The biggest show on Earth is here. Your insistence that you are above getting swept up in the mania won’t last very long. Every four years I put my neck on the line by making my predictions of what is going to happen, giving you a free chance to mock me when anything goes wrong, with no conceivable benefit for me except bragging rights if I get anything right. My guide to the 32 teams might not be accurate, but it sure is opinionated enough to give you something to talk about with everyone around you getting swept up in the mania!
First off, I will start off by saying we are likely to witness a very high level of football in this World Cup, for two reason. First, it is held in November/December, and most players are in peak physical condition, after about a third of the regular season has passed, after having had a long summer break. All other World Cups were held in the summer, at the end of a long season, when most players are exhausted. Secondly, because the World Cup is held in tiny Qatar, all stadia are within a 30 kilometer distance from one another, so all teams will be settled in one hotel and training camp for the duration of the tournament. There will be no travel and changing climate and time zones to mess up preparations and give an unfair advantage to one team over another. This is going to be a truly unique footballing spectacle, where the best national teams in the world are all given a training camp to focus on their football and not have to do any travel.
I also believe rich Gulf nations like Qatar are the ideal World Cup hosts, as they’re the only countries that can afford something so obscenely expensive. The World Cup usually ends up being a massively expensive calamity for the host nation, as big business interests like construction companies and tourism ally with populist governments and make insane promises of untold riches to accrue to the nation from hosting the tournament. “If we spend billions of dollars over a decade to throw a giant party for the world for one month, our GDP will go up and we will end up with excellent infrastructure” is how this silly Keynesian sales pitch usually goes. In reality, projects always go over-budget and a month of fully-booked hotels will nowhere near cover the enormous expenditures undertaken, and the hosts end up with half a dozen enormously expensive stadia nobody will ever use. Brazil and South Africa‘s recent experiences were particularly bad. Like a high school kid who thinks throwing a party for the entire school in his house will make him the most popular kid, the hosting works out much better for the guests than the hosts. Only a country like Qatar can afford to put up a show like this, and football fans can watch free of the guilt of thinking of how many poor taxpayers have had to pay to finance the spectacle.
Onto the teams!
Clearly nowhere near serious contenders, Qatar are also probably not as hopelessly outclasses as they’re portrayed. They are the reigning Asian champions, having beaten both Japan and South Korea to win the trophy. Abdelkarim Hassan and Akram Afif won the Asian player of the year a few years back. They have a very good coach and home advantage, and they have built a team for years around this World Cup. Rather than hire flashy big name coaches, they have stuck with the man who used to coach their youth team since 2013, and the senior side since 2017. He knows these players very well. They also have a pretty strong domestic league that rivals mid-level European leagues in terms of talent. Qualifying to the second round is unlikely for them, but not impossible, especially as Sadio Mane’s absence makes Senegal a much weaker team.
The Ecuadorian team had a very impressive World Cup qualification campaign, and they have a lot of impressive young players, Brighton’s Moises Caicedo in particular looks like a superstar in the making. With Sadio Mane out, they have a very good chance of making it to the second round, but they’re unlikely to go too far after that.
The African champions have a very good team, which would have been a lot better had their superstar, and the runner up to last year’s Ballon d’Or, Sadio Mane, not been ruled out through injury. Mane has been phenomenal over the last year, and with the solid Koulibaly in defense, Mendy in goal, would have formed a very solid backbone for one of the best African sides in a long time. It’s truly sad that he will be missing the World Cup, and without him, Senegal look lacking in attack, and Group A’s second spot is wide open.
Holland’s central defender Stefan de Vrij will make history this year by being the first player to ever play at a World Cup and know who I am! De Vrij is a bitcoiner and him and I have struck an online friendship after I noticed he followed me, so I will be supporting Holland this year, because this is a huge deal for me! This current team might not have the flashy talents of some of the previous Dutch team, but they do have plenty of solid players and in Louis van Gaal, they have a coach who probably knows more about football than all the rest of the coaches and players in the tournament combined. He is the kind of manager who can drill a group of players into a very solid unit and get the best out of them. He took a young Holland side to the semi-final in 2014, where they only lost to Argentina on penalties. With van Dijk, de Vrij, and de Ligt at the back, the Dutch should be very solid defensively. A lot will depend on the form of Luuk de Jong in midfield and Memphis Depay in attack, both of whom have not played regularly this season for Barcelona. And don’t be surprised if van Gaal works a miracle with some of his unknown young players and gets them to put in exceptional performances. Their goalkeeper might be a weakness, and van Gaal has only had a year in the job, and this World Cup starts for them only 1 week after their players were playing with their clubs, meaning van Gaal has not had enough time to work his magic with the players. Van Gaal also recently announced he is suffering from cancer, and at 71, this will likely be his final job in football. A World Cup would be a perfect way to end his career.
