Every four years, 32 nations stop for a carnival of sport that brings cultures together like no sporting event on Earth.
The game’s elite talents will suit up in Russia not only for established giants of the footballing world like Germany, Brazil and France but underdogs the likes of Panama, Tunisia and our very own Socceroos.
Hatch‘s Jesse Robertson and Daniel Failla explain how Australia should fare in a tough group stage, whether England can break their underachieving hoodoo and who will lead their country to football immortality.
After controversially being awarded hosting rights for the tournament in December 2010, Russia will be boosted not only by the likes of stalwart keeper Igor Akinfeev, capped 104 times, but by a fervent home crowd advantage. Meanwhile, Egypt are gambling on the fitness of English Premier League record goalscorer Mohamed Salah as he struggles to overcome a dislocated shoulder from Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid, and likewise Uruguay will be relying on such world-class talents as Barcelona striker Luis Suarez and Atletico Madrid vice-captain Diego Godin in the heart of defence. However, Saudi Arabia will not be well-liked by Australian fans stemming from club football incidents in 2014 and are not expected to produce a strong showing.
Portugal come in with momentum after taking out Euro 2016, and possess one of the strongest squads in the tournament boasting five-time Champions league winner Cristiano Ronaldo, and with enough star quality to feel confident in leaving out wonderkid midfielder Ruben Neves. Spain is likely to be their only competition, with a stacked lineup featuring an array of experience and enthusiasm as arguably 2017-18’s best club keeper David de Gea takes position between the sticks, while departing Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta and young world-beater Marco Asensio control central midfield. Morocco and Iran shouldn’t provide much resistance as the heavyweights march into the Round of 16.
Australia have qualified for their fourth successive World Cup finals, and say goodbye to its all-time greatest representative in Tim Cahill (who will live on in FIFA folklore for that effort against Holland in 2014) following the tournament, so they’ll be looking to send him off in style despite his heavily limited club minutes at Melbourne City and Millwall.
Most international outlets have reported solely on the successes of midfielder Aaron Mooy and starting keeper Maty Ryan in the EPL, but homegrown fans know how dangerous Scottish league winner Tom Rogic and former Bundesliga regular Mathew Leckie can be on their day. Most expect the Socceroos to fall at the group stage but unpredictable results can give Australia every chance of capitalising.
Elsewhere, France are widely expected to dominate with a scarily powerful squad that would walk most other groups, Denmark have no proven goalscoring forwards at international level and will likely be banking on Tottenham winger Christian Eriksen, and Peru will be counting their lucky stars after star captain Paolo Guerrero had a drug ban overturned, which would have denied him a ticket to Russia.
Argentina start as strong favourites to top an otherwise fairly even pot of challengers, but left it late to qualify from South America as their passage to the Cup wasn’t confirmed until the very last day of fixtures. All-time great Lionel Messi, in the eyes of most observers, needs a long-awaited international trophy to cement his legacy as a true pillar of the game, and with a dazzling lineup around him, this could be his final shot as he turns 31 before the end of the tournament.
Standing in their way are Croatia, a side not to be slept on with an impressive midfield of Barcelona and Madrid stars Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, while Nigeria possess a wealth of young forwards well known to Premier League fans, and Iceland will largely compete on the efforts of playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Brazil, much like their hated rivals in the previous group, are best-placed to produce a formidable challenge from their set as they name a squad containing global names including Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus in their attacking contingent. Switzerland have favoured their younger stars as they contend for second place, but will face stiff competition from Serbia and their experience advantage thanks to Nemanja Matic and captain Aleksandr Kolarov. Costa Rica are unlikely to inflict much damage unless Real Madrid keeper Keylor Navas can supply the heroics.
Sweden are the surprise story of the competition after they stunned four-time champions Italy in European playoffs, advancing to arguably the toughest group in Russia. Defending champions Germany are the odds-on strongest side thanks to an extremely well-balanced arsenal, perhaps highlighted better by who isn’t in the squad than who is. Most notable as an absentee is Mario Gotze, whose extra-time goal handed Die Mannschaft the win in the 2014 final. Mexico loom as a potential dark horse with former Manchester United attacker Javier Hernandez leading the line, while South Korea, despite featuring several current and former top European talents, should be the unluckiest side.
Fans will be anticipating a mouthwatering clash between giants Belgium and England, both widely expected to walk Group G comfortably. The former have been regarded as a sleeping giant of world football most of this decade, but it’s in Russia where the Roberto Martinez-coached side should realise their potential. Kevin De Bruyne, fresh off winning with one of the most dominant English sides ever, will be assisted by Chelsea great Eden Hazard and with Thibaut Courtois in goal, it’s tough to bet against them. The English have underachieved at every major tournament put in front of them almost since their sole World Cup win in 1966, and will be desperately looking to claim a respectable result to satisfy their expectant fans. Tunisia and Panama should be ideal opposition for an easy path into the next round.
Colombia were knocked out in the quarter-finals four years ago by hosts Brazil, and could have advanced further against a different opponent. In a tough group to predict, Colombia can back the talents of superstar James Rodriguez, responsible for one of the best goals ever seen at the tournament in 2014. Senegal can contend as the beneficiaries of rules allowing certain footballers to change their national preference, and the explosiveness of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane will profit from the increased caliber around him. Poland boast multiple German goalscoring award winner Robert Lewandowski as a potent striker, but unfortunately the bad news continues for the Asian qualifiers with Japan not particularly well-liked among pundits.
Australia will be setting alarms from the first match at 1am on Friday June 15, all the way through to the final at 1am on July 16, and with Socceroos matches against France (8pm June 16 AEST), Denmark (10pm June 21) and Peru (midnight June 27), there’ll be no shortage of opportunity to get behind our country. However, the Hatch newsroom predicts a Germany-Brazil final, and the opportunity for the Selecao to avenge the devastating 7-1 semi-final defeat in front of their own fans from the previous Cup. For Russia 2018, Brazil should earn a record sixth crown, but will go the distance to get there.
Hatch predicts: Brazil in a penalty shootout over Germany
Story by Jesse Robertson and Daniel Failla; Feature Image from Nasya Bahfen Flickr; All other images courtesy of Getty Images.