World Cup 2018: Your guide to the contenders

32 teams battle it out for glory

World Cup 2018: Your guide to the contenders
Group A

Where there’s Mo, there’s hope, right? The North African side ended 28 years of World Cup woe by qualifying for their first finals since 1990 in thrilling fashion. A double by Liverpool superstar Mo Salah against Congo sealed the win. They have a strong team capable of emerging from a tough group but their chances will clearly depend on their talisman, who almost missed the tourmament through a shoulder injury.
Footy Fact: Egypt have reached two previous World Cups (in 1934 and 1990), never making it past the opening round.

The World Cup hosts will be under huge pressure to make an impact from their fervent fans, but a largely lacklustre squad will need all the home support they can muster to make it out of a challenging group. After a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, a series of patchy performances in recent friendly matches will have fans hoping they’ve done enough to put together a respectable World Cup challenge on home soil.
Footy Fact: Russia, in its previous guise of the unified Soviet Union, won the first ever European Championships in 1960, seeing off Yugoslavia after extra time in a hard-fought final in Paris.

Saudi Arabia
Has Saudi Arabia finally assembled a team capable of emerging from the shadow of the heroes of USA ’94? That swashbuckling side shocked Belgium and Morocco on their way to a place in the last 16, but Saudi Arabia have failed to win a single match in three subsequent World Cup finals. The class of 2018 reached Russia in fine style, finishing just behind Japan in a keenly-contested Asian qualifying section. The battle-hardened side will be eager to make the most of their World Cup return after an unexpected 12-year absence.
Footy Fact: Saudi Arabia reached the final of the first-ever Confederations Cup in 1992 (a four-team tournament then known as the King Fahd Cup and hosted in The Kingdom) losing out to Argentina.

The winners of the first World Cup back in 1930 have plenty of recent pedigree thanks to the exploits of a golden generation of players over the last decade (including Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan). Semi-finalists in 2010 and Copa America winners a year later, Uruguay finished second behind an all-conquering Brazil in qualifying for Russia and are more than capable of going deep into the tournament this time around.
Footy Fact: Uruguay were the hosts and winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1930. The pre-tournament favourites defeated South American rivals Argentina 4-2 in a thrilling final in front of a delighted crowd of more than 68,000 fans.

Group B

The undoubted underdogs of the group, Iran will rely heavily on the know-how of vastly experienced manager Carlos Queiroz. The team will be buoyed by their impressive form during qualifying, where they put together an impressive ten-game unbeaten run to best South Korea by seven points. Queiroz will know all about the qualities of Cristiano Ronaldo, having managed him for both Portugal and Real Madrid, but unfortunately for him that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be able to stop him.
Footy Fact: While they are viewed as footballing minnows, Iran have now successfully qualified for four of the last six World Cups.

Morocco couldn’t come into their first World Cup for twenty years in any better shape. They cruised through a qualifying group containing highly-regarded Ivory Coast without losing a game or even conceding a single goal. Spain and Portugal might not have everything their own way as the North Africans bid to shake up the European establishment.
Footy Fact: Back in the World Cup reckoning for the first time this century, Morocco are aiming to go one better in eight years’ time after launching a bid to host the 2026 tournament.

The Iberian nation confounded their critics by securing their first international trophy at Euro 2016 despite a series of underwhelming displays. They relied heavily on the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo in booking their ticket to Russia 2018 but, if you have one of the best players in history on your team, you can hardly blame them for building a side around his irrepressible striking abilities.
Footy Fact: Despite their perceived status as one of the world’s leading football nations, until 1996 Portugal had only ever participated in three major tournaments since the first World Cup in 1930.

The classy Spaniards look primed for a return to their glorious best after enduring a fallow period in their aftermath of their hat-trick of title wins (two European Championships and one World Cup) from 2008 to 2012. Still the pass masters of world football, Spain remained unbeaten during qualifying and outlined their status as one of the favourites at Russia 2018 with a 6-1 demolition of fellow contenders for the title Argentina in a recent high-profile friendly.
Footy Fact: Spain made history when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012, becoming the first team to clinch three international tournaments in a row.