England made the semi-final in 2018 and lost the final of the European Championship last year, but they seem to have regressed significantly over the last year, judging by their performances in the lead up. Southgate was never very convincing as a manager, and he doesn’t look like he has the faith of his players, particularly after the penalties debacle in the final of the European Championship against Italy, where he brought on two players just before the penalty kicks and both of them missed their kicks. This was a thoroughly stupid decision, because players who were dropped and not trusted to play for a minute of the final are unlikely to be in the best mental shape to take a penalty kick, and will be lacking in match sharpness and focus. The team still has a lot of talent, and they should have little trouble winning what is arguably the easiest group in the tournament, and should be good to beat whoever finishes second in group A, but they’ll likely get eliminated by France in the quarter final.
Iran have a better team than their last two teams, but they are still not a very good team, and under Carlos Queiroz they play a very defensive and suffocating game which makes them not very fun to watch. They have a decent chance at qualifying from the group stage, but whoever finishes second in this group will likely not trouble the Dutch in the second round.
Contrary to MLS and USSF propaganda, football is an enormously popular sport in the US. The US made the semi-final of the first World Cup in 1930, and the sport has a long history here. There are more Americans who play the sport than the entire populations of Holland, Belgium, and other elite footballing countries. The problem of football in the US is that the US does not have a competitive league system, like the rest of the world, where anyone can start a club and all clubs compete against one another to get to the top division where a national champion is crowned. Instead, the US uses the franchise monopoly model, where spots in the top division are purchased from the cartel that runs the MLS. When spots in the top division are won on the pitch, clubs have a strong incentive to invest in player development and to be a big part of their local community. Clubs worldwide will develop talent from as young as 5 years old up to professional level, which results in superior talent production, and also has a great impact on the youth, even those who don’t make it as pros, as they stay off the streets and gangs and learn discipline, and has a great impact on the local communities, where the club builds a solid fanbase and gives the community a shared experience to enjoy. When clubs just buy spots in the top division, as is the case in the US, there is very little investment in youth talent development, and very little links between clubs and community. The franchises that make it to the top are astroturfed fake creations of billionaires playing around for fun, unlike everything else in the world. The league is also enormously uncompetitive and unwatchable without relegation. Within a few months of the season start it becomes obvious which teams are going to make it to the playoffs and which won’t, and so a lot of games end up being meaningless with nothing at stake. On the contrary, for the bad teams, it makes sense to perform badly since they are rewarded with better picks for the next season. Everywhere else in the world, teams have to play until the last game because they would lose their spot in the division if they are relegated. The result is that US players are unable to play proper competitive football and develop their talent, and that’s why the US continues to magnificently suck at football, even when it has an enormous population, huge interest in the game, millions of young players, and lots of money. My biggest criticism of FIFA is that it should suspend the US’s membership and not allow it to compete in the World Cup until it establishes an open competitive professional league instead of the closed franchise abomination it has had for decades, which has stifled the growth of the game and destroyed talent development. Until then, the US will continue to get massively outclassed and outplayed in every World Cup, while its enormous number of fans continue to delude themselves into believing they are a plucky small footballing nation that’s an underdog. But that’s not true.
Trying to look on the bright side, there is a new crop of American players who were mostly developed in European clubs, and they are a cut above the players that develop in the US franchises. Pulisic, Reyna, and McKennie are the pick of the bunch, and all will depend on them. Given they have Iran and Wales in their group, they might advance to the second round, but it’s difficult to seem them advance past the Dutch.
Most likely to qualify from the group in second place behind England and ahead of the US and Iran, but unlikely to go very far. Gareth Bale was their best player by far, but he’s declined significantly recently, so don’t expect much.
This is likely to be Messi’s last World Cup, and he will be painfully desperate to pick up the trophy and silence the very justified criticisms of his international career, where he has repeatedly failed to deliver at the biggest stage. I have a weird hunch that this World Cup will be the final chapter of the Messi Ronaldo rivalry, and both of them have a decent shout of winning it. The earliest they could meet is in the semi-final, but that would require one of them to finish second in their group. If they both win their groups, as is likely, then they can only meet in the final. A Messi-Ronaldo World Cup final would be a fitting final battle to this rivalry.
