On Sunday, one of the world’s most watched sporting events begins in Qatar. This year’s FIFA World Cup kicks off at a weird time, but nevertheless comes with a multitude of capable countries vying for the most coveted trophy in the game.
Every World Cup comes with many surprises. We can think back to 2018 when a German team that many considered to be a real contender failed to make it out of their group. Or we can remember in 2014 when the Netherlands thrashed the defending champions Spain in their opening game. These surprises make the tournament one of the hardest sporting events to predict, but at the same time, that’s what makes it fun. Let’s try it.
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands
Group A is one of the more lopsided groups in the whole tournament. Qatar and Ecuador frankly don’t stand a chance. The Dutch, although not as dynamic upfront as they have been in years past with the likes of Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie, are very strong all over the field. A center-back pairing of Virgil Van Dijk and Matthijs De Ligt is arguably the best middle defensive group in the tournament, and the all-around ability of Frenkie de Jong in the midfield gives them the ability to control the game and play at the pace they prefer. The one team that could pose a threat in this group is Senegal. Sadio Mane is still one of the world’s premier wingers and can take over a game at any time. However, the depth and talent of the Dutch give them the edge propelling them to a Group A win.
Group B: England, Iran, United States, Wales
Well, here we go. The Group of Death. Let’s start with England. The Three Lions are coming off a heartbreaking Euro defeat in penalties to Italy, but still hold the same firepower and then some. Harry Kane is one of, if not the world’s best striker, Phil Foden is a burgeoning young superstar, and their squad depth is absolutely ridiculous.
The United States is back after missing out in 2018 with an incredibly young and optimistic squad, including star Christian Pulisic. Iran has been in great form led by Mehdi Taremi and are looking to surprise a lot of people. And the Welsh made it out of the playoffs, but many believed they were far better than they played in qualification. In all honesty, however, we all know England is the best team in this group. Could one of these teams upset England? Of course. Is it likely? Probably not. They are too experienced and too well-coached to lose this group.
The question now becomes who finishes in second? Iran has been playing very well heading into the tournament, but I think they lack the star power needed to beat these teams with multiple top European league players. So it comes down to the US or Wales. I’m hesitant to say the US because I don’t think Gregg Berhalter is the man for the job, but at the same time, they are far more explosive than a Wales team whose best attacker is a declining Gareth Bale. I give the US a slight edge as they narrowly squeak into the Round of 16.
Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
Group C is going to grab a lot of the spotlight in the coming weeks given that Lionel Messi has said this will be his last World Cup. The good news for him: his team is better than they were last time around. They should win this group, but don’t be surprised if Mexico can cause them some problems. Edson Alvarez is a very talented young defensive midfielder and they have the experience needed to limit an electrifying Argentinian squad. Poland has a chance at upsetting one of those teams considering they have Robert Lewandowski, but one player is not enough to propel them into the top two.
Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
Similarly to Group A, the top two teams in this division, France and Denmark, are miles better than the other two. France is looking to defend their crown with an even more elusive and electrifying Kylian Mbappe and reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. Denmark is coming off a very impressive Euro tournament where they managed to make the semi-finals but lost to England 2-1. When these two meet, France would, on paper, be more well-suited to win, but they are missing some key pieces that could prove to be an issue. They will be without midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba who anchored their midfield four years ago. If Denmark can play up to the form they played with last summer, they have a chance to upset the French. However, I think the French are too deep and too talented for that to happen.
Group E: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
Group E is interesting because although Spain and Germany are better than Japan and Costa Rica, it is very tough to say who will win between the two European powerhouses. Spain is without a lot of the players who brought them the trophy in 2010, the most recent departure being Sergio Ramos, but they have one of the best midfield corps in the tournament. The Barcelona tandem of Pedri and Gavi are fantastic young players, and Rodri is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world.
In Germany’s case, they are right with Spain in terms of midfield prowess. Joshua Kimmich may be the best ball distributor in the entire tournament, and Leon Goretzka and Ilkay Gundogan are dynamic box-to-box midfielders. Ultimately, this one will come down to who can control the tempo of the game, playing the way they want to play. I think the Spanish brand of ball movement will prove to be too much for the Germans and give them the edge in the group.
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
If you asked me to predict Group F four years ago, I would have said, without question, that Belgium and Croatia would go through. This year, I’m not so sure. Kevin De Bruyne is the best midfielder in the world—I don’t think that’s debatable. But the rest of the players on this Belgium squad have gotten older and less productive. Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are not the dominant players they once were.
Meanwhile, Canada is a young, fast team that surprised everyone in CONCACAF qualifying. Alphonso Davies, assuming he stays healthy, is a game-changer and someone I think can exploit Belgium’s older legs down the left wing. So, in the end, I think Canada pulls off the upset and gets past Belgium. However, I think they will find difficulty facing Croatia. Luka Modric and the rest of their squad are building off their experience from losing the final in 2018. I think that will be too much for an inexperienced Canadian team.
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
Group G is Brazil’s to lose. Neymar is Neymar, Vinicius Jr. is easily a top 3 young winger in the world, and good luck getting past a midfield that includes Casemiro and Fabinho. Their brilliance is unfortunate for the rest of the teams in Group G, who I think would have the potential to finish in at least the top 3 of some other groups.
Cameroon has the potential to cause an upset due to their experienced attacking corps led by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Serbia almost missed out in qualifying, but with a striker pairing of Aleksandr Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, they have the ability to score in bunches. Switzerland has a strong defensive corps with veteran leadership in the midfield. Ultimately, I think second place in this group will come down to which attack can take advantage of their opportunities. All in all, with Serbia’s two stars up front, I think they are most likely to capitalize on those chances.
Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
Group H is the last group in the tournament but could easily end up being one of, if not the most, competitive. When you look at these four teams, your first instinct is probably Portugal. Although a completely understandable choice, it is the wrong one nonetheless. Uruguay is my pick because of one player: midfielder Federico Valverde. If you have never seen him play, the Real Madrid star defines the term “box-to-box.” He runs all over the field, making key passes, winning the ball back, and even scoring. He is everywhere and an absolute game-changer. If Portugal had the Ronaldo of old, minus his lack of playing time and controversy at Manchester United, they would probably win this group. Ronaldo will get his chances and probably convert on a few of them, but I don’t know if the attack and midfield around him can pick up the rest. That is why I think Uruguay has the edge.
Second place comes down to Portugal and South Korea. Heung-Min Son is one of the best wingers in the world and can change a game in an instant with his ability to blow past defenders on the counter, but I don’t know if the rest of his team can contend with Portugal. If Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo can keep Son contained on the left wing, I think Portugal will coast to a second-place finish.
World Cup Final: Brazil vs. France
This is a pretty basic pick, with the defending champions and the #1 team in the FIFA Rankings, but I think they truly are the best teams. In the end, this game will come down to who can control the midfield. The attacking corps of these teams are so similar and so dominant that both teams will get their chances. But ultimately, the midfield controls the tempo of the game which, when two powerhouses like these two teams collide, decides the game. Although I think Aurelian Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are extremely promising young midfielders, the experience of world-class players like Casemiro and Fabinho will prove to be too much for the young pair. Brazil wins 1-0 thanks to a late Vinicius Jr. goal.
World Cup Champion: Brazil