A Crammer’s Guide to the 2018 World Cup
By Oliver Fitzpatrick
We’ll see your Clairvoyant Kremlin Cats and Psychic Octopi and raise you a “Fuan”. What’s a “Fuan” you say? A football fanatic who knows his way around a calculator…
This year’s FIFA World Cup is being played in Russia and is made up of eight groups that consist of four teams that were drawn pseudo-randomly by FIFA.
Each team plays each other once and the top two qualify to the knockout stages. From that point the tournament becomes an elimination tournament (think Grand Slam tennis or climbing the baddie tree on Mortal Kombat) until two teams face off in the final and there is, of course, a winner.
Outcome percentages are derived from an Elo rating system created for each of the international teams, that were run over 3000 simulations.
Group A Preview
Two-time winners Uruguay are the favourites to progress from Group A. They have the benefit of being in the weakest group… coincidentally the same group as hosts Russia (who nobody would ever suggest would have had anything to do with the ‘random’ fixturing process).
Despite being favourites to top their group, Uruguay have by far the furthest to travel, with 13,360 km seperating Uruguay’s capital Montevideo and Moscow — this is less than Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s distances combined.
The entertaining and controversial Luis Suarez is likely to create headlines either for good or bad with his penchant for biting and for scoring world class goals.
Great news for the tournament (and Egypt) is that the “form player of the world” Mo Salah, has been declared fit to play. He lit up the Premier League in his first season at Liverpool and if the Egyptians are to have any chance at progressing, he will need to keep playing at the ridiculous standard he has set.
Group B Preview
From the weakest group to the ‘Group of Death’ which consists of reigning European champions Portugal, arch-rivals and recent World Cup winners Spain, as well as a couple of capable opponents.
Surely at the age of 33, this is Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance at World Cup glory. Winning this tournament would certainly cement his place as one of football’s greatest ever. Another component to this story is how he will play against Spain, a team that will contain many of his club teammates.
Spain have taken the mantle of ‘basket-case’ team with their manager being sacked just two days before the start of the tournament due to him agreeing to a new job (with Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid) that would start straight after the Cup.
There is already tension within the team due to the massive rivalry between the two biggest Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. The recent conflicts within Spain about Catalonia’s independence directly involves these giant clubs, as Barcelona is Catalonia’s capital, and Real Madrid very much at the heart of Spain. With this in mind, it is always intriguing to see how players from these two clubs come together to play for the national team.
Spain shares a border with both Morocco and Portugal and naturally this will likely mean an added layer of tension to these matches. Especially as you’d imagine that Morocco will relish the chance to prove that they are worthy opponents to their more fancied neighbours.
Group C Preview
Group C is interesting, not only because of Straya’s presence, but because of its evenness. France are obviously the strongest side in the group, and in contrast, Peru and Denmark are far less recognisable teams.
This is Peru’s first World Cup since 1982 and so are experiencing a similar wave of emotion as Australia produced in their drought-breaking World Cup of 2006.
Their President actually declared a public holiday the day after they defeated New Zealand to book their place in the tournament! (Eat your heart out Bob Hawke).
Although they are strong favourites for the group, France are known for their major tournament meltdowns which include but are not limited to: sending players home mid-tournament, some players refusing to pass to other players and players refusing to train.
The French always seem just moments away from a tournament destroying crisis, but the move to leave players like Benzema (who was involved in a blackmail scandal about a sex-tape involving teammate Valbuena) out of the squad will probably help build some team chemistry.
Australia face the French in their first match and getting a point in this game would be massive for their chances to progress out of the group. The Socceroos have played in every World Cup since their 2006 breakthrough but have not made it out of the group since then. With quite a young team and a manager who is yet to manage a competitive match with the side, expectations have to be limited, but there is hope in the fact that this group is much softer than those of previous campaigns.
France are the most expensive squad in the tournament, valued at a cool $1.172 billion AUD (according to https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/), this is in comparison to Australia’s meagre $80 million valuation. Peru are valued at an even lower worth than Australia, showing that it is not an impossible task for Australia to get out of this group.
Group D Preview
The underdog story of the World Cup must surely be Iceland. The nation of just 334,000 people managed to qualify for their first World Cup! To put this in context, every other nation in the tournament has a population at least 10 times larger than Iceland’s.
Iceland didn’t just rely on luck to qualify either. They topped their UEFA qualifying group (ahead of Croatia) and made a big splash at the the 2016 Euros, famously knocking England out of the tournament, which gave birth to one of sports most compelling fairytales and gave Icelandic commentary to the exposure it always deserved.
This is a similar group to Australia’s group in that there is a clear favourite (Argentina) and then three teams who have relatively equal chances of getting out of the group.
Croatia and Nigeria are likely to rely on their superstar players more than Iceland’s overall structured, disciplined style. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric likely to dominate for Croatia. Similarly, Nigeria will need their English Premier League players including Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi to star if they are to succeed in the tournament.
Lionel Messi bore the weight of expectation during Brazil 2014 with all of Argentina hoping (and expecting) him to repeat Diego Maradona’s heroics of 1986.
