Feature Stories

Sizing Up the World Cup Competition

By Dan Guttenplan

While the United States will not be competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, there are still plenty of reasons for American soccer fans to be excited about the most prestigious tournament in the world.

For soccer fans, there is no bigger draw than the FIFA World Cup. In 2006, the cumulative audience of all World Cup matches was estimated at 26.29 billion. The 715.1 million individuals that watched the final match of the tournament represented 1/9 of the world’s entire population.

So, despite the lack of representation of the United States in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, we know you’ll be watching to see the world’s best players compete for their respective countries.

Here is a breakdown of the top teams that will be competing for the championship.


Germany will enter the tournament as the favorite and defending champion. The Germans set an all-time record for goal differential (43 goals for vs. 4 against) in UEFA qualifying. Joachim Low’s men won all 10 of their matches to become the only team from any confederation to reach Russia with a perfect record. Germany won the Conderations Cup title in July with an experimental squad, and Low will draw from an unrivaled pool of talent.


Brazil managed 41 points in qualifying  – the second-highest in a South American qualifying campaign. After Tite assumed the reins of the stuttering squad, it became the first South American side to win nine successive World Cup preliminaries. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho seem to be thriving under Tite’s leadership. Brazil will be looking to win its first World Cup championship since 2002.


Spain had one of the more convincing victories in World Cup qualifying with a 3-0 defeat of Italy on Sept. 2 in Madrid. La Roja’s new generation, led by 24-year-old Alvaro Morata, appears ready to challenge seriously next summer. Marco Asensio, 21, is likely to play in several World Cup tournaments. Francisco “Isco” Alarcon scored twice against the Italians, and has been given more freedom by coach Julen Lopetegui. Expect Spain to meet the level of competition in every World Cup match.


Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé offer France a high upside – particularly in future World Cups. Perhaps no nation has a better collection of young players. Can coach Didier Deschamps find a way to make it all work in Russia? If France’s young talent can reach its potential in 2018, expect this squad to challenge for a championship.


Belgium looked strong in qualifying, disposing of rivals Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. A coaching staff that includes Spaniard Roberto Martínez and the Frenchman Thierry Henry will be looking to push Belgium to achieve more than it did under Marc Wilmots. Romelu Lukaku has become one of the world’s best players, which helps offset Christian Benteke’s struggles. Dries Mertens will also be a pivotal player. Captain Eden Hazard and vice captain Vincent Kompany have a combined 152 caps.


Portugal and Argentina went from the fringes to the top-seeded pot of teams as the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the FIFA rankings. Cristiano Ronaldo had 15 goals in Russia qualifying, but he’ll need to prove, at 33, he can handle a game every three or four days for a month during World Cup play. Coach Fernando Santos will be looking to push Bernardo Silva and André Silva to perform on the highest stage. Portugal, not the most well-liked team in the field, made a few enemies in taking the European title.


Argentina, finalists three years ago but outside the four qualifying spots going into their final qualifying match in Ecuador, fell behind in the first minute but a Lionel Messi hat-trick guaranteed his side one of the three automatic berths still up for grabs. Argentina has the individual talent to play with its archrival Brazil in Russia, and Messi certainly has the incentive to deliver more magic in what will likely be his last World Cup. Injured midfielder Fernando Gago, who missed the Ecuador game in qualifying, should be back in Russia.


Coach Adam Nawalka has brought some confidence out of this group – which is set to be one of the eight seeded teams in Russia. The only blemish on Poland’s qualifying resume was a 4-0 defeat in Denmark. The match was a bit of an aberration as goal-scoring is not typically a concern. Robert Lewandowski scored 16 of their 28 goals in Group E, setting the World Cup qualifying record. However, Lewandowski giveth and taketh away. He occasionally tries to make the spectacular play when he’d be better served making a conservative play.


Coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s cruised through World Cup qualifying with the exception of an anticlimactic loss to Honduras after they were all but certain to earn a World Cup bid. The Colombian Osorio is often questioned about his rotation of players, although with Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández both in their prime, the team could play the role of spoiler for one of the teams above. However, it would be a huge surprise to see Mexico make a run to the semifinals.


This will be the best Nigeria team to represent the country in the World Cup in some time. Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi add Premier League experience. Coach Gernot Rohr of Germany has brought a level of organization that can be lethal on the counterattack and maybe capable of making a World Cup run.


Fast Facts

  • Iceland is the smallest nation in history to reach a World Cup with 335,000 citizens.
  • Saudi Arabia was ranked 98th in the world in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankign when it kicked off its successful qualification campaign.
  • Chile was ranked fourth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking when it kicked off its unsuccessful qualification campaign.
  • Netherlands failed to qualify for back-to-back international tournaments (UEFA EURO 2016 and 2018 FIFA World Cup) for the first time in 32 years.
  • Egypt will snap a 28-year drought between World Cup appearances in Russia.