by Tim Jeffery
As we draw within a month of the world’s biggest and greatest sporting event, 32 teams are set to converge on Russia full of hope and dreams, all carrying different definitions for success.
It’s an event more than half the world will likely tune in to when you consider four years ago 3.2 billion people worldwide watched the 2014 World Cup – 46.4 percent of the world.
Giants such as Brazil with its five World Cup Titles and Germany owning four expect no less than gaining a spot for the final on July 15 in Moscow.
France has to be one of the select few who can hoist the cup. Spain is right there, bringing stars galore including David De Gea, maybe the best goalkeeper on the planet and Sergio Ramos on defense, the captain of his club team, Real Madrid and likely the one who will be wearing the arm band for Spain.
Belgium plays England in group stage play Friday June 28 in Kaliningrad, a game not to be missed.
Can Belgium finally achieve expectations of something great?
There is no doubt the country the size of Maryland has enough talent on paper to remain standing on July 6 for quarterfinals play and well beyond. Knocked out of 2014 World Cup in a disappointing 1-0 quarterfinals loss to Argentina, Belgium will bring back many players who gained massive experience in that setback. It will be very interesting to see how the offense flows under the direction of manager Roberto Martinez. His ball possession tactics have received some criticism from superstar midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel join De Bruyne among the cast of superb talent.
I intentionally left out Romelu Lukaku, just to show that there are world class players available even without the dangerous striker. The Belgian side has the most creative midfield in the world, rarely leaving without scoring a goal.
Martinez was named as manager of the Red Devils in August 2016. He has let on his family will be supporting the opposition when he sends his team out against England. He revealed his family’s divided loyalties as he is married to Scottish wife Beth and has a young daughter born in England named Luella
A quick glance for other key early matches includes Friday June 15:
Cristiano Renaldo and Portugal meet Spain. Then the first Sunday (June 17) as defending champion Germany faces Mexico at 11 ET. Maybe you have heard football is played between two teams where Germany always wins. Also Brazil takes on gritty and usually difficult Switzerland at 2 ET on that same Sunday.
The U.S. team’s streak of seven straight World Cup appearances has ended. For the first time since 1986, the Stars and Stripes will be watching soccer’s biggest tournament from home. 24.7 million US viewers watched the United States face Portugal in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup. Let’s hope 2022 sees a return visit or surely 2026 when the field will expand to 48 teams.
The 32 teams are broken into eight groups of four.
Each team plays the other three opponents from its group. Three points are awarded for a win, one point for a draw and zero for a loss. The top two teams in each group advance when play then becomes the knockout stage. Lose and you are done.
Group H is an interesting battle, bringing a nearly equal chance for Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan to emerge. While Colombia is a slight favorite no one will be surprised at any outcome in what is being labeled the weakest of the eight groups. But why not have a Senegal or Poland reach knockout stages?
France in Group C is a 25-1 favorite to finish on top of Denmark, Peru and Australia. But picking who finishes second is not easy.
Antoine Griezmann of Club Team Atlético Madrid is the star striker upfront for the French Side. He finished as top goal scorer in Euro 2018 and remains in excellent form heading to Russia. He will be supported by budding superstar Kylian Mbappé who plays as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain, Alexandre Lacazatte and Thomas Lemar in three man attack.
Paul Pogba, Adrien Rabiot and N’Golo Kante are set to start in midfield roles. Laurent Koscielny is likely to start alongside Rafael Verane in central defense. Pogba of Manchester United is ready to show the world he might be among the top 10 players.
Not even Brazil, led by the mercurial Neymar Jr. can boost of more talent. Collectively we all await to be sure Neymar is healthy. The 26-year-old fractured his fifth metatarsal in a win over Marseille on February 25. Some claimed his new Nike Mercurial Vapor 12 boots were the cause of the injury. Neymar runs in such a way that he is very very light on his feet. He is very nimble and changes direction quickly. No doubt he also likes to go down easily too so he is always going to be right on that edge of gripping or slipping.
I can’t wait to see him decked out in a shiny orange pair no matter the model. Let’s hope he is 100 percent alongside the likes of Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino; Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro; and Manchester City pair Gabriel Jesus (pronounced Jay Zues) and Fernandinho.
