By Mark Paulette,
The world’s greatest tournament kicks off in a matter of hours and for the better part of the next calendar month, will grip the attention of the globe – or at least most of the globe, the U.S. excluded.
For the first time in four orbits of the sun, the World Cup is back! Seeing as how many reading this article have no dog in the fight, as the U.S. inexplicably and embarrassingly failed to qualify for the tournament, I’m here to help you find a new darling in the Cup. Whether you like powerhouses, underdogs, shiny uniforms or war chants, this article will help sift through the field of 32 to find the squad that best fits you.
Are you a fan of the New England Patriots, Golden State Warriors or…God forbid…the Yankees and looking to relive the glory from the turn of the 21st century? Then these teams are for you –
Germany – The Germans enter the tournament as both the defending champions, from their 2014 victory over Argentina, and the top-team in the Fifa World Rankings. Their 2014 triumph was the 4th World Cup title for Germany, who have played in the final on eight occasions. Considering this will be the 22nd World Cup, that means the Germans have appeared in 36% of all W.C. Finals. It’s a safe bet to assume this squad, which is as potent as ever, will make a deep run. They are the Patriots of World football…sorry, ‘soccer’.
Brazil – If you like goals and a fast tempo, this is the team for you. Not only does Brazil stand atop the mountain with five World Cup titles, this year’s squad has the potential to burry opponents under an avalanche of goals. As the #2 power in the world, Brazil is hungry and angry after bowing out of the 2014 Cup with a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany on their home soil. Picture Golden State on the basketball court, that is what Brazil will resemble on the pitch over the next month.
Spain – The Spaniards head to Russia looking to recapture their dominant tourney form. Spain won the 2008 and 2012 European Championships (think World Cup but only teams from Europe) and sandwiched a 2010 World Cup title in between, capping one of the most dominant 4-year runs in international soccer history. An aging squad has been phased out over the last several years and a crop of young talent looks to stake their claim to world dominance. Sorry Spain, but you’re the Yankees, which means I probably just turned most of New England against you.
Do you find yourself cheering for the G.O.A.T. candidates, whether it be Tom Brady or LeBron James? If yes, then you’ll want to keep an eye on these countries –
Portugal – The reigning champions of Europe enter the tournament as the 4th-ranked squad in the world and are led by global megastar, Cristiano Ronaldo. Along with being a model, entrepreneur and owning a billion-dollar deal with Nike, Ronaldo isn’t too bad at this whole soccer thing either. He’s scored over 600 goals in his career and won every award possible, including taking home the last two Ballon d’Or trophies and five overall (awarded to the best player in Europe, and effectively, on the planet). If you want to see a once-in-a-lifetime talent, tune into Portugal’s matches, or this next team’s…
Argentina – For the last decade, the 1978 and ‘86 champions have been led by the man known the world over as simply, Messi. For every award Ronaldo has received in his career, Messi has it as well. For every goal Ronaldo has scored, Messi has also found the back of the net. Both players have a claim as the greatest of all-time and they just happen to be playing at the same time. My advice; enjoy it. Oh, and Messi’s supporting cast with Argentina can go toe to toe with anybody. An extremely talented side that for whatever reason can’t put it together on the biggest stage – think Peyton Manning’s Colts teams.
Are you a Celtics fan? Well like the C’s, these squads are on the cusp and ready to shake up the field –
Belgium – Sitting at #3 in the world rankings, Belgium is experiencing their ‘Golden Age’ when it comes to soccer. With some of the world’s best talent, specifically in the midfield, the Belgians are ready to take center stage on the world’s biggest stage. The key with this year’s Belgium squad is that it’s somewhat unchartered territory. Their best result at the World Cup is a fourth-place finish. It’s unfair to compare them to the Toronto Raptors of the NBA because Belgium’s talent pool is much deeper, but the results may be similar with all the marbles on the table.
France – If France’s world ranking chart since 2001 was a heart rate monitor, they would need to be admitted to the nearest medical facility at once. In 2001, they were the top team in the world, and remained at #2 until 2004. Things started getting shaky in ’09-’10 when they dropped from #7 to #18 and then eventually bottomed out at #25 in 2015. Since, the French have made a quick climb back through the charts, and enter the World Cup as the #7 nation according to Fifa. France is hoping the tumultuous times are behind them and a core of youth can lead them to success…or at the very least stability.
Switzerland – The Swiss enter the fray with their highest ever world ranking at #6. On paper, they fail to blow anyone away. To put it in terms of the ever-popular Fifa video game, in which a very good player tends to have a rating between 86-90, Switzerland’s top-player registers in with a rating of 82. So…they’re sound. Hey, maybe they are in fact the soccer equivalent of this year’s Celtics team. Ratings be damned! It’s us against the world (literally in this sense).