Group C

At a time when the Australian cricket team’s on-field antics have been, well, just not cricket, antipodeans may be looking to their football team for some sporting redemption. They can expect plenty of honest endeavour and toil, but the days of Viduka, Kewell and the like are in the rear view mirror. While old stager Tim Cahill is still going strong, this is not a vintage Aussie outfit and an early trip Down Under may be on the cards.
Footy Fact: Australia holds the world record for the biggest win and the most goals scored by a player in a single match. Both feats were achieved in the same game, when the Aussies crushed American Samoa 31-0 during a World Cup qualifying match in 2001. Archie Thompson hit the net an incredible 13 times, with David Zdrilic having to make do with a mere eight. They still didn’t qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan, though.

Every tournament needs a dark horse or two and the Danes look like they might fit the bill in 2018. After finishing runners-up to Poland in a competitive qualifying group, they steamrolled the cagey Republic of Ireland 5-1 in Dublin to earn a route to Russia through the play-offs. The Danish side’s front-foot style makes them a pleasing proposition for neutrals and may win them a few new fans this summer.
Footy Fact: Denmark wrote the final chapter to one of football’s most remarkable stories when they won Euro 1992. After failing to qualify for the tournament, they made the most of a rare second chance after Yugoslavia were expelled to go all the way to the final, where they vanquished reigning World Champions West Germany 2-0 thanks to talents such as Brian Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel and John Jensen.

A flamboyant French team loaded with an array of attacking talent – think Pogba, Mbappe, Lemar and Griezmann – will be determined to bounce back from the disappointment of losing the final of Euro 2016 in their own backyard. Without the extra pressure of being home favourites, Les Bleus could well become champions of the world again – 20 years on from their first triumph.
Footy Fact: The very first goal in the inaugural World Cup in 1930 was scored by a Frenchman, the late forward Lucien Laurent in a 4-1 win over Mexico.

Now Peru isn’t just known for being the homeland of a friendly bear with a penchant for marmalade (that’s Paddington Bear, for the youngsters among you). The two-time Copa America winners haven’t pitched up on football’s grandest stage since 1982, but they ended their hiatus after finishing in the play-off spots in the tough South American qualifying league. Peru saw off New Zealand without conceding a goal over two legs to earn their return. They will be determined to make the most of their moment in the spotlight,especially now star man Paulo Guerrero has had his ban repealed.
Footy Fact: Peru were one of 13 teams to take part in the first World Cup in 1930, losing both their games to Romania and hosts Uruguay.

Group D

They have lifted the trophy twice (1978, 1986) and have been runners up three times (1930, 1990 and last time out in 2014). It could be the swansong for many of their team of superstars including Javier Mascherano, Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and captain Lionel Messi. Strong in attack but with defensive frailties, many will still fancy the free-scoring South Americans to win the tournament this time.
Footy Fact: Three players have scored World Cup hat-tricks for Argentina: Guillermo Stábile (in a 6-3 win over Mexico, 1930) Gabriel Batistuta twice (in a 4-0 win over Greece, 1994, and a 5-0 win over Jamaica, 1998) and Gonzalo Higuaín (in a 4-1 win over South Korea, 2010).

Croatia sealed their place in Russia after beating Greece 4-1 in the play-offs, having finished runners up to Iceland (also in Group D). This will be their fifth World Cup appearance since making their debut in 1998 (remember that exceptional side anyone?) where they finished third after losing to eventual winners France.
Footy Fact: Brazil legend Pelé voted Davor Suker onto his list of the 125 greatest players of all time – to mark FIFA’s 100th anniversary in 2004 – the only Croatian to make the cut.

Wow, what a remarkable rise these minnows have had in the past two years. After taking UEFA Euro 2016 by storm and reaching the quarter-finals (losing to eventual runners-up and hosts France), Iceland won the hearts of fans around the globe. Their Viking war clap boomed its way straight into one of football’s most memorable moments. They qualified as Group I winners, picking up 22 points from ten games. They’re a neutral’s favourite and not to be underestimated: just look back at every England fan’s face two summers ago.
Footy Fact: With a population of around 335,000, Iceland are the smallest national ever to make the World Cup. They snatched the title from Trinidad and Tobago (population circa 1.3 million), who reached the 2006 tournament in Germany.

