The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off on Thursday. It marks the culmination of nearly four years of qualification matches between 209 teams across six continents. All told, nearly 2,500 goals were scored, with hundreds more sliding in during international friendlies and continental competitions, each in anticipation for the first whistle at Luzhniki Stadium.
To help you prepare for Russia’s opener against Saudi Arabia, here’s one thing to know about each team vying for soccer’s ultimate prize. So kick back, turn on some mood music, and get ready. The fun is about to begin.
Russia: Don’t Join the Losers Club
Only once before has a host nation failed to advance beyond the group stages (South Africa in 2010), but missing the knockout rounds is a real concern for the Russian squad. Four years ago, they finished third in their group behind Belgium and Algeria, and they also exited early in their two previous World Cups since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia is FIFA’s worst-ranked team in the tournament, and even with acclaimed netminder Igor Akinfeev in the back, they could join Bafana Bafana as legendary losers.
Saudi Arabia: Let Mohammad Al-Sahlawi Cook
In Saudi Arabia’s first trip to the World Cup in 1994, they won two of their group-stage games before losing in the round of 16 to Sweden. Since then, they’ve gone 0-7-2 in the competition with a goal difference of minus-22. Saudi striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi tied for the lead in goals during AFC qualification, and for the Green Falcons to have any shot of advancing out of Group A, he’ll need to find the back of the net in Russia.
Egypt: Mohamed Salah? Mohamed Salah.
Can I introduce you to Mohamed Salah? This season, the forward led the Premier League with 32 goals, and added 10 more during Liverpool’s Champions League run for good measure. Egypt might be one of the most defense-oriented teams in the tournament, and Salah might be the best counter attacker in the world. BONUS: One of their goalkeepers is 45. I’m 22 and struggled climbing the stairs in the Ringer offices this morning.
Uruguay: The best Defense Is a Good Offense
Uruguay may have the largest range of expected results of any team toward the top of the Elo ratings. With two world-class forwards (Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani) and a pair of star defenders from Atlético Madrid (Diego Godín and José María Giménez), it makes sense that the Uruguayans are expected to win their group. Uruguay scored more goals than every team but Brazil in CONMEBOL qualification, and it’s not likely to struggle finding the net in Russia. In a turn from the defensive solidity of the past decade, the question is now whether or not they can keep opponents out of their own goal.
Portugal: It’s the Cristiano Ronaldo Show
Cristiano Ronaldo tallied 41 goals and added eight assists in 40 appearances this season for Real Madrid. Over the course of his career, he’s netted 81 times for the Portuguese national team. All told, his 22 teammates this summer have scored 61 for the Navigators. Ronaldo’s Portugal teams have always been one-man machines, and they’ve stolen hardware before (see: 2016 European championships), and the draw places them with an easy potential round of 16 matchup with a squad from Group A, but that could be the end of the road. Ronaldo is 33 years old. He still has plenty of magic left in his boots. Whether it’s enough to carry Portugal past France or Argentina is a different story.
Spain: No Lopetegui, No Problem?
One of the most talented teams in the world walks into a Russian bar … and then leaves without its manager. Julen Lopetegui was unceremoniously sacked on Wednesday just days before Spain’s opening tie. The former skipper previously agreed in secret to take over at Real Madrid after the tournament ends, and once word reached the non-Madrid players on the roster, Real made the hiring public, much to the chagrin of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. But even without a coach, Spain could make waves. Four years ago, the defending champs were embarrassed by the Netherlands in a 2010 finals rematch, and then were dropped 2-0 by Chile, eliminating Spain from the competition before its third match even began. That was a shock, and the Spaniards are as talented as ever, but with key pieces like Andrés Iniesta on the wrong side of 30, they’ll need some of their greener players like Isco and Dani Carvajal to pick up some slack.
Morocco: Trust in the Youth
The Atlas Lions may be the most overlooked team in the tournament. Midfielders Amine Harit and Hakim Ziyech look poised to break out in Russia, and Juventus defender Medhi Benatia and Galatasaray midfielder Younès Belhanda add experience behind. Morocco hasn’t made it out of the group since 1986, but don’t be surprised if they upset Spain or Portugal and become this summer’s Costa Rica.
