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 lead 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 Hotspurs 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 Hotspurs 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 Lewandowski of Bayern Munich is the team captain and one of the best centre 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 is 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.