2018 FIFA World Cup Countdown – Part 1: The Top Contenders

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(Fifa.com)

FIFA World Cup fever is approaching, and every football fan will be excited for the games to begin on June 14. Current champions Germany will be ready to defend its title against top notch national teams in Russia. For a football fan like me, skimming through the list of teams and predicting which one has enough talent, experience, and team chemistry to take the crown is a huge part of the experience.

To add to your experience of the World Cup, I am creating a 3-part series breaking down the 2018 field and what to expect of these teams throughout the tournament. This piece is Part 1, the Top Contenders. Part 2 will be the Underdogs, and Part 3 will be the Dark Horses. I did not select these teams based on FIFA rankings, rather on their track records in major tournaments and the overall quality of their players.

Also included are my personal selections for “Players To Watch” on each team. These players were chosen subjectively, but do possess game-changing qualities that can help their teams progress.

  1. Germany aka Die Mannschaft

Player to watch: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern München)

  • As one of the brightest German prospects, this 23-year-old plays as a defensive right back. His incredible crossing ability, penetration into opposition defenses, and passing make him a huge addition to this German team that already boasts a World-Cup winning squad.
(via @jok_32 on Instagram)

As reigning champs and 4-time World Champions, Germany is the team that has most consistently made it far in this tournament and has the most collective experience. Since 2002, Germany has finished no lower than third place in each Cup, including two finals and a 2014 victory. Germany is the team to beat. In addition to their experience, Germany has a huge number of talented players.

Bayern München, Germany’s most decorated club team, has been a major source of German talent, boasting a good mix of experienced players and young talent. Germany also has stars that play in big European clubs such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG. The talents coupled with the chemistry German players have on the pitch make Germany an exceptional team and one that will be difficult to beat.

  1. Brazil aka Canarinho

Player to watch: Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)

  • He is a 21-year-old striker who was a huge part of the devastating Manchester City team that earned a Premier League record of 100 points in a season, scoring 106 goals in the process. What makes Jesus special is his chemistry with Neymar Jr. and his finishing, scoring 9 goals in 15 appearances for Brazil.
(via @dejesusoficial on Instagram)

When I was growing up, there was a saying that there isn’t a World Cup without Brazil. The Canarinho have historically been the epitome of world football having produced stars such as Pelé, Zico, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho who have all wowed world football. Brazil are also 5-time world champions, but their most recent crown was achieved in 2002 when they beat Germany in the finals. Apart from the experience that Brazil brings, they easily dominated the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers—arguably the hardest continental tournament in the world to qualify from—winning 12 games while only losing one. Their coach, Tite, has brought back smiles to Brazilians after their atrocious 7-1 elimination at the hands of Germany in front of their own fans in 2014.

Having the first and third most expensive players in football history (Neymar Jr. of PSG and Philippe Coutinho of FC Barcelona, respectively), Brazil is a team that will be out for revenge and to prove their worth to the world.

  1. France aka Les Bleus

Players to watch: Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

  • He is 27 years old and the talk of the summer transfer market surrounding a potential move to FC Barcelona. As a versatile forward, one of Greizmann’s many talents is his ability to maximize the strengths of his team’s attack. After a successful league season, Griezmann’s two goals in the finals with Atlético helped them secure the 2018 UEFA Europa Cup which will only boost his confidence for the World Cup.
(via @antogriezmann on Instagram)

Although Les Bleus of France don’t have the extensive pedigree of Germany and Brazil, they can boast of having the most talented squad in this year’s World Cup. The French have longed for a replica of the golden generation that won them the 1998 FIFA World Cup when they hosted it, a team consisting of stars such as their current coach and former team captain, Didier Deschamps, and players like Zinedine Zidane (current Real Madrid coach), and Thierry Henry. France lifting the trophy this year would be the second time a person has won the trophy as both a coach and a captain (Franz Beckenbauer, German captain in 1974, coach in 1990).

The current squad is arguably even more impressive than the 1998 team and has stars playing for pretty much all the biggest European teams. In fact, the French team is so talented it could have two teams fielded that would both be considered top contenders. France can thank their incredibly progressive youth systems and extensive scout networks that help identify and develop world-class talents.

