- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
The World Series is just barely in the rearview. The NBA season is rolling and dramatic, while American football is as intense as ever. The European club soccer season hit pause only about two minutes ago. Thanksgiving is approaching quickly, and you have to make plans. The election was a lot. And hey, work’s just been a beast lately.
The FIFA World Cup snuck up on you, in other words. It’s fine to admit it. It was bound to happen. This glorious event was perfectly dropped into just about the most inconvenient possible time of the year, and while you know how important it is, and you definitely want to get the most out of it, you’ve come to realize you’re running out of time.
Needless to say, ESPN has you covered from an overall coverage standpoint. We’ve told you about the 50 best footballers at the World Cup. We’ve predicted every game (E+). We’ve ranked previous tournaments. We’ve talked about “sportswashing” as it pertains to the host nation, Qatar.
We’ve tried to introduce you to the Qataris and migrant workers who actually comprise the country too, but let’s say you feel like you just want to know a little bit more about each team taking the field in the coming days: storylines, key players, the strange paths to get here and the favorable tournament draws.
Allow me to fill in that gap. Let’s walk through the field of 32 one last time before everything gets underway.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds (per Caesars Sportsbook): Netherlands -1200 (equivalent to 92%), Senegal -105 (51%), Ecuador +105 (49%), Qatar +400 (20%)
Louis van Gaal’s last go-round. Netherlands like familiarity. Over the past 30 years, they’ve hired Dick Advocaat as manager three times and Guus Hiddink twice. They’ve hired former Dutch stars like Marco van Basten and Frank de Boer, and when the team disappointed with De Boer at Euro 2020, they pulled the storied Van Gaal, now 71, out of retirement for his third stint in charge.
– O’Hanlon: Predicting every single World Cup game (E+)
They haven’t lost since. They’ve beaten Belgium twice this year and made short work of their Nations League group. Forwards Steven Bergwijn (Ajax) and Memphis Depay (Barcelona) have scored 11 goals and created 27 chances — mostly for each other — in international play over the past calendar year. The absurdly talented back line of Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Matthijs de Ligt (Bayern Munich) and/or Nathan Ake (Manchester City) is put under pressure at times because of their possession-heavy style, but they’re sturdy enough to usually make it work.
This team are making the most of Van Gaal’s possession style and have got a solid draw: if they win Group A as planned, they wouldn’t face a mega-contender until the quarterfinals (Argentina or France). This is a massive opportunity for them.
What are Senegal without Sadio Mane? Senegal have had an amazing 2022, beating Mohamed Salah’s Egypt on penalties to win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time, then doing it again to qualify for the World Cup. They’ve got sturdy veterans throughout the lineup, from goalkeeper Edouard Mendy (Chelsea) to defender Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea) to midfielders Nampalys Mendy (Leicester City) and Idrissa Gueye (Everton). But their attack runs through Bayern star Mane, and his World Cup is over before it started thanks to a tibia injury. Horrible timing.
The Ecuador Seagulls. Ecuador had never qualified for a World Cup until 2002, but have now done so four of six times, albeit with eligibility controversy this time. Unlike a lot of teams in Qatar, most of their highest-level talent is at the back. A lot of them play for a specific Premier League club, too: rising midfielder Moises Caicedo, full-back Pervis Estupinan and winger Jeremy Sarmiento are all plying their trade at Brighton.
If Ecuador make noise, Caicedo, Estupinan and center-back Piero Hincapie (Bayer Leverkusen) are the most likely reasons.
Continuity is key for Qatar. By any measure of pure talent, Qatar are one of the weaker teams in the field. But among some shaky results against high-level teams like Portugal, they’ve shown hints of sturdiness, drawing with Chile in September and reaching the semifinals of the 2021 Gold Cup.
Their best quality: They’ve got a high-level club in their backyard and they use it. Half of their roster comes from two-time Asian Champions League winner (and 16-time domestic champion) Al Sadd. Familiarity can compensate for talent at times.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: England -1200 (equivalent to 92%), USA -120 (55%), Wales +120 (46%), Iran +400 (20%)
How much does form matter? Asking for England. England might have more raw talent than any team in this field. A team of players snubbed from the 26-man roster would be favored to qualify for the World Cup(!), but results have vanished of late. England went winless in the summer and fall Nations League slate, results that included a sweep by Hungary. Some of manager Gareth Southgate’s favorites — defender Harry Maguire, winger Raheem Sterling — haven’t been in great form, and confidence is low.