Even though this is a very good Argentina team, it might be the weakest Messi has had. He had incredibly good squads in 2006, where he was still a young substitute and in 2010, where he and the golden generation of Higuain, Aguero, Di Maria, Mascherano, and the gang were at their peak, but they were sabotaged by the Argentinian FA inexplicably appointing Maradona as manager, a footballing hero but an extremely limited coach, who did not pick the much-needed defensive expertise of Zanetti and Cambiasso, resulting in a catastrophic humiliation against Germany in the quarter-finals, which I saw live. In 2014, everything seemed to align for Messi, with a team optimized to get the best out of him, and lady luck did everything she could to help him. He did not score a single goal in the tournament, but still made it to the final, where Germany’s important midfielder Sami Khedira got injured just before the match, and his replacement, Kramer, got concussed a few minutes into the match, leaving Germany with no central midfielders, and having to play Schurrle, a winger in his place, changing their entire set-up. And yet, Messi failed to do anything in 120 minutes of football. Even when he got a free kick at a decent position, he mis-hit it badly, sending it very high over the bar. Messi in an Argentina shirt is simply a very different player from the incredible goal-machine in the Barcelona shirt. Today, Barcelona’s Messi is no more, since he’s moved to PSG, his form has declined rapidly. Even in the mediocre French league, Messi has performed very badly over the past season and a third. Could he be saving himself for the World Cup? His fans will be hoping for it, but there are good reasons to be skeptical.
As is seemingly enshrined in the Argentinian constitution, the team arrives at the World Cup with an abundance of attacking talent. Lautaro Martinez is an excellent goalscorer who could set the tournament alight, and Di Maria has still got it after all these years. Alvarez and Dybala are also very good. The goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez is exceptional, but defense and midfield not quite at the same level. Argentina are unbeaten in 35 matches, and if they avoid defeat to Saudi Arabia on their opening match, they will equal the record for the longest unbeaten run in international football history. This is a serious contender for the title, even if Messi is not at his best. They should win their group and have no problem winning their second round game, likely against Denmark, but it is at the quarter final against Holland that will be a serious test. While they might have the better team on paper, Lionel Scaloni is a young and inexperienced coach compared to the footballing mega-brain of Louis van Gaal. It would make for a very fascinating game that’s difficult to call. Should they win that, they’ll likely have to negotiate their arch-nemesis Brazil in the semi-final, and then a final against France of Portugal. They could win the Cup, but I don’t see it as very likely.
Not a very good team, and very unlucky to be placed in a very tough group. Likely to offer another compelling argument in support of the contention that Asia receives too many spots in the tournament.
There is an unwritten law in the game of football whereby Mexico have to make it out of the group stage and get eliminated in the second round. It has been the case for the last seven World Cups, since 1994. This looks like a decent bet for this year. But their group is probably the closest and most open group, as it has Argentina and Poland in it, so there is a serious chance they might be eliminated from the first round. Should they make it out of their group, it will likely be in second place, and they’d be highly unlikely to trouble the French. Mexico do have a solid team, but it is a bit old, predominantly made up of the same core as the team from the last tournament, which performed admirably well and only got eliminated by a very strong Brazil team in closely contested second round game.
Any team that has indomitable goal machine Robert Lewandowski on it is going to be a tough team to beat. This year he also has the excellent Piotr Zielinski on hand, and the rest of the squad looks decent. They have a good chance of making it through the group, but it will be very tough for them to beat France in the second round. But if Lewandowski and goalkeeper Scesczny have the game of their life, it would be the biggest upset of the tournament.
The reigning champions are one of the favorites for the trophy. Something in the water in France seems to be making an incredibly high number of excellent players. They have the bulk of the team from last time, but they’ve added Karim Benzema, who just won the Ballon d’Or and is unarguably the best player in the world currently. But just after I finished writing this, it’s reported that he’s been injured, which is really sad. But nonetheless, they still have incredible attacking talent in Kylian Mbappe, who could be the player of the tournament, as well as Antoine Griezmann, Marcus Thuram, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud, and Ousmane Dembele. But it’s not all great news. Their two first choice central midfielders, Pogba and the miraculously effective Kante are also missing injured. The replacements are Real Madrid’s Tchouameni and Camavinga, who are great, but have little experience and little time playing with this team. Varane in defense hasn’t been very inspiring of late. Lloris in goal is overrated in my opinion. Left back Lucas Hernandez is just recovering from injury. There’s a little too much uncertainty about the first team, and it’s not clear whether they can really go all the way. They should have no trouble winning their group and their second round game against whoever finishes second of Group C. A quarter-final against England should prove winnable, but their big test will likely be the semi-final against Portugal.
