HOW many great World Cup teams can you remember? If you’re my age, probably only one – Spain in 2010. Nobody would deny that Germany were deserving winners four years later, but they were hardly a vintage side.
Once upon a time, the World Cup was the showcase for the very finest teams the world had to offer – even losing sides like Hungary in 1954, the Netherlands in 1974 and Brazil in 1982 were counted among the best, not to mention the mighty teams that actually won it. These days, the UEFA Champions League has supplanted the World Cup, and the competition hosts too many makeweights, and the globalisation of the game means most teams are cobbled together from players plying their trade in all four corners of the world.
This year in Russia, we’re not likely to witness a team set the world alight. Argentina, Brazil, France and Germany are all decent teams, and each can put forward a pretty convincing case to be called favourites, but none of them are really head-and-shoulders above the rest. And aside from perhaps Belgium, we’re not likely to see a new name etched on the trophy either. It’s a fairly uninspiring crop of national teams.
So who are the contenders, and what are their chances of winning the World Cup?
I can remember the immediate aftermath of the 2014 World Cup final. The game over, the broadcast cut back to Gary Lineker and co., each one totally despondent that Lionel Messi, over whom they had been fawning for the previous two weeks, had failed to live up to the narrative they’d been writing. In 2018, that narrative is back: that the best player in the world has one last chance to prove his worth on the biggest international stage.
And that highlights their biggest problem. Despite a formidable attacking lineup, featuring Sergio Agüero and Paulo Dybala, Argentina have become dangerously dependent on Messi, relying on him to create and score simultaneously. If he’s not at his best – and that does happen – they offer surprisingly little.
Furthermore, Argentina become weaker the further you go down the pitch. Not only are their defensive players notably inferior to their attackers, they’re also somewhat unsuited to whatever system Jorge Sampaoli is trying to get them to play. His high-press can leave them terribly exposed at the back, meaning a swift attacking side will wreak havoc, as we saw when they played – and were slaughtered by – Spain in March.
A few days ago, I would have tipped Argentina for the title, but even cursory research reveals a profoundly flawed team. They’d be extremely fortunate to reach the final, and might even fail to get out of the group. But there’s enough quality in their ranks for them to go far, so I’m not prepared to discount them entirely. If Argentina can get their tactics right, and if their other players turn up, then we might just see the best player in the world finally get his prize.
Prediction: quarter finals
Summary: a decent but uneven side overreliant on a single player – fortunately for them it’s the best player in the world.
Belgium are at risk of wasting a so-called golden generation. Although their attack is fearsome and productive – they scored an astonishing 43 goals in qualifying – there are lingering questions surrounding their defensive discipline and the robustness of their midfield. Their back three is too often left exposed by a glut of attackers unwilling to commit to their defensive duties, making them vulnerable to aggressive teams. With Roberto Martínez as their manager, this should come as no surprise.
This is all well and good when they’re playing weak teams. It’s possible that Belgium have been flattered somewhat by the relatively unimpressive opposition they’ve faced over the last year or two. It’s easy to make Eden Hazard’s six goals and five assists in the qualifying campaign look like evidence of a potent attacking force when you don’t mention most of them came against Cyprus, Estonia and Gibraltar.
But let’s not forget that Belgium’s players are all, individually, pretty exceptional. It’s hard not to envy a line-up that includes Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Thibaut Courtois. They’ve even got exciting young talent in the form of PSG’s Thomas Meunier, a fierce attacking wing-back. Belgium have more than enough firepower to get out of the group, and the potential to get even further, but it’s hard to make predictions until they have proven themselves against stronger opposition.
Prediction: semi finals
Summary: a genuine golden generation, but an undisciplined defence makes them vulnerable to stronger teams.
We’re overlooking Brazil a little bit. I suppose the memory of that 7-1 is still fresh, but the Brazil team of 2018 is a very different beast to the one that capitulated against Germany four years ago. Under the ward of Tite, Brazil are more positive, more energetic, and more versatile than before, having replaced some of the weak links of 2014 – such as David Luiz and Fred – with exciting players like Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho. They’re not too reliant on Neymar either, so his questionable fitness might not pose a problem for them.
Prediction: semi finals
Summary: Brazil look more like Brazil, with exciting players and much more energy and positivity than before.
THREE LIONS ON A SHIRT / JULES RIMET STILL GLEAMING / [FIFTY-TWO] YEARS OF HURT / NEVER STOPPED ME DREAMING / THREE LIONS ON A SHIRT
Prediction: quarter finals
Summary: IT’S COMING HOME, IT’S COMING HOME, IT’S COMING / FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME
I think Paul Pogba is set to be one of the biggest disappointments of the World Cup. He’ll be particularly disappointing because his teammates are so good. This is one of the best French teams since 1998, and is probably good enough to win the whole tournament. But for all their talent, France are somewhat inconsistent and individualistic, so if Didier Deschamps can’t get them playing as a team, they’re at risk of wasting a superb young lineup.
