It. Is. Here. One of the most anticipated and most talked about sporting events in the world is ready to take centre stage this week when the FIFA World Cup finally hits the pitch in Russia. The question isn't whether the world is ready, we are. But is Russia ready? Lets hope so!
It is quite amazing how fast the four years have passed since Germany lifted the World Cup Trophy in sunny Brazil, amidst a slightly disappointed and perhaps anger Brazilian fanbase. There are many questions heading into the 2018 edition though.
- Can Germany become the third repeat champion and first since 1962?
- Can Brazil put to bed the ghosts of their 7-1 SF loss four years ago?
- Can Spain rediscover the magic that brought them home the golden trophy in 2010?
- Or could we see a new champion crowned?
- Watch out for some of the #TeamUpset contenders!
Welcome to the #TwineTime FIFA World Cup 2018 Preview!
As we prepare to create the next chapter in the World Cup history book, we need to first look back at the past and celebrate a sporting event that captures the attention of fans around the world.
Host Nation Curse ----> Host Continent Success?
There is no denying the historical impact of World Cup host locations. The first World Cup was hosted in 1930 by Uruguay and they ended up being the victors defeating rival Argentina in the final. The next edition in 1934 saw a similar result with the host nation, Italy, winning the Jules Rimet Trophy (no longer named as such but more on that below). In the 88-year history of the event, spanning 20 tournaments, there have been 6 home nation victors, the most recent being France in 1998. Other home nation winners include: England (1966), West Germany (1974) and Argentina (1978).
Ok so home nations have a 30% winning chance from the on-set right now based solely on being the home side. Not great odds but not horrible either. But here is where things get interesting.
If you look at the success of the host member continent association, it is quite one-sided. Going into Russia, UEFA (the European continent association) has hosted 10 World Cup events and have claimed 9 titles. Most recently Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup which was won by Italy. Europe host, Europe win. The only non-European winner to claim the title on European soil? We have to look WAY back in the history books to see it was 1958 when Brazil took the title over host nation Sweden in the final.
Oddly enough the history works in the opposite direction for non-European hosts. In the 10 World Cups hosted by non-European nations, 8 have been won by non-European teams. All of those wins have come from 3 nations: Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. But the trend seems to be reversing with recent history. The 2010 event was held in South Africa and won by Spain, becoming the first European team to win the World Cup on non-European soil. Germany would replicate the feat four years later in Brazil.
Overall, UEFA continues to be the dominant force in international football, collecting 11 World Cup winners, 15 runner-up's, 16 bronze medal winners and 14 4th place finishes. Now of course they also field, usually, half the final qualifiers for a World Cup so they could have the numbers on their side, having qualified 231 teams in the 20-year history of the event.
In Russia we will see 18 non-European teams battle 14 European teams. Could this be the year we see a non-European winner on European soil for only the second time in World Cup history? Hmmm, look at the familiar non-European winners of the past, note they are favourites again this year and it just may happen. The numbers mean European nations have a 5% chance of winning right from the start. CONMEBOL (South America) has qualified 80 teams with 9 winners, 5 RU's, 3 3rd and 5 4th place finishes, equating to an even more impressive 11% winning percentage.
The other associations, AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (America's) and OFC (Oceania) have failed to find great success. Only CONCACAF has produced a Top 3 result (USA - 1930) while AFC best result was 4th (South Korea as host in 2002). CAF's best result was 3 QF appearances (Cameroon 1990, Ghana 2010, Senegal 2002) while OFC has produced 1 nation to advance beyond the knockout stage (Australia 2006) out of their 4 total teams qualified. 2018 will mark the second consecutive World Cup without an OFC representative.
Is It Really A Host Nation Curse?
Ok so maybe proclaiming a "curse" on the home nation is not fair. In fact, host nations have had great success at the World Cup....of course tailored around expectations it may be a different argument. In the 20 editions of the event only once has a host nation failed to advance beyond the group stage (South Africa - 2010). This fact alone gives Russia a 95% chance of reaching the knockout stage before taking their first kick of the tournament on Thursday.
We have already discussed 6 tournament winners being host nations and the 30% success rate that comes along with that statistic. Again, Russia is looking pretty solid on historical evidence alone. Now success for a host nation does not have to include lifting the trophy on the final day of competition either. Past host nations have had their historical best results in the World Cup when they were playing in front of their own fans. Outside the 6 winners, other host successes include: Switzerland (1954 QF), Sweden (1958 RU), Chile (1962 3rd), South Korea (2002 4th) and Mexico (1970, 1986 QF). All 5 of these nations have played in World Cup events since being host and have failed to replicate or better their home World Cup results.