Not a very good team and unlikely to make it through the group stage.
Likely to win the second spot in their group. A reliable and solid team, but they are unlikely to eliminate Argentina in the second round, and if they do, they won’t get past Brazil in the Quarter final.
An average side that’s unlikely to make it out of the group, although striker Wahbi Khazari’s rocket launcher of a foot might produce the goal of the tournament.
Luis Enrique is making a bold choice by building his team around exciting young players. The great generation that won two European championships and a World Cup is now almost entirely gone, and the new kids are not quite at the level where you can expect them to emulate the greats’ achievements. It is hard to really tell how good this team will be, and they should do well, but it’s a stretch to imagine them going all the way. Gavi, Pedri, or one of their young players might be the breakthrough superstar of the tournament. If they do win it, it will be an amazing achievement for these young players.
Probably not as good as they were four years ago and unlikely to progress from the group stage.
Same as Costa Rica. With a tougher draw, both Germany and Spain might have had a challenge in getting out of their group, but with this opposition they are unlikely to have much trouble.
In 2014, I predicted Germany would win the World Cup, and they did it. In 2018, I predicted it would be the first time they fail to make the Quarter finals since 1938, and they did not, even failing to make it out of a relatively easy group. I wish I had strong opinions about them this time, but they will likely be somewhere in between. They do not have the talent and depth that would take them all the way, but they still have a better team than in 2018, and an easier draw should see them get qualify from their group. A second round tie against anyone from Group F could prove tricky, as would any quarter-final opponent. Semi-final is their ceiling, I suspect.
The golden generation of Belgium has its last chance in this World Cup, but it’s probably too late for them. They made the semi-final in 2018, but are unlikely to go that far this time around. They do have the world’s best goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, and one of the world’s best players in Kevin de Bruyne in midfield, but beyond that, the squad looks a pale shadow of the one that turned up four years ago. Eden Hazard has gone from one of the world’s best players to a complete failure at Real Madrid, scoring 4 league goals in his four seasons there so far. Romelu Lukaku is injured and unlikely to be back in top form. Dries Mertens is past his best. Brighton’s Trossard might be their best attacker, but he can’t do it all alone. Their best defenders, Vertongen and Alderweireld are older and slower than four years ago. If de Bruyne has a bad game or two, it is not even entirely unlikely they could get eliminated in the first round.
Canada suffers from the same problem that the US suffers from: the lack of a competitive league. But things could be changing in Canada, after the recent launch of the Canadian Premier League, which promises to expand and become an open league system with competitive promotion and relegation. If that is to happen, expect Canada to improve immensely and develop great players. As it stands, they only have Alphonso Davis as a world class player, and he can’t carry the team on his own.
With Sadio Mane out, Morocco are probably the best African team in the competition. PSG’s right-back Achraf Hakimi is probably the best right-back in the world. Bayern’s Noussair Mazraoui is another excellent player, but it is the Moroccans’ bad luck that their two best players are right-backs. The coach will almost certainly move one of them to make sure they both play. Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou is an excellent goalkeeper, and his team-mate Youssef En-Nesyri is a dangerous striker. Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat give them a very competitive midfield. The Moroccans could well be the surprise package of the tournament. It is not inconceivable that they would qualify from their group and send one of last tournament’s second and third placed teams home.
I have for long been a fan of Croatian football and expected them to go far in the last World Cup. They surprised the world by making it to the final with a terrific team. They still have Luka Modric, their best player, but he’s an older less effective version of himself four years ago, something that applies to many of the stars of the previous run. They no longer have Mario Mandzukic and it is difficult to see how they are going to score many goals with their current line up. They should qualify out of the group, but don’t expect the heroics of 2018.
