With all due respect to the Olympics, there is no competition on Earth that captures the passion of spectators like the FIFA World Cup. Soccer holds a grip on the hearts and minds of countries in ways that viewers in North America can never imagine. Countries stop and can fall into a deep depression simply based on the results of a World Cup game. And failure can have real-world consequences.
In 1994, five days after returning from the World Cup, Colombian defender Andrés Escobar was shot and killed after having scored an own goal that contributed to the country’s elimination from the competition. Last World Cup, in 2014, Germany ripped the collective hearts from the chests of host nation Brazil with a humiliating 7-1 semifinal loss.
While the dire predictions of political consequences in the October elections for Brazil President Dilma Rousseff ultimately proved unfounded, there were consequences on the ground. Riots broke out in the economic hub, São Paulo, and thousands of people in Belo Horizonte, where the match was hosted, launched protests in the streets that included burning Brazilian flags and throwing rocks at police.
Even here, in our multicultural country, we have small windows into that passion as parts of our country stop to catch the match of their home country. One moment, just one moment at the World Cup, can spark a passionate flame for a lifetime in a country. Or, on the other side of the coin, live in infamy forever.
Generations of Canadians have been starved for our moment to fan our flame. It sparked briefly on a small pitch in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in September 1985 when Canada qualified for its first and only World Cup. Since then, each World Cup qualifying campaign has ended in disappointment. Canada’s new Men’s National Team coach, John Herdman, is tasked with changing this narrative, and his success with the Women’s National Team shows that it is achievable. Here’s to hoping for successful Canada qualification for 2022 in Qatar!
But fear not, you can still enjoy the World Cup without a Canadian team to cheer for. Even if you can’t track your history back to one of these countries, there’s always room on a bandwagon for fans to join. However, if you haven’t been paying attention, you may be confused with the current crop of teams. Traditional powerhouses and big names have fallen by the wayside this year as Italy, the Netherlands, U.S.A. and Chile all failed to qualify.
If you are searching for the right bandwagon fit, here at What’s Up Yukon we’ve prepared a friendly preview and guide to help you pick your World Cup team.
A weaker group of the eight, Group A should be topped by Uruguay, with Russian slotting in as
second place. Egypt could surprise either of the two favourites, while Saudi Arabia will be a
favourite to finish last in the group.
RUSSIA – Sbornaya (World Rank: 66)
As host nation, Russia has benefitted from automatic qualification and placement as the 1A seed. Often an also-ran, either as Russia or the Soviet Union, they have never been a favourite in their 11 total World Cups, unlike they are in other sports. They have a solid chance to qualify from the group, and if you like cheering for the home team, these are your guys.
Player to watch: Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow is a key influence in the Russian tactical structure in international play.
SAUDI ARABIA – Green Falcons (World Rank: 70)
Saudi Arabia qualified out of Asia in second place behind Japan and has moved on from the group stage only once. The team has a passionate loyal following, and if you appreciate progress on equality and women’s rights rewarded, Saudi Arabia might be your team. This January marked the first time that female soccer fans in Saudi Arabia attended a match at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium (Al Jawhara Stadium); the first time ever that Saudi women have been able to attend a national sporting event.
Player to watch: Nawaf Al-Abed of Al-Hilal lead the team in scoring during qualification.
EGYPT – The Pharaohs (World Rank: 46)
The Pharaohs haven’t appeared in a World Cup since 1990, in Italy, and have never won a match. But if you have to pick between Egypt or the Saudis to surprise and qualify from this group, put your money on the African qualifier. If you’re looking for an up-and-coming underdog who might be fun to watch, Egypt might be your side.
Player to watch: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool, who has established himself as a contender for FIFA Player of the Year, won the English Premier League scoring title, collected the player of the year awards in the league and paced Liverpool with 43 goals in 50 games across all competitions.
URUGUAY – Los Charrúas (World Rank: 17)
Two-time world champions haven’t had that kind of success recently, but their dual strike force of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez is the envy of every nation in the competition. Uruguay finished second to Brazil in the competitive South American qualifying. If you are looking for an exciting, creative football group who isn’t a favourite and has long awaited a return to glory, Uruguay, whose World Cup wins came in 1930 and 1950, might be your team.
Player to watch: With all due respect to Cavani, Luis Suarez of Barcelona remains Uruguay’s signature player. Whether he is using a handball to stop a goal (2010 vs. Ghana), biting an opponent (2014 vs. Italy), biting an opponent (2010 vs. PSV Eindhoven) or biting an opponent (2013 vs. Chelsea), the pacey goal poacher is one of soccer’s most entertaining (and divisive) figures.