Russia could be in tough here though. The best World Cup result for Russia was a 4th place finish back in 1966 followed by a QF appearance in 1970. Russia has qualified for 6 World Cup's since 1970 and have failed to replicate the QF or SF round appearances. In fact, in Russia's past 4 appearances (1990, 1994, 2002, 2014) they have failed to advance out of the group stage finishing a disappointing 17th, 18th, 22nd and 24th overall.
Nations like Brazil, Germany and Argentina are always going to be considered contenders, especially at home. Results from nations like Switzerland and South Korea were considered #TeamUpset finishes. Whether Russia can replicate or better their best previous performance on home soil seems like a long shot but could success be deemed as reaching the R16 given the recent results?
Debut Nation Spoiler?
Lets be honest. When we see a nation qualify for the World Cup for the first time we more often than not write them off as a group stage casualty right? And perhaps historical results support this belief.
The World Cup field increased to 32 teams in 1998, up from the previous number of 24. Both Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) will also field a competition of 32 teams while the 2026 World Cup, recently awarded to the United bid of Canada/Mexico/USA, will increase the amount of teams to 48!! With an increase in qualification means, hopefully, an increase in debut nations.
1998 - 4 debut nations (Croatia, Jamaica, Japan, South Africa): Croatia made quite the statement when they finished 3rd in France compiling an impressive 5-2 record. Jamaica (22nd), South Africa (24th) and Japan (31st) were not as fortunte.
2002 - 4 debut (China, Ecuador, Senegal, Slovenia): Senegal were the darlings of the tournament in South Korea/Japan when they reached the QF in their debut tournament and finished 7th overall with a 2-2-1 record. Ecuador (24th), Slovenia (30th) and China (31st) brought up the bottom of the standings.
2006 - 6 debut (Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine): Germany saw the resurgence of Africa with 4 African nations making their debut. The most successful newcomer however would come from European debut nation Ukraine, eliminated in the QF and finishing 8th. Ghana would reach the R16 however and finish 13th. Ivory Coast (19th), Angola (23rd), Trinidad and Tobago (27th) and Togo (30th) were not as fortunate.
2010 - 1 debut (Slovenia): While Slovenia failed to advance out of the group stage, they did prove to be a formidable opponent finishing in 18th place with a record of 1-1-1. They collected 4 points to finish 3rd in their group, one point behind USA and England and ahead of Algeria. Slovenia did win their first ever World Cup game when they defeated Algeria in their opener and then tied USA in their next match.
2014 - 1 debut (Bosnia and Herzegovina): The hype was strong for Bosnia heading into Brazil, being the second highest ranked team in their pool (behind Argentina). Unfortunately back to back losses to Argentina and Nigeria derailed their plans to advance early. However they would finish on a high note collecting their first World Cup W when they defeated Iran in their final match.
Burn It Down?
The current trophy, now referred to as simply the World Cup Trophy, has been awarded since 1974. The trophy is actually gold though, made out of 18 carat solid gold and weighs over 13 lbs. Out with the old, in with the new I suppose. New trophy, new tradition as well. The winners no longer receive the trophy. Now the winners are presented the trophy during the victory ceremony and share pictures but then give the trophy back to FIFA before leaving the pitch. The winning nation receives a replica trophy instead...and no it isn't real gold!
Ok enough with the history lesson right? You want to get down to the present and discuss the 2018 World Cup field correct? BOOM....first kick, Here. We. Go
2018 FIFA World Cup
Host Nation: Russia
2014 Champion: Germany
Format: 32 nations qualified and, after the official draw, were placed into 8 groups of 4. Top two teams in each group advance to the knockout stage.
Without question this is Uruguay's group to win. The football draw gods shone down on La Celeste when they were drawn into the same pool as hosts Russia and then were gifted with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Luis Suarez should lead Uruguay comfortably into the R16, where they will be a dangerous knockout stage team to draw up against. Expect to see some physical games when Uruguay hits the pitch as they like to rough it up with their opposition. The first-ever World Cup winners look to add a third title to their resume in Russia and should not be overlooked.
The race for the final R16 spot should come down to hosts Russia and upstart Egypt, led by the player everyone will be watching during the Group Stage Mohamed Salah. Salah will have the weight of a nation on his shoulders though as Egypt returns to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years and will make only their third ever appearance. Egypt runs on pure offensive power and attack and that style alone should bode well for them given their competition. Your head says Russia but your heart says Egypt. History sides with the hosts and European nation.
