Will Europe Rule the World?

On the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, EME Outlook analyses the credentials of the European and Middle Eastern contingent

On 14 June, the biggest spectacle in sport will begin. The 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup will kick-off across 12 venues in 11 cities spanning Russia’s vast landscape, with 32 of the world’s finest football nations battling to claim one of the most renowned trophies in sport.

At no other time is the game so fairly represented on an intercontinental level, with the mighty South American nations of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia joined by countries from Asia (South Korea, Japan); Africa (Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt); North America (Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama); and even Oceania (Australia).

But what of Europe’s and the Middle East’s chances of lifting the FIFA World Cup Trophy on 15 July?

EME Outlook has taken a tour through this year’s Groups to plot a path for an EME victor in Russia:

GROUP A

RUSSIA

The weight of expectation lingering over any host nation, in any sporting discipline, is tangible, but it’s fair to suggest that this pressure has been ramped up a notch when it comes to Russia. As a proud sporting nation, anything short of knockout round football would be deemed a disaster; which is a concern given the lack of form and quality shown across the four years leading into this tournament. The group is favourable, but their prospects aren’t.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

SAUDI ARABIA

While no country simply turns up for the experience, Saudi Arabia could be forgiven for accepting that their achievement was in making it to the tournament. Anything else would be a serious surprise, but an evenly matched group and a tantalising role in the World Cup’s opening match against a vulnerable Russia may be the catalyst for a Saudi shock.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

Egypt

Uruguay

 

GROUP B

PORTUGAL

The reigning European champions come into the tournament with essentially the same prospects as they did in France in 2016: unlikely victors, driven by a man who simply refuses to lose. Cristiano Ronaldo will undoubtedly be one of the stars in Russia, but to drag his colleagues to a second major triumph in 2018 would require an even more superhuman effort.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

SPAIN

Winners in 2010 (enveloped by European victories in 2008 and 2012), Spain’s era of dominance has come to a slight halt, or rather a slow-down, over the past four years, but there are signs that a second wind is imminent. No other country has such a clear identity and style in the modern international game and an early challenge in the form of Portugal could generate the spark required to go all the way again in 2018.

PREDICTION: Winners

Morocco

IRAN

With both Spain and Portugal to contend with in Group B, any sort of progression into the knockout rounds would be a huge surprise. Instead, Iran’s 2018 headlines will derive from manager, Carlos Quieroz’s matchup with the latter, his home nation; and indeed, a chance to pick up a win against an evenly matched Morocco.

PREDICTION: Group Stages


GROUP C

FRANCE

Going into the tournament as favourites, if football was played on paper, few would argue with France’s credentials. Formidably strong in every area, the country feels a second World Cup victory is overdue. With this expectation comes a similar pressure to that seen in their home European Championships two years ago though, and the wounds from their final defeat against Portugal in 2016 will need to have healed if they are to realise their potential this summer.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

Australia

Peru

DENMARK

Qualifying via the playoffs, Denmark will be competing in the World Cup for the first time since 2010 in South Africa and will be confident of overcoming Australia and Peru to claim the second knockout round birth behind France. Underestimating either or both would be a huge mistake though, and the latter South Americans’ hunger to stay in a tournament they’ve not qualified for since 1982 may give them the psychological edge over the Scandinavians.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

 

GROUP D

Argentina

ICELAND

In arguably one of the most competitive and unpredictable groups, World Cup debutants, Iceland will be a welcome edition to the headline stage. The people’s champions at Euro 2016, the country’s fans will no doubt steal the show once again in Russia and some tantalising fixtures against Nigeria, Argentina and old foes, Croatia will make for some exciting viewing. Qualifying may just be too much to ask for, however, so enjoy the ‘Viking thunder-claps’ while you can.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

CROATIA

Iceland’s fate may well come down to their match against the technically brilliant Croats. Having arguably underperformed in recent tournaments, Croatia's golden generation are hitting their peak at the moment, and should be focusing on how to steal top spot from Argentina, rather than how to avoid being upset by Iceland or Nigeria.

PREDICTION: Round of 16

Nigeria

 

GROUP E

Brazil

SWITZERLAND

Not renowned for flamboyance, Switzerland’s solidity is hard to underestimate and an opening fixture against the Brazilians may well set the tone. A strong showing and even a hard-fought point will probably see them progress to the Round of 16. A convincing loss will leave them vulnerable to the tricky Serbians and Costa Ricans.

PREDICTION: Round of 16

Costa Rica

SERBIA

Much like Switzerland, Serbia’s prospects will depend on how they negotiate their opening game. A confidence-boosting win against Costa Rica will remove a lot of pressure from their second match against the Swiss, but anything less than that will probably end their tournament before it’s begun.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

 

GROUP F

GERMANY

Anything other than a resounding group victory would be a massive shock for the metronomic Germans. Their style and power make them arguably the least vulnerable team in the tournament and – as always – they will be many people’s picks for the title. The only argument against such an outcome comes not from the groups, but rather the potential knockout round route that awaits; with either Belgium or England, and then Spain awaiting them en-route to any desired Final.

PREDICTION: Semi Finals

Mexico

SWEDEN

It’s a somewhat odd feeling heading into a World Cup without the prospect of Italy, and it is this brave Swedish side that are to blame for the anomaly. Their famous playoff victory showcased a psychological toughness that will need to be on full show once again in Russia, and they have every chance of overcoming Mexico and South Korea If they are able to reignite the same attitude.

PREDICTION: Round of 16

South Korea

 

GROUP G

BELGIUM

No other country can claim to have hit a purple patch of developing world-class players like the Belgians in recent years. Their golden generation fell short at Euro 2016, but there really can’t be any excuses this time. With arguably the best defence in the tournament, strength and power throughout, and the flair of Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens in attack, anything less than a deep run into the tournament would be a massive disappointment to a country that doesn’t want to see this generation slip by empty handed.

PREDICTION: Semi Finals

Panama

Tunisia

ENGLAND

One country that knows all about golden generations coming and going with no reward is England. The promise of the mid-2000s is but a memory, and in its place is a rather uncomfortable, grim ambivalence towards this upcoming trip to Russia. As always, qualification for the tournament was seamless, but with no knockout win to shout about since 2006, and a squad laden with youthful unpredictability, expectations have been dampened down among the few remaining Three Lions supporters. It’s down to the squad to reignite optimism of old.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

 

GROUP H

POLAND

Calling this group is an almost impossibility, and an analysis of Poland’s chances could pretty much be applied to any one of their group rivals, Senegal, Colombia or Japan. Much like Switzerland though, the one attribute that plays into Poland’s hands is their sturdiness. That, and prolific, talismanic striker, Robin Lewandowski.

PREDICTION: Round of 16

Senegal

Colombia

Japan