On Dec. 1st, soccer fans from all corners of the globe gathered around their televisions to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup draw, held at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia. For many, the World Cup is more than just a soccer tournament. Because it is the most watched sporting event in the world, the tournament provides a platform for cultural expression, and for a nation to represent itself in front of the entire world.
“The tournament has a way of enabling citizens to puff out their chest; of giving them license to say ‘this is our team’ and having some pride in their nation, and no other sporting event does that because no other sport truly embraces so many people from every corner of the globe,” explains Nigel Reed, a soccer journalist for CBC Sports.
During the selection show for the 2018 edition of the World Cup, the 32 qualified teams were drawn into eight groups of four teams. The teams were chosen from four pots based on their October 2017 FIFA rankings. Pot one contained the seven highest ranked teams in the tournament, plus the tournament host, Russia, pot two consisted of the next eight teams in the ranking, and so on. Each group received one team from each pot.
In addition to the mandatory placement of Russia into Pot One, the draw conditions stipulated that no group could include more than two UEFA (European) nations or more than one team from CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean), CONMEBOL (South America), OFC (Oceania), or AFC (Asia).
This year’s draw produced many interesting results but surprisingly no clear “group of death.” A group of death is a group in which the number of strong teams is greater than the number of qualifying places, meaning at least one strong competitor will be eliminated. In the 2014 World Cup, the United States was drawn into the group of death along with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.
Below is a breakdown of the eight groups from this year’s draw.
Group A: Russia (#65 in the FIFA rankings), Uruguay (17), Egypt (30), Saudi Arabia (63)
The 2018 World Cup will kick off June 14th with an uninspiring matchup between the two lowest ranked teams in the tournament, Russia and Saudi Arabia. In the tournament’s weakest group, a strong Uruguay attack featuring world-class strikers, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, is expected to lead La Celeste to the Round of 16. The second spot in the knockout stages will likely be determined in a three-way battle between the host nation, Russia, playing for the pride of an entire nation, an underrated Egyptian team starring, Mohamed Salah, one of the world’s most in-form players who currently plays for Premier League giant, Liverpool FC, and the little known Saudi Arabia squad.
Prediction: 1st place: Uruguay, 2nd place: Egypt, 3rd place: Russia, 4th place: Saudi Arabia
Group B: Portugal (3), Spain (8), Iran (34), Morocco (48)
Group B will likely come down to a battle between the reigning European Champions, Portugal, and the 2010 World Cup Champions, Spain, although Morocco should not be underestimated having gone undefeated in its qualifying group. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s 32-year-old star striker and one of the best players in soccer history, will be especially motivated as this could be his final chance to take home the World Cup crown. However, I believe Spain’s balanced attack and strong defending will propel the La Roja over the Seleção.
Prediction: 1st place: Spain, 2nd place: Portugal, 3rd place: Morocco, 4th place: Iran
Group C: France (7), Peru (10), Denmark (19), Australia (43)
France will be licking their chops with this favorable draw. Peru, although highly ranked, lacks the star quality to compete with France, and Denmark is too reliant on star Christian Eriksen. However, expect a strong battle for second place between Peru and Denmark, two nations that play with a lot of heart and grit. Australia, already the weakest team in the group, is currently without a coach and will find it hard to adapt to a new system before the tournament begins.
Prediction: 1st place: France, 2nd place: Denmark, 3rd place: Peru, 4th place: Australia
Group D: Argentina (4), Croatia (18), Iceland (21), Nigeria (41)
The closest group to a “group of death,” Group D features four highly competitive teams. Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, leads an Argentina team that should claim the group. Croatia, Iceland (the smallest nation to ever play in the World Cup with a population size of around 330,000), and the best pot four team in the tournament, Nigeria, will duke it out for the second place in the knockout round.
Prediction: 1st place: Argentina, 2nd place: Croatia, 3rd place: Nigeria, 4th place: Iceland
Group E: Brazil (2), Switzerland (11), Costa Rica (22), Serbia (38)
Neymar and Brazil will roll through this group in an attempt to recover from their 7-1 loss to Germany on home turf in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup. The Switzerland – Costa Rica match will likely determine the second team through to the Round of 16. Will the creativity of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri propel the Swiss through to the next stage, or will the strong goalkeeping and leadership of Real Madrid star Keylor Navas lead Costa Rica to yet another World Cup upset?
Prediction: 1st place: Brazil, 2nd place: Costa Rica, 3rd place: Switzerland, 4th place: Serbia
Group F: Germany (1), Mexico (16), Sweden (25), South Korea (62)
Group F is a strong group, but one that the reigning World Cup champions and current top ranked, Germany, should have no trouble navigating. Mexico cruised through qualifying using a rotating squad, but will face a difficult test in Sweden, which defeated 2006 World Cup Champions, Italy, in a playoff without their star striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who retired from international soccer in 2016.
Prediction: 1st place: Germany, 2nd place: Mexico, 3rd place: Sweden, 4th place: South Korea
Group G: Belgium (5), England (12), Tunisia (28), Panama (49)
Group G should be a two-way shootout between Belgium and England. Belgium has put together its best squad in history, but will have its hands full with a strong England team trying to put past World Cup failures behind it. Expect Tunisia and Panama to put up good efforts, but the two nations will likely be relegated to fighting it out for third place.
Prediction: 1st place: England, 2nd place: Belgium, 3rd place: Tunisia, 4th place: Panama
Group H: Poland (6), Colombia (13), Senegal (32), Japan (44)
Group H is the most open group of the draw. Despite being a top seed, Poland lacks technical quality outside of striker Robert Lewandowski. Colombia will hope to repeat its 2014 World Cup heroics on the back of Radamel Falcao, and Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich teammate, James Rodriguez. Senegal’s hopes rely on raw talent and the extreme athleticism of Liverpool star Sadio Mane. Even Japan, featuring Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, is a threat to move on to the next round.
Prediction: 1st place: Colombia, 2nd place: Senegal, 3rd place: Poland, 4th place: Japa
Group L (not an official group): Chile (9), Italy (15), Netherlands (20), USA (27)
This group of nations will be extremely disappointed to have missed out on the 2018 World Cup. Italy is a 4-time World Cup champion and has not missed a World Cup final since 1958, Chile is a 2-time defending Copa America champion, the Netherlands were World Cup runner-ups in 2010, and the United States missed the finals for the first time since 1986 despite the rapid emergence of 19-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic.
Regardless of how the groups pan out, the 2018 World Cup will without a doubt be full of upsets and emotion. Some stars will emerge, others will crumble, and nations will battle for one of the most coveted titles in the world