As for the Green Falcons, they have not won a World Cup game since 1994. Yikes!
Projected Standings: 1. Uruguay 2. Egypt 3. Russia 4. Saudi Arabia
Ok lets be serious here. Does anyone really believe Morocco or Iran can challenge the formidable pairing of Spain and Portugal?
Portugal will be led by Cristiano Ronaldo, FIFA's Player of the Year the past two seasons. Portugal also are the current holders of the European Championship, having won the title in 2016 (winning one game in regulation mind you). They will need to find the back of the net more in Russia if they want any chance to replicate the Euro success however. But who knows, they say defence wins championships right?
Spain will be interesting to watch, given how they fired their coach days before the start of the tournament. Could that one move make or break their entire World Cup hopes and dreams? We will have to wait and see but, on paper, this is a strong team capable of making a deep run through the bracket.
The dark horse team here will be Morocco. The Atlas Lions are generating a lot of buzz coming to Russia. They play a similar defensive style to Portugal, meaning we should not expect a lot of goals scored in this group. If they can somehow settle for a tie vs Spain and/or Portugal and knock off Iran, they could just squeak through in an upset.
Iran will be in tough to not only advance but to pick up a point in this group. Yes they are the top ranked AFC team in the field but they have never advanced past the group stage in their previous 4 appearances and expectations are pretty low to buck that trend.
Projected Standings: 1. Spain 2. Portugal 3. Morocco 4. Iran
Ah Les Bleus, a team capable of winning the tournament or shocking the world and bowing out in the first round. Who knows what we will expect from France this time around. On paper the French should be the favourite to win this group and, possibly, avoid Argentina in the R16 (more on them in a moment). This team is fresh off a runner-up appearance at Euro 2016 and the opening game vs. Australia is a perfect opportunity to gain confidence and momentum. Keep your eyes out for Arsene Wenger. He is 19-years-old and already being hailed as the Future of French Soccer.
The last spot should come down to a battle between the white and red nations: Peru and Denmark. Peru works with a very offensive strategy and will look to prove their place after being one of the final teams to qualify for Russia via their continental play-off win over New Zealand. Denmark has history on their side as they have reached the knockout phase in 3 of their previous 4 appearances, with their only miss being their last appearance in 2010. An interesting fact for you on the Danes, they have an overall winning World Cup record (8-6-2). The heart wants to see an upstart team like Peru go far, perhaps even reach the QF (not out of the question) but my head says Denmark progresses. Maybe I am giving in to the European soil argument in this prediction?!
As for the Socceroos, great to see you back at the World Cup and it will be great to see Tim Cahill play but expectations are very low in the land down under.
Projected Standings: 1. France 2. Denmark 3. Peru 4. Australia
Ok so predicting Uruguay and Spain and France to win their groups and progress is pretty boring and basic. I hear you #TwineTime readers. How about we shake things up a bit?
We may not have an official Group of Death in Russia due to the new format on drawing of teams, we certainly see a group where a case can be made for all 4 teams to progress on into the latter part of the tournament. Group D is going to be fun to watch!
Argentina will be the favourite from the start, we get that. Lionel Messi came out of retirement to really play at this World Cup and will be looking to end his career on a high. But remember they almost didn't qualify to even be here, requiring a monstrous game from Messi to punch their ticket. The question is can Messi carry this team throughout the entire tournament all the way to another World Cup Trophy? You want to hope he can seeing as this will be his last World Cup and, had they drawn a different group I would say no problem. But the competition may be too strong within the group stage alone.
Hello Nigeria! The Super Eagles have qualified in 5 of the past 6 World Cups and also arrive at the World Cup with a bit of an unknown cloud hanging over them. They have the skill to make a run and have advanced past the group stage in 3 of those previous 5 appearances. However they also only account for 5 wins in 18 games. You can almost expect them to tie one or two of their group stage games, if not all three, and squeak in. The problem is the next round is Win and In...and they seem to fall short on picking up those crucial W's.
Welcome Iceland! Our Boys have arrived. The smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup may be diminutive in stature but they may just have the largest fan support of any nation competing in Russia. If your home nation did not qualify, odds are strong you are probably calling Those Boys, Your Boys now! Don't let the debut moniker fool you either, this is a strong team. Just look back at Euro 2016 for proof. The only question may be on how Gylfi Sigurdsson is feeling, having led the team in qualifying but suffered an right knee injury earlier this year and just returned to the team this month. Iceland needs him to be at him best to advance.
And Croatia. Corruption Croatia. This team has a lot of distractions going on off the pitch and would like nothing more than to have a strong result in Russia to shift the focus. The success lies in the midfield with this team. Interesting to note Croatia and Iceland were drawn in the same qualifying group with each team picking up a win on home soil. The winner of the deciding rubber match could be the difference between advancing and going home early.
If any group could turn the opening round on its head and cause the most interest and #TeamUpset results it will be Group D. I say bring it on and lets see those dark horse teams flourish!
Projected Standings: 1. Nigeria 2. Iceland 3. Argentina 4. Croatia
One of the big favourites in Russia headline Group E and will arrive with a lot to prove. Brazil are looking to erase the disappointment of 4 years ago when they were destroyed in the SF by eventual champions Germany and followed up that loss with a loss in the 3rd place match vs Netherlands. Sure Brazil may be the most successful country on the World Cup landscape but what have you done for me lately is what Selecao fans have been asking. Luckily for Brazil Neymar is back from his earlier injury and looks very prepared for the long haul run here (he scored a goal vs. Croatia in his first game back). This team looks to be a strong favourite to claim the World Cup Trophy.
As for the next qualifier to emerge from the group, honestly it could be any of the remaining three teams. Switzerland may have the stingiest defensive core in the tournament, playing low scoring games and not often conceding many goals. On the flip side, they only play with one striker up front so while they may have the defensive side of the game you still need to score to win right? Ok its soccer so they only really need to score in the knockout stage....oh wait Portugal didn't need that to win the Euro even...ok never mind. Defensive strategy for the W?!
Serbia is the opposite. They love to strike and hit the net often. They attack, attack, attack to wear down their opponents defensively and pounce on their opportunities. The White Eagles soared to 20 goals scored in their 10 qualifying games. There are rumours of them having a more conservative playbook in Russia but I think that idea is more a red herring for their opponents.
As for Los Ticos, they were one of the fun stories from the World Cup in Brazil when they reached the QF and lost in PKs to Netherlands. Another team who relies a bit more on the defensive strategy but is capable of finding the net when needed.
The three horse race for the final knockout stage spot in this group is going to be fun to watch and will come down to the final whistle in group play action.
Projected Standings: 1. Brazil 2. Serbia 3. Switzerland 4. Costa Rica
Teams: Germany (Die Mannschaft), South Korea (Taegeuk Warriors), Mexico (El Tri), Sweden (Blue-Yellow)
Brazil may be a favourite but are they THE favourite? Well not if you ask the defending champion Germans. Germany proved their might in Brazil when they thrashed the home squad en route to another World Cup title. They arrive in Russia looking to become the first back-to-back since main rival Brazil accomplished the feat in 1958 and 1962. In doing so they would also become only the third nation ever to repeat, with Italy being the first in 1934 and 1938. Look Germany is going to be playing in the SF at least, pencil them in now. They have landed on the podium at the past 4 World Cups (2nd 2002, 3rd 2006 and 2010, 1st 2014). No nation, not even Brazil, has had a stronger and more consistent World Cup run over any 16 year period than Germany. This group stage should be just a mild warm-up as they look ahead to the real games in the knockout stage.
While Germany's history dictates a SF or better finish, Mexico should also continue with a history of their own. El Tri qualified for their 7th straight World Cup in Russia. How did each of those past six appearances end? With a run to the R16 and a loss in the R16. Luckily they play Germany first and this is the best time to take on the defending champions, as they may come out a bit nervous and the pressure is a bit less in your first game. They should advance to R16...where they would draw Brazil. History repeating!
Sweden and South Korea really are not expected to challenge the top two nations in this group. Although Sweden seems to enjoy wearing the #TeamUpset title, having eliminated favoured Italy in the final UEFA qualifying round to punch their ticket here and halt the Italians streak of 14 consecutive World Cup appearances. South Korea is the most successful Asian team to compete at the World Cup, having qualified for 10 tournaments and owning an impressive 4th place finish when they co-hosted in 2002. Unfortunately, similar results will follow as the team will struggle to gain points let alone have a shot to advance.
Projected Standings: 1. Germany 2. Mexico 3. Sweden 4. South Korea
Another group, another two-team race? It would certainly appear the two European nations in Group G are strong favourites to advance to the R16. The biggest point of interest through this group could be the final battle between Belgium and England. If both pick up the W's in their opening matches they will have the spots secured to advance but could be looking at their possible opponents. At the end of the day the question could be who do you want to see in the QF: Brazil or Germany?
This Belgium team is the best team ever to come out of the tiny European nation. They are currently ranked #3 in the world and are quickly gaining traction as the third favourite to win the title in Russia behind the already mentioned Big Two. England, on the other hand, will be looking to end decades of frustrations on the World Cup stage. Sure they have a title to their credit but it is only one...and it happened WAY back in 1966. They failed to advance out of the group stage 4 years ago and, although 2018 will be their 6th straight World Cup, they have only reached the QF twice (2002, 2006) and lost both times. Expectations are starting to be low for English football on the international stage, which is shocking given the English Premier League is arguably the best league in the world. This entire team comes from within that league so they should be very familiar with one another. No time for excuses anymore with England. They need results!
Welcome Panama! The other debut nation in Russia finds themselves trapped in a group with two of the toughest European powerhouse teams. But England has a history of underperforming and Belgium has never faced this level of expectation. Meanwhile tiny Panama will debut and could be the dangerous floater in the draw for the top two teams. We all know the controversy with Panama earning that final qualifying spot in CONCACAF, effectively eliminating USA, so this team will want to show they belong playing on the same pitch with the best the world has to offer. Do not undersell this team. They need to be sharp early though.
As for Tunisia, this will be their 5th World Cup appearance but they have failed to advance beyond the group stage each time. But a quick fun fact on The Eagles of Carthage: DYK they are the first nation from Africa to secure a World Cup win EVER?! They accomplished the historic feat back in 1978, in their debut year, when they defeated Mexico 3-1. Scoring another W in Russia might be tough.
Projected Standings: 1. Belgium 2. England 3. Panama 4. Tunisia
Our final group of World Cup 2018 and it may be one be one of the hardest to predict. While Group D is the Group of Death because all 4 teams have a legit shot at making some noise in the tournament, Group H seems to the be Group of Huh? as in can any of these four teams really stand a chance of advancing beyond the mandatory two qualifiers here?
Columbia will be the early favourites here though, fresh off their magical run to the QF in 2014. Personally I am a huge fan of this team, especially star James Rodriguez. He carried this team throughout the tournament in Brazil, scoring six times in 5 games and collecting the Golden Boot in the process. Another team who operates under the Attack, Attack, Attack principle, which should work well against the group competition. The Coffee Growers should advance here but duplicating the run in Brazil might be tough.
Senegal will be making only their second ever World Cup appearance but remember what they did in their debut? They went on a storybook run to the QF in 2002 and have the star power to make a similar run 16 years later. They are also probably the fastest team on the pitch in this group and their speed could be the determining factor in scoring that last minute goal to pick up a W or salvage a much needed tie.
Speaking of goals, Poland loves to score them and loves to concede them. They scored more goals in qualifying than their opposition but also allowed more goals to hit the back of their own net. This group should yield some high scores in the opening stage of this tournament and Poland will probably be the benefactor and receiver of most of those total goals scored here. The question will be, if this group comes down to goal differential as the deciding factor, will Poland be able to hold off their opposition in the goals against department to stay alive?
Ah Japan....who doesn't love a Samurai team on a soccer field? Unfortunately the swords need to be left in the lockerroom meaning this team is going to have to find another way to fight out their victories in Russia....and it will not be easy. Add in the fact they come to Russia fresh off controversy of their own in firing their coach a few months ago. Could that be a negative distraction or will the fresh face heading the team, Akira Nishino (former technical director for the association) be the positive team building needed to unite the group and makes some waves? Expectations are low here.
Projected Standings: 1. Columbia 2. Senegal 3. Poland 4. Japan
Knockout Stage Qualifiers: Uruguay, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, Nigeria, Iceland, Brazil, Serbia, Germany, Mexico, Belgium, England, Columbia, Senegal
Uruguay def. Portugal
France def. Iceland
Brazil def. Mexico
Belgium def. Senegal
Spain def. Egypt
Nigeria def. Denmark
Germany def. Serbia
England def. Columbia
Uruguay def. France
Brazil def. Belgium
Spain def. Nigeria
Germany def. England
Brazil def. Uruguay
Germany def. Spain
3rd Place Match: Uruguay def. Spain
2018 FIFA World Cup Champion: Brazil def. Germany
What say you football fanatics? Agree with the #TwineTime predictions? Disagree? Share your thoughts and predictions in the comment section below or hit me up on social media.
The quick summary:
#TheFavourites - Germany, Brazil, Spain
#WatchOutFor - France, Portugal, Belgium, Uruguay
#TeamUpset - Iceland, Nigeria, Senegal
The Disappointment - Argentina
The Surprise - Nigeria
The Winner - Brazil
Enjoy the action...from Russia with Love!