Does any of this actually matter, though? This team made the World Cup semifinals four years ago and nearly won the delayed Euros in 2021. And again: TALENT. SO MUCH OF IT. And what happens if they don’t?
Knock on wood, but … the U.S. are healthy? The U.S. have also struggled to inspire confidence in 2022. Of the six World Cup teams they’ve played in the past calendar year, they’ve beaten just one. Their performances in two September friendlies were dreadful and betrayed a lack of either creation ability or steady passing in defense, two staples of the possession style manager Gregg Berhalter has spent four years trying to build.
Vibes: low. Health, however: good. The young quintet of attackers Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams and full-back Sergino Dest have played together once, ever, due to injuries, but at the moment they all appear ready to go. So are Berhalter favorites Antonee Robinson and Yunus Musah, and emerging star Brenden Aaronson, Adams’ teammate at Leeds United. We technically don’t know how this American team might perform because we really haven’t seen it … and that might be the best available reason for optimism.
Gareth Bale’s curtain call. Wales are playing in their first World Cup in 64 years, qualifying in part thanks to sturdy defense and an exciting young core of players like midfielders Neco Williams (Nottingham Forest), Ethan Ampadu (Spezia) and Harry Wilson (Fulham) and forwards Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest) and Daniel James (Fulham). But Gareth Bale remains the headliner. The Welsh legend netted all three goals against Austria and Ukraine in the qualification playoffs and, at 33, is rapidly nearing the end of his career. Does he have enough magic left in him to drive Wales to the knockout rounds?
Iran: Advanced CONCACAF. According to the ratings at EloRatings.net, neither the U.S. nor Wales are the second-best team in Group B: Iran are. Carlos Queiroz helms a team that does the “defend with everything you’ve got and hit a couple of counter-attacks” routine as well as anyone. It’s a style that gave the U.S. fits in World Cup qualification, and Iran are better at it than any CONCACAF squad besides perhaps Canada.
This team are a spectacular pain in the butt, and if veteran attackers Mehdi Taremi (Porto) and Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen) can provide any sort of finishing — and if the team aren’t dragged down by domestic unrest — they could advance. (That makes those qualification odds above rather interesting if you’re betting-inclined.)
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: Argentina -1000 (equivalent to 91%), Mexico -135 (57%), Poland +100 (50%), Saudi Arabia +650 (+13%)
The last dance for Lionel Messi (and Robert Lewandowski). There’s plenty of exciting, young attacking talent in the soccer universe at the moment, from Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Vinicius Junior on down. That’s good because we’re going to be losing a lot of storied talent in the coming years, too. The most storied talent, in fact.
– Argentina, Uruguay take 4,000 pounds of meat to World Cup
Lionel Messi enters his final World Cup with a spectacular Argentina team around him. They are the No. 2 betting favorites behind Brazil, and it’s not hard to see why. Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan), Julian Alvarez (Manchester City) and, if healthy, Paulo Dybala (Roma) complement Messi up front, and Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United) and Cristian Romero (Tottenham Hotspur) are sturdy in the back. Argentina won the Copa America last summer and haven’t lost since July 2019. The draw is rough — they will likely play either France or Denmark in the round of 16, then perhaps Netherland or England in the quarterfinals and Brazil in the semis — but the team are outstanding.
This is quite possibly Robert Lewandowski’s last World Cup as well. The 34-year old Barcelona star has scored 76 goals for Poland and nearly 600 in club play, and while his supporting cast lacks compared to Messi’s, Poland aren’t bereft of talent: Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski is a solid attacking complement, and the Aston Villa duo of Matty Cash and Jan Bednarek are solid in defense. They got knocked around by Belgium and Netherlands in Nations League play (four matches, one point), but they’re tested and talented.
Tata’s redemption? The U.S. allegedly looked at Tata Martino before choosing Gregg Berhalter as manager four years ago; Martino instead landed with Mexico and, for a while, he looked like the far better choice in charge. But then Mexico lost three times to the U.S. in 2021; since last October they have played eight matches against World Cup teams and haven’t beaten a single one (four draws, four losses.)
Star attacker Raul Jimenez (Wolves) has barely played since August due to injury, and veterans Hirving Lozano (Napoli) and Andres Guardado (Real Betis) are the only players on the 26-man roster who currently play in Europe’s Big Five leagues. Have Mexico fallen deep into a down cycle? Will the World Cup trigger a rebound?