The ‘Everyone’s overlooking us’ group –
Poland – The Polish enter the tournament as the #8 team in the world, and they have to be there for a reason, right? Like Belgium and Switzerland, this is as good as it’s been in Poland’s soccer history. They were ranked #73 in 2010 and as low as #76 in 2013. They’re led by striker, Robert Lewandowski, and if Poland has intentions on making a deep run in the tournament, he’ll have to be a one man wrecking crew.
England – There are a few absolutes in life. Death, taxes and England failing at the World Cup are among those few. The Three Lions have talent, and plenty of it, but it never seems to matter. England having just one World Cup title in their history is almost as embarrassing as a country with a population of 330-million not even qualifying for the tournament…okay, maybe not. But if you want to hop on the England bandwagon, know you’re getting on the soccer version of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ train. Uber talented, but something will go wrong at a crucial moment.
Uruguay – Checking in behind the English you have the Uruguayans at #14 in the world rankings. The pros for Uruguay – their best players are their two strikers, which could mean lots of goals. The negatives for Uruguay – their midfield and defense is a little suspect. But hey, it could lead to entertaining games filled with goal scoring action if nothing else.
Mexico – Let’s just keep working our way down the rankings, shall we? At #15 sits Mexico, who is coming off a 2014 run that saw them win multiple games at the World Cup for just the fourth time in their history. Mexico will have their work cut out for them, playing in Group F which also features Germany and Sweden. But should they make their way out of the group, they’ll certainly be battle tested.
Columbia – One of the surprises of the 2014 World Cup saw Columbia advance into the quarterfinals. They enter this year’s tourney as the #16 power in the world. Led by $100-million man, James (pronounced Hames, don’t call him James) Rodriguez, Columbia finds themselves in Group H alongside Poland, Japan and Senegal. If you want a sleeper team in the Cup, this may be the squad to highlight.
Underdogs, because, who doesn’t love a good underdog? –
Iceland – The team whose magical run to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championships in their first ever appearance in the tourney is back, now for their World Cup debut and ready to recapture your heart. Ranked 22nd in the world – three spots higher than the U.S.A. – with a population of just over 700,000 and their patented Viking ‘Skol’ chant, Iceland is the ultimate feisty underdog.
Egypt – Talk about underdogs, Egypt enters play as the #45 team in the world and most likely wouldn’t even be playing in the tournament if not for their star winger, Mohamed Salah. Threatening to be the first player not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or since 2007, Salah is coming off a 43 goal season for Liverpool of the Premier League and despite an injury suffered in the Champions League Final, he should be good to go to lead Egypt at the World Cup.
Panama – The other debutant in Russia is Panama, making their first trip to the World Cup. With really zero expectations, Panama enters the tourney as the 55th-best team in the world according to Fifa. Featured in Group G with Belgium and England, Panama stands little chance. But hey! Us Western hemisphere’ers have to stick together!
Russia – And if you’re especially gung ho about underdogs, look no further than the hosts, who enter the tournament as the lowest ranked squad in the field of 32 (70th in the world). Mother Russia is here because of the watered down qualifiers a host must go through. They’re favored in their first match with Saudi Arabia, and are also in the same group as Egypt, so they may accumulate more points than people are expecting. Something smells fishy here…
If all else fails, let’s find you a uniform you like –
Let’s start with Senegal’s home jersey. I mean, they have a silhouette of a lion’s face on the front. That’s pretty cool.
How about Croatia’s away jersey? Sleek and stylish.
South Korea’s away jersey sort of has the look of a piece of paper when a printer has low ink, but I’m a fan.
And finally, the jersey that’s universally the #1 at this year’s World Cup according to the interweb, Nigeria’s home kit. It’s spazzy, kind of makes me eyes hurt, and looks like it’s straight out of a ’90’s Reebok commercial. But who am I to be a critique, if the internet loves it, it doesn’t care what I think.
Remaining rankings and odds for any team that I have not yet mentioned (odds represent a team’s chance of surviving the group stage) –
Peru, #11, (+180)
Denmark, #12, (-149)
Tunisia, #21, (+460)
Costa Rica, #23, (+435)
Sweden, #24, (+124)
Serbia, #34, (+112)
Australia, #36, (+445)
Iran, #37, (+600)
Morocco, #41, (+335)
Japan, #61, (+236)
Saudi Arabia, #67, (+720)
Mark Paulette is the executive producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine