The Premier League Season is over, other domestic leagues will follow suit shortly, and the Champions League Final is fast approaching. Also slowly being leaked during this time are provisional, and in some cases, final, 23-man rosters for the World Cup, which starts June 14 in Russia.
All roads lead to Moscow
The World Cup is arguably the most exciting sports spectacle globally, and for good reason. It is the World’s sport, where the best players, and footballing nations of the World are *usually* on display (thank you, Italy, Chile, Netherlands, and the United States). In order to psyche you, and myself, up for this tournament, I thought it would be fun to do some Primer articles, which will be available for reading each week leading up to the Cup. This one is the first of those.
“The big dance,” requires a big ballroom
Since the World Cup expanded from 16 to 24 nations in 1982, and from 24 to 32 nations in 1998, there is a greater opportunity for one nation to become a “Cinderella” story, which immediately canonizes its’ players into country folklore, and for some players, presents new wealth opportunities and sexy transfer rumors. Sometimes there are multiple “Cinderellas” at the ball (2002 World Cup); sometimes it strikes midnight before Cinderella can even reach the ball. Therefore, I’d like to take the opportunity to predict which nation(s) are most likely to be Russia 2018’s Cinderella story.
My picks, my rules:
- The nations included in this prediction must be ranked 20th or higher by FIFA’s official rankings system. These rankings come from the April 2018 iteration from the official website: here. This eliminates all nations in POT 1 (except Russia), all of POT 2, and Denmark.
- Most of these nations will likely come from the CONCACAF, AFC, or CAF Confederations, since historically those have had lesser expectations upon them, but a true Cinderella story can technically come from any confederation.
- We will use the past to predict the future. Note that FIFA’s rankings officially debuted in 1992 so at least two of our former Cinderella nations get a break in that respect. (That is, they crashed the finals party before that year.)
- Any nation which has won either a World Cup, Copa America, or EURO is automatically eliminated. Further, any nation which has finished in the Final Four of the World Cup or EURO within the last 30 years is also eliminated (unless they were also grouped in POT 4). This eliminates Sweden, but allows Russia (competed as Soviet Union) and South Korea to continue their inclusion
- A team achieves true “Cinderella” status only when it advances past the round of 16.
- Applying of the foregoing to the history of the World Cup finals past, leaves us with 15 nations to consider: Russia, Iceland, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran, Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia
The nations and years we will use as our muses are: Mexico in 1986, Cameroon in 1990, Senegal, United States, and South Korea in 2002, Ghana in 2010, and Costa Rica in 2014. These nations—except for Mexico and Cameroon—finished the year prior to the World Cup ranked outside the top 20 and had a significant spike in their end of year ranking after the World Cup. While a small sample size, we can deduce a few factors which help in determining who is likely to provide a “Cinderella Story” in 2018:
- Host nations, or Holders of Significant Home-Field Advantage. Mexico hosted in 1986 and South Korea co-hosted in 2002. I’m also including Ghana from 2010 as it was the first World Cup on African soil.
- Star Power or Emerging Star Power. Cameroon had Roger Milla, Senegal’s stars all got fancy transfers after the World Cup, USA had Landon Donovan and co., Ghana already had established stars in top leagues, and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica was one of the best keepers in La Liga already.
- A Little Luck: Not that we can predict this either, but all the teams who advanced out of their group had some luck on their side. Mexico topped their group and their reward was Bulgaria; had they finished second they would have received England. Cameroon wins their group and receives Colombia instead of Brazil. USA finishes second and receives Mexico instead of Italy (although it should be said South Korea pulled an upset of Italy) and Senegal finishes second, meaning they play Sweden and not England. Ghana avoided a similar fate because England finished second to the United States on goal difference, which is how they were paired. And Greece being Greece and sucking the life out of the sport without any real talent was the reward waiting for Costa Rica tying their last game; a loss could have brought them Colombia instead.
