- France, Spain, Brazil, and Germany are the form sides for Russia 2018
- France look the best bet to win the tournament
- Germany seem complacent and need to rewrite history to succeed again
Only four nations have a serious chance of winning the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That’s the Soccer Scribe view six days before the jamboree kicks off in Moscow.
International football is at an all-time low. The top national teams are routinely overshadowed by the UEFA Champions League clubs and we now live in an era of globalisation which means that club sides can be put together featuring a potpourri of the world’s greatest footballers regardless of national restrictions. Up to the Bosman ruling of the mid-1990s, top clubs were limited to a handful of foreign talents who would complement eight or nine locals. A few years later, Chelsea were fielding a team with no English representatives. Football had become FIFA Ultimate Team, years before Electronic Arts could invent the concept.
That said, international football is the ultimate celebration of the sport. TV audiences dwarf those of even the biggest Champions League matches with women drawn to the sport in a way they simply never are for the club game. The tribal loyalty men, in general, show to their clubs doesn’t seem to compute with women who can see why one might cheer for one’s own country but not why one would be so inclined for a club. Club football seems too parochial for a female audience.
International football is also the greatest test for a footballer, simply because he can not rely on being surrounded by players of his own ability – and because the sheer weight of an entire nation’s dreams can crush even the most battle-hardened of pros. In Russia we will see men weep openly as they exit the tournament. You only see that in club football in a Champions League final – and that’s mainly for injured players fearing that they are about to miss the subsequent World Cup.
Of the contenders this year, it’s hard to see beyond Spain, France, Brazil, and Germany, simply because all of these countries possess the greatest depths of talent. Russia, the hosts, will probably depend on the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to smooth their passage in an interesting Group A. Uruguay, containing a few too many of their class of 2010, are moderate opponents. Egypt, hamstrung by the likely loss of Mohammed Salah, are less worrisome now. Saudi Arabia are making up the numbers.
Spain should canter through Group B, probably accompanied to the last 16 by European champions Portugal. Morocco and Iran should make a fight of it, but hardly have the quality to shock Cristiano Ronaldo and co. Denmark and Peru are likely to contest second spot in Group C, with France surely too strong for either. Australia are playing for pride. The French squad is tremendously strong, but much depends on how they start the tournament. Progress smoothly and they have the ability to beat anyone. They’ve handled Brazil in three World Cups (1986, 1998, and 2006), and beat Germany in Euro 2016. It’s hard to see who beats them if they play as we think they can.
Argentina could be early “surprise” casualties in a well-balanced Group D. Croatia look a threat, but have struggled in recent years against Iceland and could find Nigeria a problem. Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest player, will probably dig the South Americans out of a hole or two, but it’s hard to see such a poor Argentinian side progress much deeper than the last eight.
Brazil should have few problems seeing off the dour Swiss, plucky Costa Ricans, and mercurial Serbs in Group E. The fascination here will be in whether they can avoid the Germans in the second round. The champions, in the neighbouring Group F, face an awkward trio of Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. One slip – or indeed one from the Brazilians – could see an early replay of the Mineirao.
The holders strike me as being hugely complacent, drunk on the self-satisfaction that usually accompanies world champions. No side since Garrincha’s Brazil in 1962 has retained the World Cup. This German generation is reliably efficient when faced with flawed sides – and tends to crush this kind of opposition regardless of reputation. Argentina and England in 2010, and Portugal and Brazil in 2014 have all been beaten to a pulp by the Nationalmannschaft on an aggregate score of 19-2. Timo Werner must step up in this tournament if they are to seriously contend. Thomas Müller appears to be back in form, and Marco Reus is, for once, injury free. He could be “like a new signing” for them. But is Manuel Neuer really fit, and is Jonas Hector really up to it at full back?
England should breeze through a feeble Group G with the overrated Belgium. The interest here is to see which one wins the group and lands in the “Brazilian half” of the draw – and which one joins the track that should see Germany await in the quarter finals. Tunisia must avoid defeat to England in the first game to stay alive, but Gareth Southgate really should expect to make the last eight. Panama are likely to be fodder, and it’s hard to see Colombia, Poland, Japan, or Senegal knocking out England or Roberto Martinez’s side in the last 16.
All things considered, France appear to be the coming team. If pushed, I’d take them over Brazil, Spain, and Germany to lift the ultimate prize.