Iran: Defense Wins Championships … or at Least a Spot in the Knockout Stage
For years, scholars have wondered if you could win soccer games by playing 10 men behind the ball at all times. Iran is here to help answer that question. The Iranians are to modern soccer what the 2004 Detroit Pistons are to the 2018 Golden State Warriors. Is it exciting? No. But low scoring means upsets, and upsets are fun.
France: There’s So Much Talent, and So Little Planning
As my Ringer colleague Ryan O’Hanlon put it over the weekend, the French team’s closest American parallel is the Scott Brooks–era Oklahoma City Thunder. Les Bleus are as talented as any squad in the world, but manager Didier Deschamps hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in the way he arranges his side. So, why cheer for a team surrounded by dysfunction? Because win or lose, something wild is bound to happen.
Australia: Come for the Wonder Goals, Stay for the Socceroos
Two words: Tim Cahill. Two more words: is BACK. The man who ripped an off-bar volley to (temporarily) stun the Netherlands is 38, most recently played in the English second division, and is headed to his fourth career World Cup. Even if he isn’t starting for the Socceroos, the knowledge that he’ll be ready to come off the bench at a moment’s notice is enough to get me to wake up at the break of dawn—really FIFA? A 3 a.m. PT start time?—to see their opener against France.
Peru: Back From Suspension, and Ready to Rumble
After weeks of uncertainty, Peru’s captain, Paolo Guerrero, was cleared to play in this summer’s World Cup. He’d previously been suspended for 14 months after testing positive for cocaine last fall. Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán give the Incas a lethal, if aging pairing up top. This might not, uh, inspire confidence, but think of their tournament like The Bucket List—two old-timers hell-bent on taking their country to the knockout round for the first time in their lives.
Denmark: No Lord, but What’s a God to Christian Eriksen?
Last week, The Ringer unveiled its rankings of all 32 no. 10s playing in Russia. To compile this list, staffers were asked to submit their own individual rankings, which were then tabulated to produce a composite list. In naïveté, error, or stupidity, I placed Christian Eriksen—one of the top midfielders in England—behind Gylfi Sigurdsson. That was a mistake. Lord Bendtner may not be on the 23-man squad, but Eriksen makes Denmark a must-watch.
Argentina: It’s Lionel Messi’s Last Stand
Let’s start with the basics: Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest footballer to ever live. Four years ago, he carried his countrymen all the way to the final only to lose to Germany in extra time. This summer’s tournament likely won’t be his last appearance, but it will probably be his final trip as a player in his prime. Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Paulo Dybala give the Argentines the best front line in the tournament, but considering the aging and slow-moving footballers who line up behind them, even that might not be enough.
Iceland: Meet the Fun New Neighbors
Before 2016, Iceland had never qualified for the European Championship. That year, the plucky Nordic island reached the quarterfinals, drew Portugal and Hungary, and bested Austria and England before falling to tournament runners-up France. In the span of a week, Iceland became a global sensation. Root for Iceland because they have a post-match war chant that makes fans feel like vikings. Root for Iceland because Gylfi Sigurdsson is the kind of playmaker who can change a game. Root for Iceland because a few years ago, it more closely resembled a hedge fund than a country. If for nothing else, root for Iceland because international soccer can feel repetitive, and the new kids on the block are pretty fun.
Croatia: Why Not Us?
Just like Brazil, Germany, South Korea, and Japan, Croatia are a hipster’s dream. They have enough mainstream stars (Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic), well-respected veterans (Dejan Lovren, Ivan Perisic), and up-and-coming youngsters (Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic) to compete with just about any team, but lack the hype that surrounds similarly talented squads like Colombia and Portugal.