Group B should be a battle of the Iberian Peninsula as Portugal and Spain cruise to the top-two spots. Either Morocco and IR
Iran moving on would shock the football world.
PORTUGAL – Selecção das Quinas (World Rank: 4)
Two words. Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal’s identity is inextricably linked with arguably the best player in the world. Five-time Ballon d’Or winner (Europe’s best player), four-time European Golden Boot (most goals) winner, all-time Portuguese goal-scoring leader, and captain and Silver Boot winner when the Selecção das Quinas won their first major tournament, Euro 2016. If you like flashy, stylish “pretty-boys” who are either loved or loathed, Portugal is your team, without a doubt.
Player to watch: Ronaldo is Portugal, but the Portuguese dread the post-Ronaldo era. Bernardo Silva of Manchester City will be asked to distribute from the midfield and establish himself as a legitimate leader for their next generation of players.
SPAIN – La Furia Roja (World Rank: 8)
Underachievers for decades, Spain’s golden generation has removed that label with a World Cup win in 2010 and wins at Euro 2008 and 2012. A new wave of reinforcements is being asked to pick up the torch from retiring players. Spain has the potential to win it all; but, as always, question marks around chemistry, focus and drive have to be answered. If you appreciate free-flowing, beautiful football that can create goals out of nothing, with the danger of disappointment, Spain may be the team for you.
Player to watch: David de Gea, of Manchester United, is recognized as the best goalkeeper in the world. He’ll be asked to step forward and take charge of organizing the squad in front of him.
MOROCCO – Atlas Lions (World Rank: 42)
On June 13, FIFA will vote to award the 2026 World Cup to either the joint Canada, U.S.A and Mexico bid, or the Morocco bid. If Morocco wins, boo them. Boo them constantly. If they lose the vote, politely cheer them along. Advancement out of this group would be a shock—and, as the competition for Canada to host a World Cup, you really shouldn’t be cheering for the Atlas Lions.
Player to watch: Hakim Ziyech of Ajax will be asked to be the playmaker in midfield.
IR IRAN – Team Melli (World Rank: 32)
There is a large gulf in talent between Iran and the other three sides in the group. They have qualified six times, but never progressed past a group. They will be hard-pressed again this year. If you want to cheer for an ultimate underdog, and not very long, Iran might be your team.
Player to watch: Sardar Azmoun of Rubin Kazan is already the fifth-highest goalscorer in Iran’s history at the age of 23. He is viewed as the future and will be the focal point of their attack. When you were branded the “Iranian Messi” at one point, they think you’re important.
A competitive group, all four countries will hope to move on. France and Denmark have the pedigree and name-recognition, but all the teams have proven talent and will be well structured.
FRANCE – les Bleus (World Rank: 7)
Les Bleus remain a world powerhouse who are blessed with marquee talent up and down the lineup. Coached by the fiery Didier Deschamps, who captained the national side to their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 wins, the side will be pressured to play with an edge and maintain their focus amidst roster juggling that can result from too much choice. If you like a French-speaking side that has superstars all over the lineup and can challenge to win it all, France may be the team for you.
Player to watch: For France to hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy, Paul Pogba of Manchester United will need to establish himself as one of the world’s best and seize games in the midfield, like Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira used to do for les Bleus.
AUSTRALIA – The Socceroos (World Rank: 40)
The Socceroos are the weakest side in the group and one of the weaker ones in the tournament, but play hard and are structured—making them a challenge for better teams. They will rely on opportunistic set pieces and defend relentlessly as a team to compete. If you want a real underdog story and to cheer for the best nickname in the sport, then Australia might be your team.
Player to watch: Mile Jedinak of Aston Villa has replaced Tim Cahill as the goal-scoring threat for Australia, as shown when his hat trick against Honduras, in a playoff, secured Australia’s spot. He will need to capitalize on limited chances for any success.
PERU – la Blanquirroja (World Rank: 11)
Peru returns to the World Cup for the first time since 1982 from the highly competitive CONMEBOL (South America) division. The tight-knit group generally performs better than the sum of its parts. If you like cheering for players close to home, Peru may be the team for you. They have many players from Major League Soccer, including Vancouver Whitecaps star, Yordy Reyna.
Player to watch: Renato Tapia of Feyenoord will need to provide a strong defensive presence to solidify Peru’s compact, team-first style of play.
DENMARK – Danish Dynamite (World Rank: 12)
The Danish Dynamite, as they are known, have never made it past the quarter-finals, but are a skilled European side and a tough opponent for anyone. They play a conservative style, with five at the back, while relying on the counterattack. If you would like to see a deserving soccer nation that hasn’t progressed despite years of consistency, Denmark might be your team.
Player to watch: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspurs is undoubtedly Denmark’s talisman and best player. A box-to-box midfielder, he is tasked with adding goals when contributing to the national team, in addition to the playmaking duties he usually performs for his club.
The group promises intrigue behind powerhouse Argentina, who are tipped to top the group. All three remaining countries will fancy themselves in the running for moving on and will deliver some of the most competitive matches in the opening round.
ARGENTINA – la Albiceleste (World Rank: 5)
Heartbreak and underachievement have plagued Argentina since their heyday and the great Maradona’s “Hand of God.” Today, they feature the only challenger to Ronaldo for the title Best Footballer on the Planet in Lionel Messi. Due to weak defence, this year’s team escaped humiliating blushes via a Messi life raft. He lifted them to victory over Ecuador in their final qualifying match with a hat trick to secure their place in the tournament. If you fall on the Messi side of the “Ronaldo-Messi Divide,” you’ll likely be cheering for Argentina, regardless of our advice.
Player to watch: Messi of Barcelona has five Ballon d’Or awards, four European Golden Boots and is the all-time leading goalscorer for Argentina. The coach has said it’s his team, and Maradona long ago declared Messi his successor. In his last World Cup, it’s all on him.
ICELAND – Our Boys (World Rank: 22)
The magnificent Viking thunderclap will ring out in Russia as Iceland appears at a World Cup for the first time. The footballing minnow rode the momentum of their astonishing Euro 2016 performance to topping their qualifying group ahead of Croatia. The team can’t match the star power of other nations, but have spirit and heart and have proven they can overcome the odds. If you want to do a Viking thunderclap (and let’s not kid ourselves, you totally want to), then Iceland is a team you should cheer for.
Player to watch: Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton is key, as Iceland designs game strategy around his delivery on set pieces and playmaking in the midfield.
CROATIA – Fiery Boys (World Rank: 18)
Croatia is often tapped as a dark horse due to their fine collection of talent and experience at international competitions. They may struggle in this competitive group, but will be a challenge for anyone if they survive. If you like cheering for an entertaining team and unpronounceable names, Croatia is a solid choice.
Player to watch: Luka Modric of Real Madrid is the creative and technical wizard who pulls the strings for the Croatian side.
NIGERIA – Super Eagles (World Rank: 47)
Quiz: Which nation is five-time U17 FIFA World Cup winners and three-time runners-up? Answer: Nigeria.
For some reason this youthful success has never translated to World Cup success during their four previous appearances. Nigeria is one of the wildcards of the World Cup. They beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly, last November, and the youthful side is full of direct attacking athleticism. If you want to cheer for an African nation with a real chance to go far, pick Nigeria.
Player to watch: Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City was the leading tackler in the EPL before going down to injury, and his healthy return in time for the World Cup will protect the backline for Nigeria and help transition to the attack.
It’s Brazil, and everyone else plays for second. The record five-time champions are the class of this group and are favourites every year, for good reason.
BRAZIL – Seleção (World Rank: 2)
Samba soccer. Drums and dancing in the crowds. Brazil makes soccer fun, and oxygen might be slightly more important to the country, but it’s close. Coming off the heartbreak on home soil in 2014, Brazil was the first team to qualify and will look to re-establish themselves as the best of the best. The lineup and bench are littered with world-class stars. If you’re a casual observer and you want to really feel the passion and love for the game, cheering for Brazil is oh-so-easy and fun.
Player to watch: Neymar of Paris St. Germain currently holds the title of World’s Most Expensive Player after his transfer from Barcelona last summer. His footballing genius has pushed him to the status of third-best player in the world, slightly behind Ronaldo and Messi. As the youngest of the three, it’s his opportunity to shine and seize the title of World’s Best Player.
SWITZERLAND – Red Crusaders (World Rank: 6)
A World Cup staple, Switzerland is appearing in their tenth competition dating back to 1934. They have a very good—not great—side that has quality players who all deliver in their assigned roles. They will be disappointed to not qualify behind Brazil, but will have to be careful not to slip-up, as often unnecessary ties have cost them in previous tournaments. If you like cheering for a solid side that no one hates and everyone is happy to see do well, then Switzerland is your team.