- Drawn in “Group of death” (or tough group in general). Cameroon beat Argentina and Romania with Gheorghe Hagi to top their group. South Korea and USA played each other, but had to surpass Luis Figo and Portugal to do it. Senegal had a famous upset of France and still had to deal with Uruguay and Denmark. Ghana was drawn with Germany, and Costa Rica may have had the toughest group ever recorded in Italy, Uruguay, and England.
- Unique Philosophy Within Group. Looking back at the 32-team World Cups, you’ll see that teams which surprised were also placed in group where their philosophy was somewhat unique. Athleticism helped Senegal in their group in 2002, ditto for Ghana in 2010. The United States, while never the most technically gifted side, are always a gritty side, and pairing them with two European nations may have helped them advance. In 2014, Costa Rica played against 3 top-10 sides, all which tried to attack them and/or maintain possession, which played right into the hands of the Costa Ricans, who sit 5 on their backline traditionally while making life easy for their elite keeper.
So who’s likeliest to do this in 2018?
I’ll be breaking this section down into three groups: 1) Likeliest, 2) If it breaks right…, and 3) I wouldn’t bet on it. Let’s identify these groups:
(Sadio Mane v. Ivory Coast, Dan Mullan, Getty Images, March 27, 2017)
Senegal are the favorites to do this, and they check off three boxes for me. They present star power in the form in Sadio Mane of Liverpool, Kalidou Coulibaly of Napoli, and Keita Balde of Monaco. They have drawn a relative “group of death” in that everyone in their group has star power and quality. In addition, they have the unique characteristic of being super-athletic on all three levels. Unknown goalkeeping may let them down, but if they can make it out of their group, they may find a perpetually underachieving England squad awaiting them.
Serbia has a significant home-field advantage feel, since they are an Eastern European nation which won’t travel far for the World Cup. Their fans should be loud and boisterous. While not the sexiest of stars, they boast midfielders and defenders which play consistently on the top clubs in the World, and have a boatload of experience. Not a reason listed above, but I have a general distrust of Switzerland – seriously, why are they good? – and I feel Serbia should do what Costa Rica does better than they can. Doesn’t mean it will happen, but it really should.
Ok, so they only have one reason from above on their side, and given their group, that’s all Egypt will need. Mohamed Salah could very well be the best player in the world outside of Ronaldo and Messi. He’s also been gifted an easy group: this is a man who tore up the World’s Best League and the Champions League. While Spain may prove too tall a task for one man, if Egypt can top their group and play Portugal, the odds are much more favorable for him against a core of centre-backs 34 years old or older. Plus, what a salacious matchup that would be!
Why can’t Costa Rica do it again? They still have the World Class keeper, they will present the same tactics, and despite not having the individual talent of a Switzerland or Serbia, will have better chemistry. After all, it hasn’t stopped them from crashing a party before.
If it breaks right:
(Alex Livesey, Getty Images, June 11, 2016)
Fun Fact: Every host nation of the World Cup has advanced past the round-robin stage except for one: South Africa in 2010. This is the only fact which assists Russia in any capacity. If it were not for them hosting, they’d probably be in the “I wouldn’t bet on it” section. There’s uncertainty at the back after the international retirements of Sergei Ignashevich and the brothers Berezutskiy, and still there’s a lot of age in the back. Can’t see that working against Mohamed Salah and Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, let alone Spain or Portugal.
Fun Fact: In 2014, Nigeria was in a group with Argentina, finished second, and were eliminated by France. If they finish second again in their group, which also has Argentina, guess who’s likely to play them in the round of 16? While history has a cruel way of repeating itself, Nigeria might have a glimmer of light. They have talent from the top levels of Europe, which helps. Add that Croatia tends to disappoint in recent big tournaments and no one will be sleeping on Iceland, and Nigeria can finish second. France, coincidentally, will have a good tournament and follow it with a crap showing. 1998, 2006, and 2014: good. 2002 and 2010: bad. 2018 falling into the bad, giving Nigeria an easier second round match.