The African nation have become a regular World Cup contender since making their debut in 1994 – having only missed the 2006 tournament in Germany. They have reached the last 16 three times (1994, 1998 and 2014), however they face a tough task of qualifying from this group. Former Chelsea man John Obi Mikel will sit in the heart of a midfield, behind an attacking force of Premier League quality with Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa playing alongside Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi.
Footy Fact: Nigeria could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of Argentina having been drawn in their group five of the last six times. However, they will find confidence in a recent friendly win where they beat Argentina 4-2.

Group E

The five-time champions are one of the favourites every tournament. This year it’s no different – so long as star man Neymar recovers from his fractured metatarsal (oh that old menace) in time. The 2014 hosts suffered an embarrassing 7-1 mauling by Germany in the semi-finals in front of gobsmacked home fans, so they’ll be hungry for revenge this time around. They qualified as winners of the South American division ahead of Uruguay.
Footy Fact: Brazil are the only nation to feature at every World Cup tournament.

Costa Rica
Making their fifth World Cup appearance, Costa Rica will be hoping to reach the same heights of 2014 having escaped the “Group of Death” last time round. They beat Uruguay and Italy before drawing against England and topped the group against all odds. They went onto the quarter-finals, losing to the Netherlands on penalties. They sealed their spot by finishing second behind Mexico in the North, Central America and Caribbean standings.
Footy Fact: Costa Rica were one of just three unbeaten teams (after 90 minutes) at the last World Cup, along with winners Germany and the third placed Netherlands.

Probably not everyone’s favourite (outside of Serbia, of course), they are not to be underestimated having won Group D in the European qualifiers – plus having a wealth of tournament experience. They have made 11 appearances in various different guises – eight as part of Yugoslavia from 1930 to 1990, two as Serbia and Montenegro in 1998 and 2006 and once as Serbia in 2010.
Footy Fact: Milorad Arsenijevic (imagine the Scrabble points) became the first person to play in and manage a World Cup team – having featured for Yugoslavia in 1930 before taking charge in 1950.

The Swiss did it the hard way to book their place in Russia with a play-off win against Northern Ireland. Fans now expect them to feature in the major tournaments regularly, with manager Vladimir Petkovic targeting at least the quarter-finals. They have pace in Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber, with a masterful player in Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka. However, they don’t score a lot of goals on the world stage – with main striker Haris Seferović having notched just 11 times in 47 games.
Footy Fact: Not something they’d want reminding of, but it’s true nonetheless: In 2006 Switzerland became the first team to be knocked out of World Cup despite not conceding a goal – having lost 3-0 on penalties to Ukraine (following a 0-0 draw). They also became the first side never to score in a penalty shootout in the same game. Four years later they managed just one goal in their three group games before crashing out again.

Group F

The reigning champions will be hoping to make it consecutive World Cup titles following victory in Brazil in 2014. With star names like Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Manuel Neuer and Mesut Özil, plus plenty of up-and-coming talents. Germany are again among the favourites to lift the trophy come Sunday July 15. This time around, however, they’ll be without Mario Götze, who scored the winner in 2014. Since then his stock has fallen and after injury-hit seasons he failed to make the cut.
Footy Fact: Germany hold the record for the largest margin of victory in a World Cup semi-final, having tonked hosts Brazil 7-1 in the Estádio Mineirão in the 2014 tournament.

Korea Republic
The South Korean team’s success in the 2002 World Cup saw them become the first, and currently only, Asian team to reach the semi-finals of the tournament, when they went out to eventual finalists Germany in a tournament they co-hosted with Japan.
Footy Fact: South Korea won the first two AFC Asian Cup tournaments (in 1956 and 1960), but haven’t won the tournament since, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan having all lifted the trophy on more occasions.

Having only failed to qualify for three World Cups in the tournament’s history, Mexico are a perennial presence and always a fan favourite. They’re also adept at getting out of the group stages of the tournament, having qualified to the knockout stage in each of the last seven tournaments in which they’ve featured.
Footy Fact: Mexico’s nickname is El Tricolor, we’re sure you can work out why.