Player to watch: Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City is a diminutive skill player who is quick, creative and dangerous on offence. He will need to create goals for the Swiss to secure full points. They have often struggled to win matches and settled for ties, hampering their chances to advance.
COSTA RICA – Los Ticos (World Rank: 25)
Some might consider Costa Rica unlucky as they’ve been grouped with Brazil three of the five times they’ve qualified. They surprised in Brazil in 2014 by qualifying out of their group. They have a chance and will focus on edging out Serbia and Switzerland for second place. If you want a CONCACAF (our region) team to cheer for, you can do worse than Costa Rica.
Player to watch: Joel Campbell of Real Betis is a powerful, fast striker for his country and will need to score some timely goals for Costa Rica to get to second place in the group.
SERBIA – The Eagles (World Rank: 35)
Serbia has a strong history at the World Cup under various country names, having made 12 appearances. They will be targeting second place using a strong defensive structure and relying on their world-class defenders. They lack a true proven goalscorer, so they will rely on the dominating physical presences of Alexander Kolarov, Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic to create offence from set pieces. Serbia may be your team if you like interesting coaching stories, as their coach has never ever coached a competitive international or professional game.
Player to watch: Nemanja Matic of Manchester United will be relied upon to hold the strong defensive structure together and create some opportunities on the counterattack.
Germany is the favourite here. Mexico is a regular group qualifier but will battle Sweden for second. Korea will hope to catch the two middle soccer powers napping, for a chance.
GERMANY – The Team (World Rank: 1)
Productive and ruthless. Germany is the yin to Brazil’s yang in international football. They went undefeated in qualifying while averaging 4.3 goals per match. Their buildup and play gives an impression of inevitability. Your author grew up idolizing the tireless and technical excellence of Lothar Matthaus, and cheers for Germany. They might be your side, too, if you appreciate efficient play with tactical and technical precision. They also are a great bandwagon team as they usually progress far into the tournament.
Player to watch: There was significant turnover from the 2014 World Cup winning side with retirements, including captain Philipp Lahm and all-time World Cup leading scorer Miroslav Klose, so returnee Mesut Ozil of Arsenal, who has been named the top German player for five of the past seven years, will need to provide consistent performances from the midfield.
MEXICO – El Tri (World Rank: 15)
Mexico is the highest-ranked and strongest CONCACAF (our region) team at the World Cup. They play an entertaining attacking style but will need to overcome their curse. They have been eliminated in the round of 16 at every World Cup since 1994. Mexico may be your team if you know Simon Pulido or want to cheer for the top team from CONCACAF.
Player to watch: With an aging attacking group, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano of PSV Eindhoven will be the new breakout star scorer for Mexico, with a hope to catch the attention of a big European club for transfer this summer.
SWEDEN – The Blue and Yellows (World Rank: 23)
Sweden played the villains to two soccer-crazy nations, while earning their qualification the hard way in a tough qualifying group. They finished behind France, but broke Dutch hearts by edging them to second place on goal difference. The Swedes shocked the Italians when they sent Italy home in a two-leg playoff. Sweden is a structured defensive team that will struggle to score goals with the retirement of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They might be your team if you like that they eliminated Italy and the Netherlands.
Player to watch: With limited attacking options, Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig will be tasked to create chances and leading the attack from the midfield.
KOREA REPUBLIC – Taeguk Warriors (World Rank: 61)
Although they qualified, they performed below expectations and their manager was replaced. They will defend in a compact group and hope to capitalize on the counterattack. They might be your team if you like the idea of cheering for an big underdog with a cool nickname.
Player to watch: Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur will need to score goals from limited chances and support for Korea to have a chance to advance.
Belgium and England will both hope to finish atop the group.
Tunisia had a strong qualifying campaign but they and Panama shouldn’t expect to move on.
BELGIUM – The Red Devils (World Rank: 3)
Belgium is not a traditional soccer superpower, but the current roster is a golden generation of players capable of winning the championship. The roster is littered with star players and household names with experience in Europe’s top leagues and clubs. They should play an entertaining attacking style and prove capable of dominating games. They may be your team if you want to cheer for a dark horse with potential to win it all.
Player to watch: Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City has become one of the best midfielders in the world and will be tasked with providing opportunities to the rest of the side.
