It’s a World Cup year and that means it’s time to crown a new nation the champions of the most watched sport on Earth: soccer. The world’s most popular event will see 32 countries pinned against each other for ultimate bragging rights and pride. The World Cup is one of those sporting events where the winner is usually going to be a team you expected to be there; however, there will certainly be underdogs to watch along the way just as we do every March in college basketball. Whether the last time you watched soccer was four weeks ago or four summers ago, I’m here with a guide to let you know which teams have a realistic shot at glory, and which could play spoiler along the way.
The Favorites: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
If you are a betting man, take one of these five very talented sides. It’s just a truth to the World Cup that a top squad is going to take home the trophy, and these teams are just littered with talent. Argentina boasts arguably the top front line of any team in the tournament with the likes of Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus) and Sergio Aguero (Man City). If there is a team that could challenge them for best line of forwards, it’s Brazil led by their golden boy Neymar (PSG). Spain and Germany are the last two World Cup winners and feature loads of players from the top players around Europe. Lastly, there is France, a team that is young, passionate, and talented. After finishing runner-up in Euro 2016, France will look for redemption in the greatest way.
Next in Line: Belgium, Croatia, England, Mexico, Portugal, Uruguay
If you’re someone who likes an underdog, but are still looking for a realistic chance for your team to win, the six nations above are for you. Belgium may be a smaller nation, but they are great in individual talent. If Argentina and Brazil have the best forwards, Belgium sure has a case for the best midfield. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City), Dries Mertens (Napoli), and Eden Hazard (Chelsea), are all top 10 midfield talents for Belgium who also boast an impressive defense as well. Belgium is a team I really like to make some noise in this tournament as they try to grab their first World Cup. Two teams that have tasted World Cup glory are England and Uruguay, the first young and unproven, and the later experienced and confident. Both could find themselves in the final if everything falls their way. Mexico and Croatia are two teams that I believe are vastly underrated on paper. Both teams are well more than capable of beating any team that lines up across them. And finally there is Portugal, the team that took down France and won Euro 2016. Also, any team led by Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) will have a fighting chance.
Sleeper Teams: Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Nigeria, Peru, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams would call it a disappointment not to make it out of the group stage, but everything after would just be icing on the cake. I would categorize these teams into two groups that often result in similar outcomes. It is possible for one superstar to lead a team to a title (see Cristiano Ronaldo in Euro 2016), and plenty of teams in this category have a superstar who could do the same. Colombia has the 2014 World Cup top goal scorer James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich), Poland has the top scorer in Germany’s top league, Bundesliga, in Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich) and Denmark is led by top playmaker Cristian Eriksen (Tottenham). The other category is a team with a group for above average players who always seemingly work well together in the national team. Costa Rica is the best example of this kind of team due to their 2014 World Cup run to the quarterfinals. Similarly built teams include Peru, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland.
Underdogs who could play spoiler: Australia, Egypt, Iceland, Japan, Russia, Serbia, South Korea
These teams won’t pose a real threat in the later rounds, but they could very easily steal a spot into the knockout stages. Iceland is a real feel good story after their historic run in Euro 2016. Egypt is led by Mo Salah (Liverpool), who has been one of the top three players in Europe this past season. The hosts, Russia, are going to use home field advantage. Bottom line is that these teams have large hills to climb, but it’s is often the underdogs that hold the most fight and passion.
Just Happy to be Here: Iran, Morocco, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Tunisia
These teams qualified and made their countries proud, but that is likely the end of the road. Panama is one of two teams making their World Cup debut along with Iceland. Iran and Saudi Arabia qualified out of relatively disappointing Asian group, but all credit to them nonetheless. Senegal has a player to watch in Sadio Mane (Liverpool). For some nations, they’ve already accomplished their goals, and that perfectly alright, but it doesn’t mean they won’t try to give these bigger teams a run for their money.