  1. Spain aka La Furia Roja

Player to watch: Sergio Busquets (FC Barcelona)

  • The key to the success of Spain possession-based style of football is the midfield’s ability to recycle possession, play key passes to attacking players, be calm under pressure from the opposition, and read and disrupt the opposition’s attacks. All these elements are what define Busquets’ game. The 29-year-old has been the spine of FC Barcelona’s midfield for years and will be the main character within Spain’s midfield.
(Barca Blaugranes)

The 2010 World Cup champions haven’t had the best performances in recent major tournaments since they won the 2012 UEFA European Championship. Not only did they suffer heavy losses against Netherlands and Chile during the 2014 World Cup, they were eliminated by Italy during the 2016 UEFA European Championship. However, Spain is still a team to watch based on their free-flowing play style and the talents they have.

Players like Sergio Ramos, Isco, Marco Asensio, and Dani Carvajal have been part of the Real Madrid teams that won back-to-back UEFA Champions League titles in 2016 and 2017. In addition, they have many stars that play both domestically and in other European leagues, and can boast of having one of the world best goalkeepers in David De Gea (Manchester United). Spain can be hopeful that at their best, their possession-based style of play—similar to Pep’s ruthless Manchester City and Sarri’s Napoli—can dominate any team they face.

  1. Argentina aka La Albiceleste

Player to watch: Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)

  • There is a big chance you have heard the name Messi. The 30-year-old is a 5-time Ballon D’Or winner (annual award for the world’s best player) and a goal machine who holds the national record of 77 goals scored in 146 appearances for Argentina. What makes Messi special is his ability to create chances from nothing; an ability that helped Argentina make it to the finals of the 2014 World Cup and one his teammates will want to see throughout the tournament.
(via @leomessi on Instagram)

In Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina has a coach who has shown an affinity for the aggressive high-press football that made him one of Chile’s beloved coaches and 2-time back-to-back Copa América champions. Argentina—1978 and 1986 FIFA World Cup winners—also has Lionel Messi. His influence in the team was noticeable when he helped Argentina qualify for the 2018 World Cup after returning from retirement.

Argentina also has world-class strikers that can make the difference. The team can also take solace in that it reached the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup before being beaten by Germany in extra time. However, one of the known weaknesses of Argentina is their overreliance on Messi which harms their chances of progressing. It means other players will have to step up when Messi doesn’t perform to give them a chance at lifting the trophy. The World Cup is the only trophy Messi needs to eclipse the achievements of the legendary Diego Maradona in the eyes of many Argentinians.

  1. Belgium aka Les Diables Rouges/De Rode Duivels

Player to watch: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)

  • Nicknamed “The Ginger Pelé” because of his play-making abilities and his hair, 26-year-old Kevin has been the biggest star of a record-breaking Manchester City side. His incredible free kicks, crossing into the box, incisive passing, long-range scoring, and dribbling makes him one of the biggest stars in the World Cup. Playing alongside a front line that includes Hazard and Lukaku will make Belgium an absolute delight to watch.
(via @kevindebruyne on Instagram)

Unlike the previous 5 teams, Belgium has never won a major tournament before in its football history. This means most football fans may not truly consider Belgium to be a top contender as they are still to prove to the world they can win titles. However, any one writing off the Belgian team should be wary because of the array of talent the current Belgium team has at its disposal.

Belgium has world-class forwards such as Eden Hazard (Chelsea FC) and Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) who have been terrorizing Europe with their prolific goalscoring for years now. Belgium also boasts a cohesive backline, with defenders such as the captain, Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur) who play on the same club team, not to mention one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea FC).

Perhaps most frightening about Belgium’s depth is their midfield, with notoriously gritty yet skilled players such as Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma) and Moussa Dembelé (Tottenham Hotspur), as well as the English Premier League’s best midfielder of the year in Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City). This golden generation of Belgian players qualifies them as a genuine top contender for the World Cup trophy.


Part 2 of RayMoN’s FIFA World Cup Countdown coming soon! Stay tuned. -Zander

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