PANAMA – Los Canaleros (World Rank: 55)
This is Panama’s first trip to the World Cup. The team is comprised mostly of Major League Soccer players and lacks the high-end talent of other teams. They are a very defensive-minded team who challenged the U.S.A and Honduras to break them down in qualifying. It will be a much more difficult task against the talented European nations. They might be your team if you want to cheer for the ultimate underdog.
Player to watch: Defender Román Torres of the Seattle Sounders is key at both ends. He leads the tough defending group and also tied for the goal-scoring lead in qualifying.
TUNISIA – The Eagles of Carthage (World Rank: 14)
Tunisia was undefeated in qualifying, with a strong defensive presence, but an unfortunate turn of events leaves them hard-pressed to perform in Russia. Youssef Msakni, who was the creative hub for Tunisia, will miss the tournament with a torn knee ligament. His absence leaves a massive void. Tunisia might be your team if you want another underdog option.
Player to watch: Wahbi Khazri of Sunderland is the key man to create any offence for Tunisia with Msakni’s absence.
ENGLAND – The Three Lions (World Rank: 13)
England. Oh, England. Perennial hopes of glory, but they always seem to come crashing down. A team that has expectations that usually far exceed reality, the sum never seems to match the quality of the parts. This squad has seen a transition to the next generation of players who hope to lead the football-mad nation to glory. The team will be tactically sound and is expected to show more attacking resolve than in previous World Cups when they were criticized for being too conservative, particularly against weaker teams. They might be your team if you are English, or you want to complain about how penalty kicks are a terrible way to decide games. There’s a great joke that England only exits on penalties, so it was odd for them to leave Europe on Brexit.
Player to watch: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur has been named captain and is the leading scorer in English Football over the past three seasons. He will be asked to replace Wayne Rooney as England’s key striker.
Group H is likely the most competitive group in this year’s tournament.
Poland, Colombia and Senegal all could finish on top, and Japan has pedigree to get results against any of the opponents. This promises to be the most interesting group to watch.
POLAND – The White-Reds (World Rank: 10)
Poland lost just one game in qualifying for the World Cup while scoring an impressive 28 goals in 10 matches. They are an impressive attacking side with a great mix of offensive players, so they will need to ensure that they are solid defensively to move on. Poland might be your team if you like cheering for creative players with long, unpronounceable names.
Player to watch: Robert Lewanodowski of Bayern Munich is the team captain and one of the best center forwards in the world. He scored over half of the team’s goals in qualifying and will need to score some more to win games in the group.
SENEGAL – Lions of Teranga (World Rank: 28)
Senegal has a history of surprises at the World Cup after beating the then-defending champions (France) in 2002. They went all the way to the quarter-finals that year. The current side is considered the strongest in Africa, by many, and possesses a number of strong attacking players, like LIverpool’s Sadio Mané, who will be a challenge for any team’s defence. They might be your team if you want to cheer for an African team to go far and prefer Senegal over Nigeria.
Player to watch: Senegal has several high-profile attacking players, but center-half (central defender( Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli is the key for the team as a dominating player, at the back, who quickly transitions the ball up to his midfield and forwards.
COLOMBIA – Los Cafeteros (World Rank: 16)
Colombia had a strong tournament in 2014 and fielding a stronger side in 2018 with the return of captain Radamel Falcao who missed the last World Cup due to injury. Colombia is the most creative and talented side in the group, so they are slightly favoured. They’ll play an attractive attacking style with that entertaining South American flair. They will be a sentimental favourite for many this tournament as the team supported by Donny Richardson, a long-time and well loved member of the Yukon soccer community, who passed away last year.
Player to watch: James Rodriguez of Real Madrid was the breakout player of World Cup 2014, leading the tournament in scoring. He’s the talisman of the side and will be expected to lead the team again.
JAPAN – Samurai Blues (World Rank: 60)
Japan’s replacement head coach only took charge in May, so the preparations haven’t been the smoothest. Oddly, this occurred although the Japanese qualified from a group with other Asian powerhouses in Saudi Arabia and Australia. During qualification they deployed a physical, defensive style while keeping many of their creative stars on the bench. This strategy was widely criticized back home, and it appears likely that the new coach has a mandate to play his stars. Japan might be your team if you want to cheer for an Asian team that has a chance to surprise and also has a fun nickname, the Samurai Blues.
Player to watch: The Japanese have succeeded with strong defence, and Maya Yoshida of Southampton will need to contain the famous attackers in the group—Lewandowski, Falcao and Mané—for the Japanese to win games.