Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, & Uruguay
Russia and Saudi Arabia—stars in June 14’s opening match—should bring up the rear in Group A, as the stronger squads from Uruguay and Egypt are looking to go deep in the knockout stages.
The Russians, 70th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, hope to avoid joining the South Africans as the only World Cup host teams to be eliminated in the group stage. The Saudi team, just three spots higher in those rankings, is content to have even qualified for the tournament.
The other two teams, however, have higher expectations to take care of. The Egyptians, led by superstar forward Mohamed Salah, are ready to make waves in the team’s first tournament appearance since 1990, while Uruguay have their own superstar in Luis Suárez to carry them forward. Whichever superstar best makes his mark in the opening round could make the difference between first and second place in Group A.
Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, & Spain
Perennial World Cup contender and 2010 champion, Spain, had a strong qualifying run, conceding a mere three goals and scoring 36. World class goalkeeper David de Gea and central defender Sergio Ramos form Spain’s brick wall at the back while attacking midfielder Isco heads a dangerous Spanish offence. However, on Jun. 13, the team fired coach Jopen Lopetegui after he accepted the Real Madrid job. With only hours before the tournament begins, this move suddenly raises plenty of fans’ eyebrows.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo will once again lead the Portuguese squad. Striker André Silva and defensive midfielder William Carvalho will also play key roles in the 2016 European Champions’ hunt for their country’s first World Cup title.
Group B’s story will hinge on whether it will be Spain or Portugal who take the group’s top spot. Despite strong qualifying play, Morocco and Iran are unlikely to fare well against the two European powerhouses.
Group C: Australia, Denmark, France, & Peru
France enter the World Cup as the overwhelming favourites to lead Group C, and rightfully so. They’ve risen on a steady upward trajectory since falling in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup, culminating in a close loss to Portugal in the 2016 UEFA European Championship. Next-generation stars like Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe headline the group’s most talented squad.
Les Bleus will open against Australia, who played a World Cup-record 22 qualifying matches to make it to Russia. Bert van Marwijk, who took the Netherlands to the final in 2010, will lead the Socceroos after Ange Postecoglou’s resignation at the end of 2017’s qualifying marathon.
Denmark enter the World Cup as the front-runner to advance alongside France. The Danes’ hopes rest on the back of Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, who is easily the squad’s greatest offensive threat and the group’s best player outside of France’s roster.
The Peruvians round out Group C in their first World Cup appearance in 36 years. La Blanquirroja has better championship odds than Australia and explosive attacking talent in Jefferson Farfan, André Carrillo, and Paolo Guerrero.
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, & Nigeria
Time Magazine calls them “The Ultimate Underdog,” but Iceland appear confident in their abilities. Manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, who also works as a dentist, will lead the smallest nation by population to ever qualify for the tournament into battle.
2014 World Cup runner-up Argentina wants to finish what it started four years ago. In what could be his final World Cup tournament, Lionel Messi will look to add the World Cup trophy to his mantle and complete a storied career.
Nigeria’s young roster hopes to make a splash in more ways than one. They’ve already turned heads with their stylish kits—Nike reported that three million people have bought the team jersey before their release—but the Super Eagles hope to show that there’s substance to match the style. On the field, 31-year-old midfielder John Obi Mikel is the veteran tasked with controlling the pace. If he can make his mark, the youngest team in the tournament is certainly capable of advancing to knockout play.
However, they’ll have to go through Croatia: A solid squad that will be tough to topple. The Croatian team, led by star midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić, looks to advance to the knockout stage for the first time in 20 years.
Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, & Switzerland
Simply put, Group E already has one spot locked up: Brazil. Despite exiting the 2014 World Cup in an embarrassing 7-1 fashion in the semi-final, Tite’s squad enters the competition with the best odds of winning the Cup. With a final 23-man roster chock-full of Champions League talent, the real question heading into group play is which country will join them in advancing to the knockout stage.
Costa Rica became fan favourites in 2014 as they rode a breakout performance from goalkeeper Keylor Navas—who allowed through just two goals in five matches—to a tight quarter-final loss. Meanwhile, Serbia make up for their lack of household names with a pool of reliable talent. Sports bettors, however, give the advantage to Switzerland. Midfielder Granit Xhaka will lead the Swiss charge, and young Schalke forward Breel Embolo could become a star by the tournament’s conclusion.
Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, & Sweden
Germany, reigning World Cup champions and the number one team in the world entering the tournament, went a perfect ten-for-ten in qualifying. With many of the same stars who made up the core of their 2014 championship line-up returning to this year’s World Cup, the Germans are strong favourites to go the distance again.
As for the rest of the field, Mexico seem likely to slide into second place in the group and advance to the round of 16. However, they’ll have to be prepared for upset-minded Sweden, who already took down a traditional soccer powerhouse in Italy, to qualify and keep the four-time champions out for the first time since 1958. When South Korea play, look out for Son Heung-min of Tottenham and Ki Sung-yueng of Swansea. They’ll be worth the watch, although the team simply does not have the depth to advance beyond the group stage this year.
Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, & Tunisia
Group G should hold few surprises, but still packs some intrigue. Panama qualified for their debut appearance in dramatic fashion: Benefitting from a better goal differential than Honduras. Tunisia, England, and Belgium, meanwhile, finished unbeaten at the top of their respective groups during qualifications.
The third-ranked team in the world, Belgium are expected to finish first in the quartet, with England advancing in the second spot. Whether England are fighting for the chance to move on or are simply jostling for a position, the final match between Belgium and England should provide a dramatic finish. If England lose, they may need a Tunisian loss to Panama to help them advance to the knockout round. The Eagles of Carthage are dark horses to steal the second spot from a European team if they can put together a strong effort in the group stage.
Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, & Senegal
Poland, led by prolific Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, are returning to World Cup play for the first time since 2006. After their FIFA ranking dropped to 76 in 2013, promising results against perennial powers Germany and Portugal at the 2016 European Championship carried the Poles back to respectable global standing.
Their biggest challenge will come from Colombia; Los Cafeteros are coming back from their best-ever showing at the 2014 World Cup, where then 22-year-old James Rodríguez scored six goals en route to their quarter-final exit. All-time Colombian scoring leader Radamel Falcao, alongside Rodriguez and young defensive star Dávinson Sánchez, should secure a spot in the knockout round.
Senegal and Japan are the final two members of Group H and face a considerable challenge; however, fans can place their faith in standout stars Sadio Mané and Shinji Kagawa, respectively, for an upset.