Brazil were my favorites for the 2018 World Cup, and they really should have won it. In retrospect, their undoing was that their manager Tite kept on selecting Gabriel Jesus even though he was clearly out of form after returning from injury. With Roberto Firmino on the bench and in fine form, this was an inexcusable mistake, and it cost them the World Cup. This current team is arguably not as good as the one they had in 2018, as most their players are older, and I am not sure I can trust Tite to have the decisiveness to take the right decisions at the right stage, though they might be unpopular. Still, this is a terrific squad with world class talent in every position. Tite’s squad selection is concerning for Brazilian fans, as he’s chosen an excessive 9 forwards and only 6 midfielders. He’s going to need all these forwards, and having so many of them not playing is not going to be great for team chemistry, and not having enough midfielders in case of injuries might be a big problem. Neymar has been in steady decline over the past four years, getting injured very frequently and putting on weight. He has been in good form this season, which is encouraging, but he does play in the French league, which is not that difficult, and he does have an exceptionally strong squad with him there. A quarter-final against Spain would be a great spectacle, and should be winnable for them, and after that, they would likely meet Holland or Argentina in an epic semi-final.
As is the law with all teams from the former Yugoslavia, this is a solid team with good players all around that should qualify from the group with Brazil. They are likely to meet Portugal in the second round, and they did finish ahead of Portugal in their World Cup qualifying group, but I would tip the Portuguese players’ superior experience and big game mentality to tip the scales in this contest. Still, Serbia are a good shout for the surprise package of the tournament.
Unlikely to make it to the second round.
Also unlikely to make it to the second round.
Looking at the squad sheets, I cannot escape the conclusion that Portugal are the strongest team in this tournament on paper. This is the strongest Portugal team I’ve ever seen, and even with Ronaldo past his prime, they have so much quality throughout that they could well go all the way. They have an enormous number of excellent players in every position from the top clubs of Europe. Ruben Dias is one of the world’s top center-backs, and Joao Cancelo is one of the best right backs, and with Egypt not qualifying, his habitual slayer Mohammad Salah is not there to scare him into becoming a shell of his usual self. PSG duo Danilo and Nuno Mendes make up the rest of the defense, with both sides of the defense playing together at club level, this brings an excellent understanding to the squad. Elsewhere, there is an abundance of talent, with Bernanrdo Silva and Bruno Fernandes two of the best players in the Premier League, and Rafael Leao winning best player in Serie A. They will be missing the excellent Diogo Jota through injury, but they should be able to cover for him, especially with Andre Silva and Joao Felix there for backup. Their other midfielders, and their backups are very good, too. For 18 years, Cristiano has carried the Portugal national team on his shoulders through international tournaments, but now he finds himself with the best team he’s ever played with. A team good enough to give him an unlikely World Cup to complete the most astonishing achievements a football career has ever seen. Football’s top scorer, and international football’s top scorer, five time Champions League winner, league winner in Spain, England and Italy, and European Champion with Portugal, Ronaldo has achieved absolutely everything there is to achieve in football, except win a World Cup. He has barely played for Manchester United this season, so he might be lacking match fitness, but with his experience, he should be able to pick it up quickly, turning his lack of playing time into an advantage in the latter stages of the tournament. Portugal also have an excellent coach who won the European Championship in 2016. I am going to go ahead and boldly tip them to win the trophy.
Ghana are a decent team with some good midfielders and attackers, like Inaki Williams, Mohammad Kudus, the Ayew brothers, Thomas Partey, and Tariq Lamptey, but their defense and goalkeeper don’t inspire much confidence. It is difficult to see them find a way past Portugal and Uruguay, but revenge is a very powerful motivator in football, and the Ghanians will be relishing the chance to inflict pain on the Uruguayans after the quarter-final of 2010, when they came within inches of becoming the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final as they were about to score before Luis Suarez saved the ball off the goal line with his hands, earning himself a red card and giving Ghana a penalty, which they duly missed. The game went to penalties and Uruguay advanced. Expect a very spicy contest between the two this time around.
Uruguay is probably the best footballing nation in the world on a per-capita basis. For such a tiny country, they produce enormous talent, and have won two World Cups, and, as they would remind you, 2 Olympic gold medals from before the World Cup, which FIFA then considered the world championship. The golden generation which reached the semi-final of 2010 and won a Copa America is coming to an end. Many of the stalwarts are still in the team, like Suarez, Cavani, Godin, Caceres, but they are old and nowhere near their best. The Uruguayan talent conveyor belt is still churning out excellent talents though; Real Madrid’s Valverde, Liverpool’s Nunez, and Tottenham’s Betancur are the stars of this current team. They are likely to make it out of their group, but it is not clear how far they can make it. If it all clicks, they could go far.
Son Heung-Min is an excellent player, but he recently broke his cheekbone and might not be in top shape, which practically ends South Korea’s hopes of qualifying from this group.