The 2018 World Cup is upon us. Every four years the world’s 32 best national soccer teams gather for a tourney that captures global attention like no other event.
2018 FIFA World Cup Guide
The Super Bowl and NBA finals are fine American traditions whose worldwide popularity pales in comparison. The 2014 FIFA World Cup drew an audience in excess of three billion people. That’s nearly 50% of the world’s population, with the final game garnering some 695 million viewers. In contrast, the last Super Bowl reached about 103 million viewers.
This summer global attention focuses on Russia, staged in 11 cities (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov, Yekaterinburg and Sochi) from June 14 to July 15.
World Cup Favorites
Who is going to win the 2018 World Cup? It promises to be an exciting competition featuring five worthy contenders but no overwhelming favorite.
The 2014 title holders return a similarly powerful team that has reloaded with young talent while maintaining key components Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Jerome Boateng, and captain Manuel Neuer. Die Mannschaft is on a mission to become the second team to win back-to-back titles.
No nation has played more World Cup games (106), appeared in more World Cup final games (8), or scored more goals (224) than Germany. Perennial contenders, they also feature the longest serving European coach Joachim Löw. He integrated young stars Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sane, and Timo Werner flawlessly into the squad. As importantly, the defensive spine is a well-oiled machine playing together at Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich all year.
When Neymar was injured, the Brazil team fell apart in an infamous 7-1 thrashing against Germany. The Brazilians revamped their striking force thanks to the emergence of Gabriel Jesus, Coutinho, and Firmino. They are no longer reliant on a single player.
The only team to take part in every world cup, they are the world’s favorite national team winning more titles (5) than anyone. Under coach Tite, The Seleção have returned to beautiful football, less reliant on cynical fouling in the midfield, with all their offensive stars under the age of 27. The only negative is the loss of defensive stalwart Dani Alvez. This makes it even more important for their offensive stars shine.
A squad that has found their team interplay and swagger again after a shock group stage exit from the 2014 tourney. The tiki-taka giants have returned to their brilliant best.
Young stars Isco and Asensio are meshing with World Cup winners Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Andrés Iniesta, who are making their World Cup curtain call. An in-form and potent side favored to reach the final by bookmakers despite the lack of a consistent goal scorer up top.
Even if Spain makes midfield mistakes they can rely on David de Gea, perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world, to bail them out.
Lionel Messi, the world’s most versatile player, spearheads the Argentina attack. He is worthy of LeBron James comparisons given how he puts this team on his back. La Albiceleste desperately wants to lift an international trophy after suffering heartbreak in four consecutive cup final games.
Excellent striking partners Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain have come up short in the big game, making Argentina’s final hurdle harder to overcome as it appears to be a problem of mentality. They remain a favorite this year on strength of experience and Messi, but their talent pipeline seems to have run out.
There is a good argument that France has compiled the most talented list of players for the tourney. However, an overriding question is if coach Didier Deschamps is able to combine and put the individuals in the right place to work as a unit?
An explosive and varied attack is led by red-hot Antoine Griezmann, young starlet Kylian Mbappé, and reliable veteran Olivier Giroud. If this team has learned their lesson after suffering an unexpected home loss to an inferior Portugal side, in the European championship final, Les Bleus can win this edition of the World Cup.
Will a Newcomer Win?
Only eight nations have lifted the iconic trophy, with Brazil, Germany, and Italy winning a combined 13 in 20 competitions. Where Germany, Brazil (due to the brackets are destined to play each other before the final), or Spain stumbles Belgium look most likely side earn their first star.
This starting eleven rivals the top teams for skill and artistry. The talent is spread from front to back with world-class forwards Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard fed by midfield genius Kevin De Bruyne. It is backed up by towering Thibaut Courtois in goal. The Red Devils lack for nothing except a championship pedigree.
2018 World Cup Stars
The most dynamic players can put their teams on their shoulders and lead them to victory. Look for these stars to shine.
Driven and determined to leave a lasting legacy, in what is probably Ronaldo’s last World Cup, the Portuguese legend is a greedy goal scorer in the best sense. The bracket is favorable for Ronaldo to shine, he could score multiple goals against Morocco or Iran, but an early clash with Spain looms as the true test.
