Soccer: A Contrarian’s Preview of the World Cup 2018

Jason Kaestner is a long-time contributor to The D & Davis Show and WARR who is now based in Washington D.C.

By it’s own admission, FIFA is a corrupt organization.

Someday, in the not too distant future, the open secret of bribery and fraud that netted Russia and Qatar consecutive World Cups in 2018 and 2022 respectively will surely come to light.

And as exciting as the winning North America bid as host site for 2026 is, it does not change the fact that there are real concerns over player and spectator safety at this current installment of the World Cup. So far, off-field controversy has manifested itself in words — quite ill-advised ones, it should be stressed — rather than violent action. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Speaking of violent acts — thanks a lot Sergio Ramos! No Mohamed Salah for the World Cup (ed. note — not quite, actually just a delayed start, possibly), means a huge boast for the host team, Russia’s, chances of advancing out the group stage. Of course, that outcome would come at the expense of any true fan of the “Beautiful Game.”

Aside from that residual controversy from the UEFA Champions League Cup Final, as always there are several compelling storylines baked into the cake of these group stage pairings. Others are sure to emerge as play gets underway later today and in the coming days. So let’s get to it…

Quick and Dirty Group Stage Roundup

Group A

Russia: host team; hard to root for personally; not a great choice right now in a geopolitical sense

Saudi Arabia: decidedly this group’s underdog but not the most likable side especially if politics get factored into the equation

Egypt: lucky draw but a bad break in terms of Salah’s injury; cheering sympathetically for this Egyptian side in the group stage with hopes of Salah’s recovery leaving him as good as ever

Uruguay: definitive group favorite; unquestionably as long as Salah is on the shelf

Advancing: Uruguay, Russia; Want to Advance: Uruguay, Egypt

Assessment: some interesting storylines here, most of which presumably will occur off the pitch

Group B

Portugal: over the whole Ronaldo thing, therefore actively rooting against Portugal, though not against Spain #becausereasons (see above and below)

Spain: in the camp that wishes Sergio Ramos could have been suspended from World Cup competitions for what he did to Mo Salah during European play

Morocco: a decent side really, though no threat to Portugal or Spain; best news for the Moroccans at the World Cup is that Ramadan wraps up at sunset – Happy Eid al-Fitr, everyone!

Iran: young Sardar Azmoun was a serious goal-scoring threat during qualifying rounds, hopefully that continues as the competition level ratchets up

Advancing: Spain, Portugal; Want to Advance: Spain, Portugal (… I guess)

Assessment: really, a pretty boring group this isn’t the NCAA tournament, so no upset specials here

Group C

France: group favorite, but not overwhelmingly so, should see stiff competition throughout, even from the Socceroos*

Australia: watch out for Tim Cahill as he looks to join an elite club of goal scorers across four separate World Cups

Peru: a talented team and a true World Cup dark horse, decidedly not an underdog though; currently ranked just outside (11th, with Denmark No. 12th) of the world’s top ten; Los Incas are a side to watch and one of my primary rooting interests without USMNT involvement at Russia 2018

Denmark: a talented side that could advance just as easily as Peru

Advancing: France, Peru; Want to Advance: Peru, Australia

Assessment: lots of compelling matchups; the toughest and highest-ranked group

Group D

Argentina: led by Lionel Messi, La Albiceleste are real contenders at Russia 2018

Iceland: these first-time World Cup qualifiers are an excellent adoptive rooting interest for USMNT orphans

Croatia: have developed a bit of rivalry with Iceland in recent years and currently lead that series

Nigeria: a very young squad, so presumably one to follow not just at this year’s World Cup but also at Qatar 2022 a la recent Belgian squads

Advancing: Argentina, Croatia; Want to Advance: Argentina, Iceland

Assessment: another fun group that offers several first-time match-ups

Group E

Brazil: I have read predictions that Brazil may struggle during the group stage, frankly, I don’t see how with all the talent available in this squad

Switzerland: one of the best Swiss sides in years, may still not be enough to see them out of the group stage

Costa Rica: qualified at USMNT’s expense — still, it’s hard to feel any ill will

Serbia: History repeats itself for the Eagles (then as Yugoslavia), who entered group play in 1950 against Switzerland and host and eventual champion Brazil

Advancing: Brazil, Serbia; Want to Advance: Switzerland, Costa Rica

Assessment: Hoping for chaos in this group but anticipating nothing but expected outcomes

Group F

Germany: defending champions has a legitimate chance to become the first back-to-back winners since Brazil in 1962

Mexico: genuine optimism from Mexico supporters that El Tricolor will have a good showing at Russia 2018; personally hoping those dreams are dashed in favor of the Swedes

Sweden: punched their ticket to Russia 2018 with a hard-fought victory over World Cup regular Italy; will need to exhibit the same resilience against Germany and Mexico to advance beyond the group stage

Korea: this Republic side is far from devoid of talent as evidenced by Tottenham’s Son Heungmin, but surviving group play against such stiff competition would be nothing short of Herculean; underdog to root for to be sure

Advancing: Germany, Mexico; Want to Advance: Germany, Sweden

Assessment: tempted to root for chaos in this group as well; ultimately, Germany’s talent is too compelling (and likable) to commit to rooting for an early exit

Group G

Belgium: the Red Devils have been darlings in recent years — the young guns of Europe; Belgium’s “Golden Generation” has now come of age, the question will be can they write themselves into the record book with a World Cup Championship

Panama: another first-time qualifier, they will have their work cut for them in an unforgiving group draw

Tunisia: returning to the World Cup after a twelve-year absence; poised for a quick exit

England: Gareth Southgate’s biggest challenge as manager boils down to changing the narrative of this national club; having the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy on lead the attack should help keep the emphasis on the pitch and in the present

Advancing: Belgium, England; Want to Advance: Belgium, England

Assessment: despite the contrarian impulses, I genuinely hope Belgium advances deep into this tournament; as for England, it’s time for this squad to get the monkey off its back and make some noise again internationally

Group H

Poland: Lewandowski spearheads the attack for a Polish side with hopes of. and a real chance for, a deep World Cup run

Senegal: were the darlings of the 2002 World Cup and will be hoping to equal or top that in Russia 2018

Colombia: having qualified for Russia 2018 on the final match day, this is a side with a proud tradition but also a lot to prove

Japan: bested Australia to reach this World Cup

Advancing: Poland, Colombia; Want to Advance: Senegal, Japan

Assessment: a group that appears to have as much or more parity than Groups C or D; few big names to draw ratings in this group, but hopefully fewer lopsided outcomes than in other groups

* That time North Korea kicked Australians ass in soccer and qualified for the World Cup because South Africa had been banned and South Korean withdrew from competition.

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