The biggest sporting event this year, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is about to begin on Thursday (Friday morning) in Russia with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and after a qualification campaign around the world that produced many shocks and surprises, with the likes of the United States (for the first time since 1986), Chile (reigning Copa America champions), and Italy (for the first time since 1958) failing to qualify for Russia 2018, the 21st FIFA World Cup is one that is wide open.
The likes of defending champions Germany, 2014 finalists Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, five-time world champions Brazil, 1998 champions France, as well as the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal, the 2010 champions Spain, the highly-talented Belgium, and the 1964 world champions England are all considered among the favourites for football’s showpiece event.
Germany come into the 2018 FIFA World Cup as the No.1 team in the world according to the latest FIFA World Rankings, and the defending world champions have retained nine players from their squad in 2014, and after blitzing qualifying, winning all 10 matches, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup champions look to be in prime position for a tilt to win a fifth World Cup, which would equal Brazil’s record.
Argentina are another one of the genuine contenders, with Lionel Messi leading his country for the second-straight World Cup at his fourth World Cup, and after retiring from international football very briefly after the heartbreak of losing the Copa América Centenario final to Chile on penalties, in which he missed Argentina’s first penalty in the shootout, he returned to international football, and after an always tough qualifying campaign in South America, Argentina managed to secure their passage to a 12th-straight World Cup after defeating Ecuador in Quito thanks to a hat-trick from Messi, scoring seven goals in qualifying overall, on what was a dramatic final day in CONMEBOL qualification.
Brazil, however, had an easier path to Russia 2018 after comfortably topping South American qualifying after failing miserably at both the 2015 Copa América, where they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Paraguay on penalties, and the Copa América Centenario, where they failed to get out of the group. However, under Tite, Brazil have looked like a completely different team, winning 17 of the 21 matches they have played under Tite, only losing once. And, despite Neymar coming into the World Cup a touch underdone after three months out with a foot injury, you sense Brazil, as they really always have been, are one of the strong favourites.
France are also primed for a challenge, especially after making the UEFA Euro 2016 final at home, while Portugal, who defeated France to become European champions for the very first time, are capable of achieving anything if Cristiano Ronaldo is at the top of his game.
2010 champions Spain are also contenders, but you feel they are still going through a transition phase after their “golden generation”, while Belgium and England, who are both in the same group (Group G) are dark-horses should a path open for them, particularly for Belgium, who should be ready to make a serious challenge for the Cup, while for England, I think they can also go far, but I think 2022 in Qatar will be a better bet for England should the influence of Pep Guardiola, who coaches Manchester City, spread across English football fully.
However, the likes of Switzerland, Poland, Peru, Denmark, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia, and Croatia are capable, on paper, of putting up a huge challenge to the highly-fancied teams.
Switzerland, Poland, and Croatia have been consistent teams in Europe for a number of years, with Denmark also being a dark-horse to go deep in Russia 2018. Uruguay qualified second in CONMEBOL qualifying behind Brazil, with Colombia managing to qualify automatically after a 1-1 draw with Peru, who also managed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after knocking out Chile via that draw with Colombia, before defeating New Zealand (2-0 on aggregate) after a scoreless first leg in Wellington.
However, if a team outside of Europe and South America is going to win the World Cup for the first time, it will be Mexico, who have qualified and participated in the last seven World Cups, including this one, as well as being exposed to South American football on a semi-regular basis by playing in various editions of the Copa América, and with world football getting ever closer, you feel like within the next two to three World Cups, someone from outside of Europe and South America is going to win it, and given their consistency over many years, you think Mexico will be that nation outside of Europe and South America to conquer the final frontier first.
As for Australia, I think despite the natural optimism for the team in Australia, I think they are going to struggle to get out of Group C, featuring France, Denmark, and Peru, due to the late change in coaches, as well as the inability to get team chemistry on the field to a high enough level under new coach Bert van Marwijk, because of the late change of coaches and possibly the lack of fitness of some players, to beat France, Denmark, and Peru to make it through to the knockout stages.
However, Australia must build on this campaign, their fourth World Cup in a row, and their fifth overall, and look to build to the future, to build their own team with their own unique style, and to live and learn over a long period of time, to start filling in the puzzle pieces of an infinite journey towards World Cup glory. Australia’s dream must be to win the FIFA World Cup within the next 20 to 40 years, and to become the first team from the AFC to do so!
However, should Australian football not go down this path, it will be impossible for Australia to achieve World Cup glory.
So, who is my tip to win the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
After thinking about this for a little while, and although I concede they may not have the strongest squad on paper, compared to the other pre-tournament favourites, I have got this gut feeling that Argentina are going to become world champions for the third time.
With the world of international football getting ever tighter, and Russia 2018 will be overall the closest yet, it is going to come down to the players who will produce their best in the key moments, or produce a piece of individual brilliance to move their team through to the next round of the competition and potentially to World Cup glory, and in my opinion, this FIFA World Cup will be Lionel Messi’s tournament, taking out the Golden Ball for the second-straight World Cup and the Golden Boot, but this time, like his hero Diego Maradona in 1986, Messi will take Argentina, after 32 years, to unforgettable World Cup glory!