In just eight days, the 2018 World Cup will kick off as host nation Russia gets things started against Saudi Arabia. The World Cup is a global event that reached about 3.2 billion viewers in both 2010 and 2014 according to FIFA, making it one of the most viewed broadcasts in all of television.
After a grueling qualification process that saw football powerhouses like Italy and the Netherlands fail to reach the World Cup, 31 other countries will be represented as they journey to Russia with hopes of staying for the duration of the month-long tournament and hoisting the trophy on July 15th.
The 32 teams that qualified were thrown into pots based on their international ranking determined by FIFA and their geographical location. From there, eight groups were randomly assembled by a drawing that intends to create groups diverse in both talent and geographic location.
Each of the eight groups will participate in a group play system where each team faces off with the other three in their group once. Three points are awarded for winning a game, one point is awarded to each team in the case of a draw, and no points are given for a loss. The top two teams from each group will move on to the knockout stage, and any ties in points are broken by the difference in goals scored versus goals allowed.
Group A: Uruguay has far too much talent from top to bottom to excuse anything other than a first place finish in Group A. The question of who will join them in the knockout stage is a tougher question to answer. Saudi Arabia is largely viewed as the worst team to have qualified for the World Cup, but Russia and Egypt both have arguments that could be made for them. The Russians have not had to play meaningful matches leading up to the World Cup, as they automatically qualified by hosting. This may leave them vulnerable on the big stage, but having the support of their home fans and playing in familiar stadiums gives them a benefit. Egypt looks to be a team that is getting stronger as the years go by, and the breakout of star attacker Mohamed Salah has catapulted them into a position where they can contend with Russia. Unfortunately, Salah was injured during the Champions League Final while playing for Liverpool and may be hampered even if he is able to give it a go during the World Cup. This will make the June 19th matchup between Russia and Egypt an important one in deciding who goes through, but on paper Russia looks to have the balanced team and support from fans that they will need to advance.
Group B: This group is a more obvious one to predict as powerhouses Spain and Portugal should have no problems advancing to the knockout stage over Iran and Morocco. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and Portugal won the Euros in 2016. Both sides have talent stacked deep into their bench and stars in their starting lineups capable of creating moments of magic that can lead their teams to victory. Iran and Morocco can be proud just to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, but should not expect to play more than their three group games. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo may be the best player in this tournament along with Lionel Messi, but Spain has the more talented and more experienced roster from top to bottom. Look for Spain to emerge atop of Group B but do not be shocked if Portugal snatches the top spot from them if they are able to avoid a loss when the two sides face off on June 15th.
Group C: France represents the only footballing powerhouse in Group C and should have no issues making their way into the Round of 16. Stars like Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Hugo Lloris make France not only a favorite for their group, but a contender to win the entire competition. Denmark, Peru and Australia will duke it out for what should be the second spot in their group. The Danes have more talent than Peru and Australia, but in football anything is possible. If Christian Eriksen fails to produce the way he did during qualifiers, Denmark could lose their groove and drop points if they have a bad game against either the Peruvians or Aussies. If that happens, who knows who will capitalize off Denmark’s mistakes. In all likelihood though, the two European sides should make their way out of Group C.
Group D: As is the case with most groups, there is an obvious favorite in Group D as well. Argentina fell just short of winning the 2014 World Cup, and Lionel Messi and company will arrive in Russia determined to finish the job this time. Their rapid attack is sure to produce a barrage of goals against lesser opponents during group play, and their defense should be solid despite questions at goalkeeper due to an injury to Sergio Romero. Regardless of who ends up between the posts each matchday during group play for Argentina, they will be favored. Croatia will present the Argentines their biggest challenge during the early going of the World Cup, led by game-managing midfielders Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona. Barring catastrophe, the European side should be able to dispatch Nigeria and Iceland and make their way through to the knockout stage as well.