Goals are unicorns for Saudi Arabia. Journeyman manager Herve Renard helms a roster that, like Qatar’s, calls entirely on domestic league talent, including 12 players from Saudi heavyweight Al-Hilal, winner of the Asian Champions League in 2019 and 2021. That has paid off in the form of defensive stability: in the past calendar year, they’ve allowed just seven goals in 12 matches.
Of course, they’re now in a group with Messi and Lewandowski. Also, they scored just six goals in those 12 matches. Their best hope of advancing is a run of scoreless slogs.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: France -1400 (equivalent to 93%), Denmark -275 (73%), Australia +350 (22%), Tunisia +350 (22%)
France: A massive (and massively talented) wildcard. It’s a very disorienting experience talking about France at the moment. On one hand, they’re the defending champions and a favorite in any tournament they enter. On the other hand, they won just one of six Nations League matches this summer and fall. On one hand, they have lost some incredibly high-caliber players to injury — midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and forward Christopher Nkunku, for instance — and other stars are dealing with at least nagging injuries. On the other hand, they still have Mbappe, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and loads of both seasoned veterans (Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann) and precocious youngsters (Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, William Saliba.)
They’re loaded and dangerous. They’re playing second-teamers and are in a slump. They could repeat as World Cup winners or lose early, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise. All of which makes them one hell of a wildcard.
Dynamite Danish dark horses, part deux? Last we saw Denmark on a big stage, they had to work through a nearly unfathomable tragedy — Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse and near death via cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 — but after losing their first two matches, rallied to not only reach the knockout rounds but come within an extra-time Harry Kane goal of the finals. They were popular sleeper picks and lived up to it.
A year and a half later, Eriksen is back in the fold and … they’re popular dark horse picks! They’ve still got veterans like Eriksen, midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and defenders Andreas Christensen and Joachim Andersen, and optimistic, 22-year-old midfielders Jesper Lindstrom (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Andreas Skov Olsen (Club Brugge) have been absolute delights in the Champions League this year. The group is kind outside of France, and Denmark could either win the group or, as runner-up, serve as a massive round-of-16 challenge for likely Group C champions Argentina. Either way, they could be a story again, and this time for only good reasons.
Are either Australia or Tunisia capable of disruption? Six players in Scotland. Two in Japan. Two in Denmark. Two in Italy. One at Hamburg St. Pauli. One for the Columbus Crew. Australia might have the most diasporic roster in the World Cup. Tunisia, meanwhile, don’t have the individual standouts of other African qualifiers, but they’ve got the results. They made the Arab Cup finals last December and since the summer they’ve beaten Chile, Japan, Iran and lost only to Brazil. They neither attempt nor allow many shots, and just generally make things annoying.
Do either have enough to top France or Denmark, or are they just neat stories? Oddsmakers certainly lean toward the latter. But they’re definitely neat stories.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: Spain -900 (equivalent to 90%), Germany -700 (88%), Japan +350 (22%), Costa Rica +850 (11%)
Do Spain have finishers? Even in an era in which the best teams attempt to dominate the ball more than ever before, no one does it like Luis Enrique’s Spain. Barcelona teenager Pedri runs the show with plenty of help from Manchester City’s Rodri, the ageless Sergio Busquets and the other teenage Barca midfield star, Gavi. They have the ball on a string.
They don’t always put the ball in the net, however. In their first two games at Euro 2020, against Poland and Sweden, they enjoyed 80% possession(!), attempted 29 shots worth 5.4 xG … and scored once. In the quarterfinals and semis: 70% possession, 44 shots, 4.4 xG, two goals. Alvaro Morata and Pablo Sarabia are solid attackers, but Spain lack the depth of elite finishing talent that most of the other favorites have.
This confusing era of German underachievement. From 2006 to 2016, a new generation of Germany players, playing a new brand of soccer, finished third or better at six straight major tournaments. It was an absurd run … and then it very much ended. They failed to advance in the 2018 World Cup, then bowed out to England in the Euro 2020 round of 16. Since the Euros, they’ve played three matches against World Cup teams and drew with all three.
Looking at the roster, this run of relative mediocrity makes absolutely no sense. They have seven key Bayern players, and Bayern are awesome! Defender Antonio Rudiger has won two straight Champions Leagues! They have some of the brightest young talent in the game — Jamal Musiala, Nico Schlotterbeck, Kai Havertz, if he still counts! — so is this the tournament where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts again?
A custom-made dark horse (with a steep hill to climb). Spain and Germany make this an obvious “Scary Bad Group.” That’s really unfortunate, because I had long committed to naming Group E mate Japan a dark horse using the “I just love this roster” principle.
– Ian Darke’s World Cup prediction: Who lifts the trophy?
