Good Sports: World Cup 2018 Preview

Surprise, America! That’s right, the World Cup starts tomorrow. How did this pop up so quickly on us? The rest of the world has been hungrily anticipating this for some time now, but as the American national team is pretty much a garbage fire, it’s all but a footnote until the day comes to televise the event.

Without further adieu, let’s take a glance at the 24 teams vying for the title of greatest in the football world:

Group A – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay

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The 2018 host nation has a much better chance of advancing to the second round than its predecessor South Africa (the first nation to fail in the group stage). Its opponents are a blooming Saudi Arabia, upstart Egypt and the ever underestimated Uruguay. If anything else, the host status may not help them overcome what appears to be more of an even group then earlier realized. My pick for the lead here is Uruguay, though I have a soft spot for underdogs like Saudi Arabia as well. Russia will have to win the opener tomorrow at 11am to prove they’re here to host like champions. Egypt, while somewhat considered an afterthought, could equally play spoiler if goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary stands on his head. Advances: Uruguay, Russia

Group B – Morocco, Iran, Portugal and Spain

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The biggest surprise may come here, as news dropped today of the remarkably questionable dismissal of Spain’s head coach Julen Lopetegui a mere two days before their first match against main rivals Portugal. Perhaps it won’t be a problem with Fernando Hierro coming in to steer the ship. Apparently this sort of thing happens all the time, though I don’t like it right before one of the biggest matches in the group stage. Morocco and Iran will have a great chance to take a step forward with their programs, especially when the B group looks to be so unbalanced – top-heavy with the Iberian teams. If the winner of their match steals one from Spain, they could even nab a berth in the next round, a boon for either nation. My unfortunate prediction is that nothing much will change, and Spain will hold steady. It doesn’t bode well for them in the next round, however, especially since I expect a first match loss to the far superior Portugal. That club that looks to be going all the way for the first time in World Cup history, particularly since they’re riding high from their 2016 Euros victory. Advances: Portugal, Spain

Group C – France, Australia, Peru and Denmark

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With several high-profile European nations out of the mix, the spotlight falls on England and France to take up the mantle. In our first look at those two bitter rivals, there will be quite the challenge to even make it out of the group stage. Australia is the lowest ranked by FIFA, at 36th in the world. Peru and Denmark hover right outside the top ten, with France a mere three spaces ahead. The tightest of all the groups? I think that may be possible. Day one for the foursome will commence Saturday, where Peru and Denmark look to cannibalize each other while France lucks out against the Socceroos. If France is surprised by the boys from Down Under, they’ll flounder immediately, shaken up for their other two bouts. In fact, I think that may be my first surprise of the series. Let’s go with my pick for the best in South America, while my ancestral home gets a chance at glory. Advances: Peru, Denmark

Group D – Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria

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Iceland was the darling of Euro 16, but they likely won’t make it as far this time around, their first World Cup bid. While it will be fun to watch the sparsely populated nation root in unison, in all likelihood the best African team will fall in line behind a perennial favorite in Argentina. Lionel Messi leaped out of retirement for one last chance at the highest honor, so it will be debilitating to see Argentina fail in any regard. Nigeria may not have won the Africa Cup of Nations (that honor went to the missing Cameroon), but they may be the best chance at our first African victor. More likely will be Argentina’s return to glory. As for Croatia, I like them as a surprise (like 1998), but they’ll disappear on Saturday after losing to Nigeria. Advancing: Argentina, Nigeria

Group E – Costa Rica, Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland

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Brazil is still the juggernaut they’ve always been, and like other previous winners, has the experiential advantage over their three group rivals. Serbia is back after missing 2014’s Cup, and they’re the “most experienced” with two fourth place finishes (1930 and 1962). Costa Rica and Switzerland have never made it past the quarterfinals, so it looks like an easy advance for Brazil. I have to pick someone for the second slot, and Switzerland is ranked sixth place overall somehow, so why not them? Either way, it looks like a rough second round against Germany. Let’s have some fun with a spoiler squad, then, shall we? Advancing: Brazil, Costa Rica

Group F – Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea

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Like I just mentioned, defending champions Germany will be taking this top spot. I have full faith they’ll at least make it out of round one, and in all likelihood will run away with first place. Mexico is most intriguing here, as they’ve been getting better under the steady guidance of Juan Carlos Osorio, who led the team to a 22-match unbeaten streak over his first year. I love the vitality of South Korea and the unwavering athleticism of Sweden, but I think Mexico will have its best run in 2018. Similarly, I think, to group C, the latter countries will cannibalize each other, leaving Mexico to second, with Germany on its way to a repeat championship. Advancing: Germany, Mexico

Group G – Belgium, Panama, Tunisia and England

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Panama joins Iceland as the other first-timer, and they certainly have their work cut out for them after ousting the United States at the last possible minute. England will look to crown themselves the best of Europe, but Belgium is remarkably ranked third overall. Heck, Tunisia is nothing to sniff at either. Panama will likely bottom out, glad to have their first taste of the world stage, while England will actually have to hold back the upstart Tunisians. Shall I call another upset? I think the United States pundits underestimate how global this whole thing is becoming, and Tunisia can hope their name will be called nearer to the finals. If nothing else, they’re making it out of the first round finally. Advancing: Belgium, Tunisia

Group H – Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal

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I let my roommate (Jimmy!) pick this final stage, mostly because it’s after midnight. I actually agree with his choices anyway, so maybe he’s more educated on football than I expected. Colombia is the one to beat here, but Jimmy actually chose them for the second slot. An early tie with Japan will allow Poland’s victory over Senegal to be all that more meaningful in the long run. With a tight back two matches, Colombia will squeak by and make it to the second round alongside a miraculously top-heavy Poland. Senegal will be too besot with injuries, while Japan is merely lucky to be there. Advancing: Poland, Colombia


Well, good luck to all the participating nations – who do you think you’re rooting for? Let us know in the comments! Early predictions for the second round are tough to tell for now, and I’m down to the wire as it is. Let’s let the thing play out and I’ll at least go with who my way-too-early final four are: Portugal, Germany, Peru and Belgium. Even my final eight had no one outside of South America and Europe, so maybe I should root for all spoilers? Let’s go Iceland! 

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