England, currently 17-1 is set to win the tournament.
She should advance from Group G with Belgium. It will take a mighty miracle for minnows Tunisia or Panama to get emerge from that foursome. England breezed through qualifying unbeaten. Gareth Southgate is in the always hot seat of managing The Three Lions. But who wouldn’t want to select from talented players Dele Ali and the great striker Harry Kane from club team Tottenham? Toss in Manchester City’s John Stones and Raheem Sterling, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Jordan Henderson of Liverpool as likely contributors. But England lacks a play maker which will likely be the downfall against the top six or eight sides.
Group D is another strong and open group. Argentina will understandably be the favorites with Lionel Messi determined to finally claim a major trophy for his country, but they struggled in qualifying and all three of their opponents in Group D will fancy their chances against Jorge Sampaoli’s team. It is Groundhog Day for Nigeria who face Argentina for the fifth time in their six World Cups, though they won impressively when the two teams came up against each other in a recent friendly. Iceland will be hopeful of another memorable run in a major tournament while Croatia tick when Luka Modric does; Iceland beat Croatia to top spot in their qualifying group to reach Russia.
Keep a close eye on Morocco one of the most impressive teams in African qualifying (they did not concede a goal), as it tries to surprise in Group B against Portugal and Spain. The Moroccans are certainly capable of annoying the powerhouses with their well organized style. But no African soccer team has ever reached the World Cup semi-finals.
Africa will also be represented by the always entertaining Nigeria Super Eagles and Egypt with its phenomenal 25 year old scoring machine Mohamed Salah. His incredible season has Liverpool in the Champions League final May 26 while scoring 43 goals in all competitions, just four shy of the club record. Previously mentioned Tunisia as well as Senegal also qualified from the second largest continent on earth.
Could Salah be enough to push his Egyptian side through to the round of 16? They will have to find a way past Uruguay (unlikely) and Russia, indeed a possibility. Egypt may include Keeper Essam El Hadary who turns 45 in January. He will be the oldest player in WC history.
At 9-1 odds Argentina must be taken very seriously for more reasons than the great Messi. Surely the best player in the world deserves the cup hardware that has eluded him. When joined on the pitch by Emiliano Rigoni it will be a beautiful sight. The vastly talented Rigoni plays his club football inn the host nation for FC Zenit Saint Petersburg. But nothing was easy for the Albiceleste hopefuls in their tortuous route to Russia 2018. Thanks to Messi, their unstoppable captain, the 2014 finalists pulled through and will be in the running. Argentina went through no fewer than three managers over the course of qualifying.
Messi, of course, is the first name on the team-sheet, and he will be partnered by a host of instantly recognizable faces such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Romero.
Mexico has arguably its best team ever going into Russia. But a brutal draw may have already torpedoed El Tri’s chances of getting out of the group stage.
Mexico was picked to be in the group with top-ranked Germany, Sweden and South Korea. The Mexicans would dearly love to salvage a point in that opening match against Joachim Low’s powerful squad.
Boasting seven World Cup winners and a youthful injection in the form of Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich and RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, this line-up is a combination of the players Löw prefers to utilize and those who would feature were everyone fully fit.
Kimmich’s vision, energy and reading of the game make him a ready-made replacement for former team-mate Philipp Lahm – Löw has called Kimmich “world class” – while Cologne’s Jonas Hector has cemented his spot as first-choice left-back since making his debut in November 2014.
The spine of the team is built around the 2014 World Cup winners: the Bayern core of captain Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng comprise a formidable defensive trio, while Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira – both starters in last season’s Champions League final with Real Madrid and Juventus respectively – dovetail naturally in midfield. Thomas Müller is as Thomas Müller does, while Mesut Özil’s quality and experience guarantee him a spot.
Despite the U.S. team not making the field, Fox Sports is going big with its coverage of the World Cup and planning to show 38 live matches on broadcast television.
Fox said that its 38 live matches on broadcast TV is a first in English-language TV history, and that the total makes up more than the last four World Cups combined.