France are a different beast from the team that lost the Euro 2016 final. They’ve replaced ageing defenders with dynamic youngsters like Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, and have added Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappé in attack alongside Antoine Griezmann. Other than Paul Pogba, they’ve got N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi in midfield, combining heft with skill. From top to bottom, they’re simply an excellent side.
France’s biggest problem is that they’re relatively untested as a unit. Their younger players lack experience in international competition, and they haven’t spent enough time together to develop a distinctive style. Their status as favourites also puts a lot of pressure on some very young players to perform; after all, Mendy is 23, Lemar and Dembélé are 22 and Mbappé is only 19. Winning a World Cup is a lot to expect from players that young, and the pressure could easily get to them.
Summary: a superb team, but lacking in experience as a unit and reliant on young, untested players.
The best measure of just how good Germany really are is to look at which players they’ve left out. Mario Götze, who won them the last World Cup, André Schürrle, who assisted said goal, and Leroy Sané, the Premier League’s young player of the year are all standing forlornly on the tarmac. Germany’s clutch of players is so deep that they won the 2017 Confederations Cup with what was effectively a B team. Manuel Neuer is injured? No matter – we’ve got three other superstar goalkeepers to choose from.
Germany can add a uniquely stable coaching set-up to this glut of talent. Jogi Löw has been manager for 12 years now, and over that time he’s been able to develop a distinct style, ethos and identity. After Euro 2000, Germany undertook a massive restructuring of the way they nurtured and developed young players, investing in grassroots football and coaching, and forcing Bundesliga clubs to maintain a centre of excellence for German talent. If Germany win the World Cup again, it’ll be testament to a long-term strategy that has already paid off.
Do Germany have weaknesses? Not particularly: they lack alternatives at full-back, and it’s not totally clear what kind of striker Löw will play, but these are relatively minor issues. Germany are spoilt for choice, have a measure of stability no other team can match, and aren’t really under pressure to perform. Nobody quite wants to admit it, but this is probably the best chance for a team to retain the World Cup title since 1962.
Summary: depth, stability, style and swagger pretty much make Germany the favourites.
I would say ‘don’t be ridiculous’, but I think a lot of us said that before Euro 2016 too. To be fair, it took a farcical expansion and an absurd rule-change to convert Portugal’s third-place finish in the group stage to a championship title, something they can’t take advantage of this time. Portugal aren’t an awful team by any standard, but they’re nowhere near good enough to get any further than the round of sixteen, particularly if they’re handed a difficult draw. Assuming they finish second in the group, that opponent might be Uruguay. I know which team I’d favour.
Prediction: round of 16
Summary: you can’t rely on Cristiano Ronaldo forever, especially when you don’t have anything substantial behind him.
I don’t want Spain to win, simply because Spanish dominance over football has become rather boring, but I wouldn’t write them off. They’re still a very strong side, having complemented elder statesmen like Andrés Iniesta and David Silva with younger talents like Isco and Marcos Asensio. Their spine, though, is much the same as it was during their golden years, giving them a stability and familiarity that should serve them well. They also have the added bonus of not being completely dire to watch like they were during the tiki taka years.
Spain do seem to lack a bit of that old glamour, though, mostly because there’s nothing glamorous about trying to fit the orc-like Diego Costa into a team full of luxury playmakers, like putting pineapple on a pizza. Costa simply doesn’t fit in, but a lack of alternatives means Julen Lopetegui has to keep trying to slot him into the flowing, passing game that Spain play.
Prediction: quarter finals
Summary: a strong side but poor striking options means it’s not quite clear where the goals are coming from.
Can Uruguay really be considered dark horses if everyone’s calling them dark horses. Furthermore, can a really good team be considered a dark horse at all? Aren’t they simply… horses? Uruguay are, after all, a traditional footballing power – they’ve won the World Cup twice! Over the last few years, this tiny country has produced a slew of excellent players, particularly the defensive rock Diego Godín and the vampiric attacker Luis Suárez. This helped them reach a creditable fourth place in 2010, and took them to the second round four years later.
In 2018, Godín is still reliable and Suárez is still a fearsome striker, but they’ve added something their last two teams lacked, something which propels them from also-rans to credible champions: a midfield. The last few years have seen the emergence of Rodrigo Bentancur, Nahitan Nández, Matías Vecino and Federico Valverde, giving Uruguay the kind of physical yet creative midfielders they’ve so desperately needed. However, all four are still young, and haven’t had a lot of time to bed in with the other, more experienced players.
Prediction: semi finals
Summary: a slew of talented players, both young and experienced, make Uruguay tempting dark horses.
These nine teams represent the finest national sides in the world. Good though many of them are, none of them will be remembered among the pantheon of football greats in the years to come. But if the superstars are on form and the teams manage to gel, we just might witness a tournament that isn’t the kind of turgid dross we’ve come to expect from the FIFA World Cup. Watch this space.