A global icon, he topped ESPN’s world fame rankings, the Real Madrid star is keen to enhance his legendary status on the largest stage. Ronaldo has won all but one team and individual honor available to him, but still lacks a defining moment at the World Cup to bring home this trophy.
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) June 4, 2018
Unassuming in personality and diminutive in stature, at 5′ 7″ and 160 pounds, the Argentine iconoclast is a giant by every other measurement. Messi has an added burden in the looming shadow of legendary Diego Maradona, that hovers over him like a dark cloud, which is as imposing as Michael Jordan comparisons in America.
May finally enter a World Cup relatively rested, sprinting with Barcelona to La Liga and Copa Del Rey titles early in the season, avoiding another final game letdown. This is the last chance to win a World Cup giving his fans an argumentative tool to label Messi the greatest soccer player ever.
Neymar is triple threat. He is nearly unanimously viewed as the future of soccer. But, will Brazil’s talisman be completely fit after suffering a bad ankle injury four months ago?
If Neymar is fully healthy the trickster is a reinvigorated difference maker in the Seleção’s return to beautiful football. The world’s most expensive player ($263 million just to buy his contract, which does not include Neymar’s salary) will relish the opportunity to justify his star status at the preeminent competition.
Dynamic and fearless, Neymar attracts attention anywhere near the box allowing him to dribble, pass, or shot past the opposition depending on circumstance.
— Neymar Jr (@neymarjr) June 3, 2018
Most players competing in their third World Cup are past their prime; but this German joker is in his athletic prime at 28. Müller’s intelligence and propensity to find openings in defenses set the polymath apart from superior physical specimens.
A tireless runner and proven big game performer, Müller delivers in the clutch scoring five goals and adding a further six assists in the qualification rounds. A contender to win the 2018 Golden Boot (awarded to the tourney’s top scorer), he has an outside chance to capture the all-time scoring record as well.
Müller currently sits on ten tourney goals while the record stands at 16 with countryman Miroslav Klose.
— Thomas Müller (@esmuellert_) May 28, 2018
Rodriguez is an attacking midfielder who is the focus of Colombia’s young and energetic strike force. He was the last tourney’s top goal scorer.
Colombia is considered a dark horse for the semi-finals allowing James’ star opportunity to shine. The versatile James also takes spot and penalty kicks making him a multiple threat to score. If James finds his footing against weaker defensive sides, like Senegal and Japan, he can steer Colombia past big obstacles. Then, Columbia might see the late stages of the tourney.
Fun World Cup Facts
- Germany has scored the most goals in the last three World Cup competitions, 14 in 2006, 16 in 2010, and 18 in 2014.
- Brazil is the only team to compete in every World Cup.
- Mexican Antonio Carbajal and German Lothar Matthäus have played in more World Cups (5) than any other footballer.
- Mexico has qualified more than any other country, 16 times, without winning the tourney.
- South Korea have qualified for their 10th World Cup, more than any other Asian country.
- Iceland is the smallest nation (population 335,000) to ever qualify for the World Cup. Their iconic Viking thunder clap is a sight to behold.
- No African country has qualified as often as Nigeria since their debut in 1994. This will be their sixth World Cup.
- European or South American teams own all World Cup titles.
- Since qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Saudi Arabia has fired two head coaches.
- Every World Cup has been won by a coach who is the same nationality as his team.
What Makes the World Cup Special?
Soccer is followed more widely and more passionately than any other sport. It makes this spectacle worthy of attention despite the lack of American participation.
There was more drama than usual in the qualifying rounds – a grueling three-year process with 211 nations competing. Popular stalwarts like Italy, Holland, and the USA failed to make the tourney.
Still, over 1.5 million tourists will flock to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. Many do not have match tickets, but they want to revel in the atmosphere first hand. Entire nations come to a halt. The Panamanian president declared a public holiday a day after their team qualified.
American athletes may argue “We will win the title next year.” But, World Cup players may only appear on this global stage once or twice. This places additional pressure on players, coaches and teams.
Martin Mulcahey is a freelance writer featured at various publications including ESPN, The Atlantic, Yahoo.com, Stars, and Asia Times.
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