Nigeria: They’ll Win or Lose in Style
Can we talk about the jerseys? We should talk about the jerseys. Since Nike unveiled the Super Eagles’ kits in February, 3 million of them have been preordered, and Nike’s retail stores sold out. Nigeria have fewer players at top European clubs than Croatia and Argentina, but they’re just as deep, with four players calling England’s top flight home, and a few more scattered across the continent’s most competitive leagues. Longtime hero John Obi Mikel spent the past year in China after more than a decade in West London, and with former teammate Victor Moses, should be able to guide a formidable Nigerian midfield.
Brazil: Say Hello to the (Almost) Flawless Favorites
Is this good?
Brazil's starting lineup against Croatia: Roma; Real Madrid, PSG, Inter Milan, Manchester City; Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona; Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City— Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) June 3, 2018
I feel like it might be good. Four years after being embarrassed by Germany in Belo Horizonte, Brazil is back and with something of a vengeance. On paper, they’re the best team on the planet, they top the Elo ratings, and have one of the three most lauded players in the sport. Brazil is the only country to make all 21 iterations of the tournament, and the only one to win five times. While its collection of talent is certain to dazzle, anything less than a sixth this summer will be a disappointment.
Switzerland: Can They Build on Brazil?
At its best, the World Cup tells simple truths: It showed the world that James Rodríguez was a superstar; it crowned Germany as the top team on the globe. But sometimes it can be misleading. Such was the tale of Xherdan Shaqiri, the then–Bayern Munich reserve who in 2014 nearly carried Switzerland to the quarterfinals. Two clubs and four years later, it’s easy to forget that the Swiss were a 118th-minute Di María goal away from seeing Belgium in the final eight. Now, Shaqiri might not be the best player on his team. Still, with Stephan Lichtsteiner, Josip Drmic, and Granit Xhaka returning, there’s a chance he could find his magic once more.
Costa Rica: They Can’t Beat You If They Can’t Score
Joel Campbell plays for Real Betis and Bryan Ruiz gets run for Sporting Lisbon, but this is Keylor Navas’s team. The Real Madrid netminder was one of the stories of the 2014 World Cup, carrying the Central American nation all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to the Netherlands in penalties. A repeat performance might be asking for too much, but if Navas’s club success is any indication, Costa Rica could be headed back to the knockout stage.
Serbia: What If Kawhi Leonard Wore Cleats?
Do you like offenses predicated on physical dominance and veteran leadership, but can’t be bothered to watch old VHS tapes of the early-2000s San Antonio Spurs? Well, do I have a team for you. Enter Serbia, a former Eastern Bloc stalwart that boasts Dusan Tadic, Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Matic, and possible-record-breaking-transfer Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Few teams pick up as many fouls as the Serbians do, and even fewer have as strong of an attack.
Germany: Maybe Gary Lineker Was Right
When was the last time Die Mannschaft featured a great no. 9 at the top? There was Miroslav Klose, sure. The striker collected more World Cup goals than any other man in history by poaching rebounds and relying on better midfield service than most players could ever dream of receiving. This year, Germany has a bona fide star up top, with Timo Werner (34 goals in 63 Bundesliga games over the past two seasons) finishing off through balls, crosses, and lobs from the likes of Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, and Julian Draxler. And if that fails, there’s always Thomas Müller, who’s in striking distance of Klose’s all-time record.
Mexico: Almost Three Decades of Above-average Soccer, and So Little to Show for It
As Michael Baumann explained, El Tri might be the most popular team in North America. With Chicharito, Giovani dos Santos, Héctor Herrera, and accused drug trafficking conspirator Rafael Márquez, Mexico looks to finally break its streak of six consecutive round of 16 exits. Whether that happens by reaching the quarterfinals or exiting early is uncertain, but fans can rest assured in the comfort of Guillermo Ochoa defending the goal.
Sweden: There’s a Zlatan-size Hole
No Ibra, no problem. Sweden reached its first World Cup since 2006 without its enigmatic superstar, and chose not to bring Zlatan to Russia even after he expressed a desire to close out his international career with one last swing. In truth, Sweden could probably use him, sporting an average defense but a below-average attack.