Also found in what might be this year’s dreaded “Group of Death” are Sweden, who have had a 12-year absence from the tournament. Having defeated Italy over two legs in the qualifying stage’s playoff round, the Swedes will be hoping to build on the Round of 16 finish they’ve had in their last two tournaments, in 2002 and 2006.
Footy Fact: Sweden’s best ever finish in a World Cup came in 1958, a tournament that they hosted, when they lost 5-2 to champions Brazil (a win that landed the Brazilians their first World Cup crown).

Group G

In recent tournaments Belgium have always been considered the dark horse, but are yet to make serious inroads towards the latter stages of the competition. With some incredible talents in the squad, plus coaching from Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry, the foundations are there. Will this be the year the Belgians make a huge impact?
Footy Fact: According to FIFA rankings, Belgium are currently the third best team in the world, having previously sat atop the ranking tables between November 2015 and March 2016.

It’s the same every time – massive hype, tonnes of excitement and over-expectancy on the England team. But, manager Gareth Southgate has instilled a pragmatic sense of calm over the 1966 winners this time around, playing down his team’s chances while also instilling a sense of optimism into a squad with one of the youngest average ages in the tournament. Is this their year? Probably not, but that’s never stopped the fans hoping before.
Footy Fact: England are statistically the world’s worst team in penalty shoot-outs. Having lost seven of their eight shoot-outs in major tournaments, England fans will be hoping that the dreaded 12-yard decider isn’t needed this year. We can guess the outcome if it is.

With the USA surprisingly failing to make it to this year’s tournament, all eyes from the region are on Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica. The Central American nation will be making its debut in the World Cup this year, and despite being pooled in a tricky group, will be hopeful of causing an upset to some of the more established sides.
Footy Fact: Panama scored more goals and accrued more points (in total) in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup than in this one, but missed out on a playoff spot by three points last time around.

It’ll be the first time since 2006 that Tunisia have made it to the World Cup, having made it to three consecutive tournaments before that. The North Africans will be hoping to make it out of the group phase for the first time in the country’s history, with 2018 being the fifth time of competing in the tournament.
Footy Fact: Tunisia were the first-ever winners of the Arab Nations Cup back in 1963. Sadly for The Eagles of Carthage, they haven’t won the tournament since.

Group H

Everyone loves the South American teams at the World Cup, and Colombia are no exception. Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) will be out to build on last year’s impressive run to the quarter-finals, where they were somewhat unfortunate to lose 2-1 to hosts Brazil. With talismanic forwards James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao leading the line, this pacey team will pose a threat to any side in the tournament.
Footy Fact: Despite going out in the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup, Rodríguez won two awards at the tournament – the Golden Boot (shared), with six goals, and the best goal, for the aforementioned screamer against Chile.

Japan are one of the most successful teams in Asia (as the only team to have won the AFC Asian Cup four times), and have secured themselves a spot in the World Cup for the sixth successive time. In each of the last five tournaments, they’ve alternated between group stage and the round of 16, and they’ll have to overcome some tough teams to qualify this time.
Footy Fact: Since first qualifying for the World Cup in 1998, Japan have never failed to reach the tournament.

Having failed to qualify for the last two World Cups, Poland will have a point to prove this time. Quarter-finalists at the UEFA Euro 2016 championships in France, Poland went out on penalties to eventual champions Portugal. If they can replicate their achievement from two years ago, Poland could be on for a best-ever performance in the World Cup.
Footy Fact: At Euro 2016, Poland exited the tournament with the rare achievement of having not lost a single game.

At their first-ever World Cup, back in 2002, Senegal boldly smashed their way on to the international football scene by slaying the reigning World and European champions France in the first game of the tournament. Senegal, having not been to a World Cup since, will be keen to make a similar impact and better their 2002 quarter-final appearance.
Footy Fact: Senegal striker Moussa Sow is also one of the founding partners of the US soccer franchise San Diego 1904, along with Crystal Palace’s Yohan Cabaye, Göztepe’s Demba Ba and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.

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