In many local’s opinion, Messi needs to lead Argentina to World Cup glory before he can be considered to be Maradona’s equal.
So, despite being widely regarded as one of (if not the) greatest footballers of all time and winning the player of the tournament in 2014, he is not as loved as Maradona in his homeland. Argentina are by no means however, a one-man-team, as they boast the most potent attacking players of any side in the tournament. Aguero, Di Maria, Dybala and Higuain are world class players playing for the best clubs across Europe.
Their obvious weakness is their defence, which is much less star-studded, so it will be interesting to see if they take an attacking approach, knowing they can outscore any opponent, or if they try to defend and just let their superstar forwards come up with a moment of brilliance each match.
Group E Preview
Brazil go in to Russia as World Cup favourites and with desperate to put their humiliating 7–1 exit at the last tournament behind them. Having been in a Brazilian pub at the time of that game, I can tell you that it was a national shame and that defeat will be permanently scarred into all Brazilians.
Their side now is just as talented as then, but certainly much tougher defensively. They will still rely on Neymar’s individual brilliance and he is certainly not always a great team player, but he does tend to love playing for his country.
The rest of the group is quite weak, although Costa Rica were the surprise team of the 2014 edition, making it out of a very tough group containing England, Italy and Uruguay. Interestingly (or not), Serbia’s squad has just two player’s whose last name doesn’t end in “ic.”
Not only do Brazil dominate this group in terms of football ability, they also are the second largest country by area in the tournament (behind Russia). In contrast, Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland are tiny countries and you could fit these three countries, combined, inside Brazil 47 times.
Group F Preview
Reigning champions Germany should have no problems getting out of this group. Expect the typical cliches from the Germans — well organised, disciplined and efficient.
Sweden are sadly without their most famous and talismanic player Zlatan, but appear to have become a better team in some ways since his retirement from the International game. They rely more on a team-first approach than Zlatan just being Zlatan. Sweden do not have single player in their squad that plays in their domestic league.
Korea are probably the strongest of the Asian teams at this tournament and are a decent chance to leave the group. Mexico are another of the perennial under-achievers of a large and football-loving country. Former Manchester United striker Chicharito is probably their most recognisable player.
If nothing else, Mexico probably leads the group in cuisine, certainly ahead of any Ikea meatballs or German snags in my opinion, but then again, Korean fried chicken is pretty tasty.
The Mexicans are also likely to lead the tournament in fan costumes, so keep an eye out for that.
Group G Preview
One of the joys of a World Cup is watching an England team with high expectations crash out in an unexpected or disappointing fashion. Most recently we got to witness a spectacular collapse against Iceland in the 2016 Euros, so anything is possible when England are involved. England should do well as they have a good squad on paper, but not as strong as previous years. All of their players play for a club in England, meaning they are the only international team to have a squad of entirely domestic players.
Belgium are the newest exciting European team, with talent across the park. Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard have been probably the two best attacking midfielders in the English Premier League over the past couple of seasons, and it is a tantalising prospect to see them working in tandem. They haven’t really been able to get it together as a group, and despite having an incredibly strong list, their results have been somewhat disappointing. This could be the last chance that this ‘golden generation’ of players has to lift a major trophy.
Panama are massive underdogs in this group as they have qualified for their first ever World Cup. They are exactly the kind of team that England must fear, as a loss to them in a World Cup would surely top even the humiliating exit to Iceland. Similarly to Panama, Tunisia have nothing to lose in this group, with low expectations meaning they have less pressure on them.
Group H Preview
Group H is the second weakest of the groups and is probably one of the most even. There are no clear favourites, although Colombia should progress and do well as they are led, by Bayern Munich/Real Madrid star James Rodriguez.
Senegal are the only other team (apart from Sweden) to have none of their squad members play for a club in their domestic league. They return to the tournament for the first time since 2002, when they famously defeated reigning champions France and became everyone else’s second favourite team in the process.
Poland possess one of the best strikers in the world in Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski, although there are some question marks on his ability to perform on the biggest stage after some disappointing performances in this year’s Champions League.
A main contest out of this group will be which team has the best goal celebrations, with Colombia’s from 2014 being fantastic and Senegal having some good moves as well.
I’m sure this will have been a focus on the training ground for both teams.
Despite the negativity surrounding the tournament because of allegations of corruption within FIFA and political issues within Russia, the World Cup never fails to entertain and capture the imagination of billions of fans worldwide.
This is one tournament that is truly global, with every country wanting to lift the famous trophy.
It is also, a very difficult tournament to predict because of the lack of games that international teams play and the high turnover of players in those teams, as well as the nature of soccer meaning that a single goal can change the outcome of a match and in turn a tournament.
It is this unpredictability that makes it one of the greatest sporting events on the calendar. Please take the following predictions with a grain of salt, anything can happen in this crazy month of football!
Champions: Brazil Surprise team: Senegal Leading goalscorer: James Rodriguez Disappointments: Belgium