I just love this roster. Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal) and Ko Itakura (Borussia Monchengladbach) are high-effort defenders with passing ability. Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt) is a good attacking midfielder who is getting better quickly. Ritsu Doan has been an important new attacking piece for a strong Freiburg squad. Takuma Asano (Bochum) runs himself into the ground in every match. Veterans Wataru Endo, Junya Ito and Takumi Minamino are still strong contributors. Young attacker Takefusa Kubo is fascinating.
This Japan team rule. But we’ll see if they can overcome the Group of Death.
Costa Rica aren’t going to make another run, right? Eleven of the 26 players on Costa Rica’s World Cup roster are 30 or older, and six were on the 2014 World Cup squad that damn near made the semifinals. Joel Campbell? Still the primary goal scorer. Keylor Navas? Still a rock-solid goalkeeper.
They’re also smoking hot. They’ve played 13 matches in the past calendar year and lost once. They defend and defend, and they supply Campbell with one solid scoring chance per match. That’s not going to keep working … is it?
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: Belgium -900 (equivalent to 90%), Croatia -187 (65%), Morocco +225 (31%), Canada +310 (24%)
Are Belgium and Croatia old or perfectly seasoned? Four years ago, Croatia made the World Cup finals with a veteran-laden squad — 13 of 23 players were at least 28 years old, including stars like Luka Modric (32), Mario Mandzukic (32), Ivan Rakitic (30), Ivan Perisic (29) and Dejan Lovren (28).
Modric, now 37, is still there. Perisic is playing almost as well as ever. Lovren, Andrej Kramaric (31) and Domagoj Vida (33) all took part in the finals and are all on the 2022 roster. Of the 11 players who have recorded at least 325 minutes for Croatia over the past year, nine are at least 27. This is a “Run It Back” team that could be as crafty and difficult to eliminate as ever.
Belgium, meanwhile, are just as old and still trying to reach the promised land. Of their top 16 players over the past year, 12 are at least 29. Belgium’s golden generation — Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, et al — reached the quarterfinals of four straight major tournaments and took third in the past World Cup, but it feels like this is the last chance at something even greater for a while. They’ve remained reliant on Jan Vertonghen (35) and Toby Alderweireld (33) in defense, and losses usually stem from defensive breakdowns. Over the past four calendar years, they’ve lost seven matches; those losses featured 19 goals allowed.
To even reach the finals, Belgium might have to beat Spain or Germany in the round of 16, then England or France in the semis. The road to a happy ending for the “Golden Generation” is a rough one.
Morocco vs. the sum of their parts. Two things have defined recent Moroccan football: high-end talent and a lack of tournament success. Achraf Hakimi (PSG) and Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern) are among the most exciting and versatile full-backs in the game. Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea) is a cranky creator. Forward Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla) isn’t far removed from a 24-goal season in LaLiga. But they haven’t made even the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations since 2004.
The 2018 World Cup was their first in 20 years, and they earned one point in three matches. This is an enigmatic squad with loads of potential and a minimal track record.
The start of the story for Canada. Few international teams know themselves like Canada. They were happy to give teams the ball if asked; relying on the ridiculous speed of players like Alphonso Davies (Bayern), Jonathan David (Lille) and Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge), and the creativity of Davies and Stephen Eustaquio (Porto) to create strong counter-attacking opportunities. It earned them their first World Cup bid since 1986. They don’t have the pieces to operate well from behind, but they are confident and capable of making noise with the right game state.
The best part: Davies, David and Buchanan are all 23 and under. They’re going to be at this for a while.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds (per Caesars Sportsbook): Brazil -1200 (equivalent to 92%), Switzerland +105 (49%), Serbia +125 (44%), Cameroon +300 (25%)
What weaknesses might Brazil have? The numbers love Brazil. The sportsbooks love Brazil. The eyeballs love Brazil. They’ve lost once in the past three calendar years. They have Neymar, Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, Tottenham’s Richarlison and Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus (and Manchester United’s Antony if healthy) in a loaded attack.
– Vickery: World Cup dream and Pele’s Brazil goal record loom over Neymar, will he capture both?
Brazil start the tournament at the front of the pack, in other words. But the World Cup is far too random for any single team to be a “them vs. the field” type of favorite — they’re still more likely to fall short than win. And if they indeed fall short, it probably starts at the back. They’re still incredibly reliant on 38-year-old captain Thiago Silva at center-back, not to mention defense-minded midfielders like Casemiro (30), Fred (29) and Fabinho (29).