Group E: With Neymar leading the way, Brazil will be heavily favored to win Group E. They have one of the most talented rosters from top to bottom at this World Cup and should have no problem taking nine points from their three games against Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica. After a surprising run that ended in a penalty kicks-defeat in the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Cup, look for Costa Rica to come back to Earth in 2018 and be eliminated after group play. Switzerland and Serbia will likely fight for second place and it is very possible that it could come down to goal difference. If the two European sides draw against each other, their goal differences against Brazil and Costa Rica could be the deciding factor in who moves on to the knockout stage. Both teams have plenty of players talented enough to play in Europe’s best leagues, but neither team has a definitive star player. Perhaps a star will emerge from either Serbia or Switzerland and give them the boost they need to survive group play.
Group F: Victors of the 2014 World Cup, Germany will seek back-to-back titles as the best country in world football. They are co-favorites with Brazil to win the World Cup according to OddsShark, and, like Brazil, should be able to take nine points from their three games. South Korea will almost certainly be playing for pride, but Mexico and Sweden are interesting cases. The Swedes locked in their trip to Russia through a playoff victory over Italy last fall. Despite the absence of star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic on their World Cup roster, Sweden will push Mexico to their limits if they are able to continue their strong form. Mexico has a balanced roster and is likely more talented than Sweden but they have struggled to perform consistently leading up to this tournament. If the Mexicans bring their A-game they should go through, but anything less could open the door for Sweden to advance along with Germany.
Group G: Despite a drawing process that aims to create balanced groups, Group G has two heavy favorites and two extreme underdogs. Belgium and England should both easily move into the knockout stage led by their experienced stars and strong defenses. Meanwhile, both Panama and Tunisia should come to Russia with low expectations and high pride. Maybe a lucky own goal or crazy red card will change the outcome of one of their matchups with the two favorites, but outside of the off chance that something like that happens, Panama and Tunisia’s only hopes to secure points in the tournament should come when the two nations square off against each other on June 28th.
Group H: The final group for the 2018 World Cup is the one that is most blurry on paper. Columbia and Poland are strong footballing nations, and they both have stars headlining their attacks. Polish striker Robert Lewandowski led Europe in goals during qualifiers with 16, and James Rodriguez of Columbia took home the Golden Boot, awarded to the player with the most goals during the 2014 World Cup, after he found the back of the net six times in just five games. Either nation could come out on top, but both will be incredibly disappointed if they manage to slip up enough to allow Senegal or Japan to steal second place and move on to the Round of 16. Senegal could pose a dark horse threat to get out of the group led by Sadio Mane in attack and Kalidou Koulibaly in defense. If the African nation is able to upset either Poland or Columbia, the side could see their way out of Group H as one of two survivors. Japan will likely struggle in all three games and will almost certainly be eliminated.
The Knockout Stages
The winners of each group will face off against runners-up from another group during the Round of 16 beginning on June 30th. From there, each matchup is determined by the bracket that will be visible once group play has concluded. Games can no longer end in a draw during the knockout stages, and will instead carry on with a 30 minute overtime followed by a penalty kick shootout if the game is still tied. Unlike in hockey, there is no golden goal scenario during overtime for World Cup knockout stage games. If a team manages to break the deadlock early into overtime, they will still have to protect their lead through the 120th minute to emerge victorious.
The semifinals for the 2018 World Cup will take place on July 10th and 11th, but the losers will not go home right away. A third place game between the two losers will take place on July 14th at Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. The final is the next day, July 15th, at 10:00am CDT and will be held at Luzhniki Stadium in Russia’s capital city of Moscow.
Will Germany rise again to repeat as world champions, or will co-favorites Brazil take away their throne? Will the superstars shine on the globe’s biggest stage or will new faces steal the limelight with brilliant performances? Will the footballing powerhouses emerge from their groups or will some underdogs fight their way deeper into the tournament? Anything can happen in football, and the case is no different for the 2018 World Cup. Only one thing can be said about it with complete certainty: the entire planet will be watching.