Australia always travel well, but it isn’t enough to give them home field in Russia. No star power, no unique philosophies, not in a Group of Death. They are here because their group gives them a great opportunity. France could be primed for a let-down if their tournament pattern holds. Denmark is solid; not terribly intimidating but solid. And Peru is competitive too, but without their lead striker, could be beaten too. If they were to somehow manage to finish first, they would avoid Argentina.
Are they in a tough group? Absolutely. But Morocco is the definition of “if it breaks right” if I’ve ever seen it. They share a lot of similarities with another squad who became a cinderella in Costa Rica 2014. Consistent goalkeeper in top league? Check. Quality defending, including Captain and Juventus starter Medhi Benatia. Don’t forget manager Herve Renard has worked magic with African Nations, as a winner of the African Nations Cup with Ivory Coast and Zambia. Backing this up, they’ve conceded 5 goals in all competitions since the beginning of 2017; they also scored 19 in that time against legitimate competition. Perhaps they frustrate Spain, or more likely, an aging Portugal squad. Then they match up with someone from Group A. That’s where it gets interesting.
I Wouldn’t Bet on it:
(Catherine Ivill, AMA/Getty Images, June 27, 2016)
I’m not buying Iceland this tournament. Great story, their fans will bring it and will be a delight to watch. But this team flows through Gylfi Sigurdsson, who had maybe his most frustrating professional season. Add to that he will be hounded by a Croatia team who isn’t the same team they beat in qualifying, as Croatia looked electric against Greece in the playoff round. Also add Nigeria, who will just bully Iceland and Argentina, and suddenly it isn’t looking like such a great draw anymore.
Japan are in the same group as Senegal, which is one of the more wide-open groups. They boast star power in Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, as well as mid-level talent from big European Leagues. The problem is they are coming off of bad form and may have signed their own death letter by firing coach Vahid Halilhodzic in early April after a string of disappointing results. There are only so many weeks and meaningful opportunities new manager Akira Nishino has before World Cup 2018, and I have no confidence in his ability to have this team play his way in such a short period of time.
Tunisia* is a sneaky high rated team with a couple quality warm-up friendlies against Spain, Turkey, and Portugal. It is a totally believable story that they lose a disappointing match to England, get stomped by a far superior Belgium, and then it just doesn’t matter against Panama. When your best weapon is a former Sunderland winger, it doesn’t look good. (*Note that Tunisia until very recently ranked as low as 22nd has since jumped to 14th.)
Iran has never advanced out of the group stage, which doesn’t bode well for their chances against Portugal and Spain. Striking quality looks prolific in national team play, but I don’t see them getting past a surprisingly stout Morocco defense.
As an American, I can say I’m happy for Panama. I would have liked to see them do well. If they get stomped, like I expect they will in a group including both England and Belgium, it just means the USA couldn’t beat THAT team in qualifying. But, I digress; Panama’s best strikers are both over 35… this won’t end well.
South Korea has lost a veteran striker in Lee Keun-ho and have influential midfield Kwang Chang-hoon on the injury list. It’s a lot to lose considering they’re in a group with Germany and strong Sweden and Mexico sides. Tough draw here, so someone like Heung-Min Son won’t be enough to power them through like Mohamed Salah in Group A. Even if they finish second (they will finish second), their prize would almost assuredly be Brazil.
Yes, they are blessed with an easy group, but there’s so much going against Saudi Arabia. An older spine of the team will hurt against the strike force in Uruguay. I don’t like many people’s odds against Mohamed Salah in general. Then there’s the fact that their best three players spent time on loan at La Liga clubs Leganes (Yahya Al-Shehri), Levante (Fahad Al-Muwallad), and Villarreal (Salem Al Dawsari) and made a combined 3 appearances in all competitions. And if I made a stink about Japan firing its manager before the World Cup, imagine what I’ll say about Saudi Arabia, who’s had three managers within the last year. They’ll likely compete with Panama amongst the worst teams in the tournament.