For all of the young attacking energy they bring to the table, a similarly speedy attack could make their defense look slow. It hasn’t happened in a while — they’ve played nine matches in the past year and allowed just three goals — but that doesn’t mean it can’t.
A major opportunity for Serbia and Switzerland. As is the case with most light heavyweight European teams, both Serbia and Switzerland are blessed with plenty of exciting talent that plays for major clubs — Serbia have forwards Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham) and midfielder Filip Kostic (Juventus); Switzerland have veteran midfielders Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) and Denis Zakaria (Chelsea), defender Manuel Akanji (Manchester City), forward Breel Embolo (Monaco) and about 17 strong goalkeepers.
They are also blessed with an intriguing draw: The second-placed team in Group H could draw one of the tournament’s weaker group winners (likely either Portugal or Uruguay.) Switzerland came achingly close to a semifinal run in last summer’s Euros, and it wouldn’t take much luck for either of these teams to reach the quarterfinals if they’re dialed in.
An intriguing Cameroon attack. Cameroon have one of the more storied histories in African soccer — this will be their eighth World Cup appearance since 1982, and they famously reached the quarterfinals in 1990 — but it took a shocker for them to qualify this time around. Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi scored vs. Algeria in the 124th minute of their final qualification match, just six minutes after Algeria had seemingly clinched advancement with a goal of their own.
This isn’t the most talented squad Cameroon have brought to a World Cup, but they’ve got just enough intriguing pieces to challenge. Lyon’s Toko Ekambi, Brentford winger Bryan Mbeumo and Bayern’s smoking-hot Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting are key up front, and while depth is problematic in the back, they’ve at least got high-level players in defensive midfielder Frank Anguissa (Napoli) and goalkeeper Andre Onana (Inter Milan). It would be a surprise if they advanced, but only so much of one.
Odds to advance to knockout rounds: Portugal -600 (equivalent to 86%), Uruguay -225 (69%), South Korea +240 (29%), Ghana +280 (26%)
Portugal vs. the worst of vibes. Act I: Cristiano Ronaldo waits until Manchester United begin to play well without him, then decides to burn every possible bridge with the club (which still employs Portugal teammate Bruno Fernandes) on his way out the door to Qatar.
Act II: This strange interaction between Ronaldo and Fernandes.
Act III: Whatever the heck this interaction was between Ronaldo and another Portuguese star, Joao Cancelo.
These clips, of course, lack loads of context. We’re not in the Portugal camp. We have no inside information as to whether the Piers Morgan saga has affected anything. (And if it hasn’t, then we’re talking about a team with a ridiculous amount of talent and potential.) All I’ll say is, if we’re talking about Portugal as this tournament’s “Horrible Vibes Team” in a few more weeks — and every major tournament always has one — it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Finishers ‘R’ Us. More from the “Last Dance for Aging Strikers” theme: Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are both 35 years old and surely playing in their final World Cup. They are among five Uruguay players with over 100 caps and 10 players aged 29 or older. They are a veteran squad with a few key, young pieces — forwards Darwin Nunez (Liverpool) and Facundo Pellistri (Manchester United), midfielder Fede Valverde (Real Madrid), defender Ronald Araujo (Barcelona) — and have been in pretty good form in 2022.
If Portugal are in anything less than fifth gear, Uruguay might be the favorite to win the group.
Sonny’s team. Here’s a fun tie: Ronaldo’s old teammate at Sporting CP, Paulo Bento, could end up knocking Ronaldo out if Portugal underachieve. Bento has been in charge in South Korea for more than four years and has lost only seven of 53 matches. They might not have the defensive chops for a lengthy run in Qatar, but they have exciting potential in attack thanks to the combination of a face-masked Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur) — he’s coming off of a facial fracture — Hwang Hee-chan (Wolves), Hwang Ui-jo (Olympiacos), Jeong Woo-yeong (Freiburg) and perhaps Lee Kang-in (Mallorca.)
Ghana’s next generation. Like Cameroon, Ghana are a familiar face and surprise qualifier. They hit a dreadful run of form early in 2022, quickly exiting the Africa Cup of Nations, but upset Nigeria to advance to Qatar.
Older faces like captain Andre Ayew (Al-Sadd), Jordan Ayew (Crystal Palace) and Thomas Partey (Arsenal) are still around, but younger stars like Daniel-Kofi Kyereh (Freiburg) and new national additions Inaki Williams (Athletic Club) and Tariq Lamptey (Brighton) have given a struggling team a boost of upside. Can new faces help to provide some improved results?
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