with anyone when in top form.
1. United States. If you are a casual fan who has paid no attention to soccer and was hoping to watch the Stars and Stripes this summer, you will be sorely disappointed. Gross mismanagement, poor tactics, and lack of quality culminated in a humiliating loss to Trinidad and Tobago. The Americans miss the tournament for the first time since 1986.
2. Italy. In a crushing blow to the nation’s national identity, the Italians failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. As four-time winners, the team was crucified in the media and will be looking to rebuild for 2022.
Jack Leger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.