South Korea: It’s Tiki-taka, but Not Too Much Tiki-taka
South Korea has just about everything you could want from a national team. There’s Ki Sung-yueng, the veteran, Son Heung-min, his anointed successor, and Lee Seung-woo, the future. Together, they feed a Korean attack that loves passing. More than 20 percent of all South Korean buildups since the 2014 World Cup have featured at least 10 passes—a style that benefited them as they claimed second place in their AFC qualification group to earn an automatic bid.
Belgium: Give Me Goals or Give Me Death
Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, and Thibaut Courtois should make up the spine of the most successful team in Europe. Instead, they’re the faces of its most consistently underwhelming. The Belgians were heralded as the next big thing in 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals, but a series of disappointing results could leave their golden generation without anything to show for it. Belgium is talented enough to win the World Cup. They have enough offensive might to overpower some smaller armies. But a porous defense and lackluster coaching make them one of the more likely tournament favorites to watch the finals at home.
Panama: Last One in, First One Out?
We all know how Panama reached their first World Cup in history. Thanks to an American collapse on the island of Trinidad in October and a timely win over the Ticos, Panama leapfrogged the Stars and Stripes and snatched CONCACAF’s final guaranteed spot in the competition. The Panamanians are widely regarded as one of the worst teams traveling to Russia, and aren’t expected to advance, but the same was true in qualification.
Tunisia: Watch a Team With No Strikers Fighting for an Upset
Per FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, only two teams in the field are worse on defense than the Tunisians, and only five are as bad offensively. Their most talented player, French-born Yohan Benalouane, turned down a number of offers to join the national team before eventually giving in, and Wahbi Khazri anchors a midfield that highlights one of the most foul-prone units in the tournament. Competing with Belgium and England will be a tough ask, but Tunisia plays with enough physicality to disrupt anyone who crosses its path.
England: Goodbye, Golden Generation; Hello, Talented Youth
As James Yorke laid out earlier this week, this England team doesn’t resemble any other in recent memory. Gone are the aging stars given preferential treatment due to past glories rather than current contributions. In their places are younger firebrands led by Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. England might not win their first World Cup since 1966 this summer, but for the first time in a while, they certainly won’t be boring.
Poland: It’s Robert Lewandowski (and Friends)
Only one team had a higher percentage of their goals scored by one player than Poland had scored by Robert Lewandowski during the qualification cycle. The Bayern target man scored 16 times in 10 UEFA qualification games—more than half of Poland’s 28 total tallies. Group H is as wide open as any in the tournament, and Lewandowski is the type of scorer who once scored five goals in nine minutes.
Senegal: Sadio Mané Has Some Help
Sixteen years ago, Aliou Cissé captained Senegal to an upset over defending champions France, and a trip to the quarterfinals in their first appearance. Now, he looks to coach them there in their first appearance since. Liverpool’s Mané (10 goals and seven assists in England, 10 goals in the Champions League) is the star, but with four other Premier League fixtures at his side, Senegal has the firepower to climb out of the group stages once again.
Colombia: Meet the True Dark Horse
Had it not been for a January injury to Radamel Falcao, Colombia’s 2014 World Cup might not have ended in the quarterfinals against Brazil. And while James Rodríguez did shine in Falcao’s absence, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. Thankfully, the Colombian striker is healthy once again, and coming off 21- and 18-goal seasons for AS Monaco in Ligue 1. Juan Cuadrado, David Ospina, Carlos Bacca, and Cristián Zapata are all more experienced than they were in Brazil, and youngsters like Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Tottenham’s Davinson Sánchez, if given run, could prosper.
Japan: The Same Team Searches for New Results
One day, Japan’s stranglehold on the Asian Football Confederation may weaken. But until then, they might as well be the federation’s Warriors. The Asian powerhouse has won four of the past seven AFC Asian Cups, and is participating in its sixth consecutive World Cup, with many of the same faces from its 2014 squad returning. Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Makoto Hasebe are back in the midfield, and Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida are back up top and in defense. Japan fell short of expectations in Brazil, but look to challenge for a spot in the last 16 this time around.