Reason to watch: Hey, it’s another Group A underdog. Saudi Arabia, back in the World Cup for the first time since 2006, has advanced past the group stage just once, in 1994. Its finishes since then: 28th, 32nd and 28th. Not much more is expected this year, though Saudi Arabia’s attacking trio of Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad, who all spent time on loan with La Liga teams in Spain this past season, could give the Green Falcons a spark.
Reason to watch: Assuming his shoulder is okay, forward Mohamed Salah will garner most of the attention after his record-smashing season at Liverpool, but Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary is a story in his own right: At 45, he will become the oldest player ever to step foot on a World Cup pitch, smashing by a full two years the record set in 2014 by Colombia’s Faryd Mondragon. El-Hadary made his first Egyptian national team appearance in 1996, 10 months before the youngest player on Egypt’s World Cup roster was born.
Reason to watch: With Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid) anchoring the back line and Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively) providing a deadly 1-2 scoring punch, Uruguay seems poised for a run to the semifinals. If you don’t feel like backing been-there done-that South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay could be your team, especially because of what it has done with its comparatively small population: Only Iceland has fewer people among World Cup teams.
Reason to watch: Portugal has advanced to at least the semifinals in five of the nine major tournaments involving UEFA teams this century, but four of them were in the European Championships. Apart from a fourth-place finish in 2006, Portugal’s World Cup success has been more muted over that span: One round-of-16 appearance and two group-stage flameouts. But it finally broke through two years ago, winning its first-ever Euro title to shed its close-but-not-enough image. This might be the last chance to see Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, compete on the world stage as one of the greatest talents of his generation.
Reason to watch: It’ll be curious to see which version of La Roja shows up: the one that embarked on an astounding four-year run that saw a World Cup title in 2010 sandwiched between Euro titles in 2008 and 2012, or the one that didn’t make it out of the group stage four years ago in Brazil and only advanced to the round of 16 at Euro 2016. If Spain’s UEFA qualifying performance is to be believed, it’ll be the former: It went 9-0-1 while scoring 36 goals and conceding just three.
Reason to watch: Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands and accumulated seven caps for that country’s junior national teams, but in 2015 he announced his plans to play internationally for Morocco (his parents are from there). The 25-year-old midfielder had nine goals and 14 assists for Dutch power Ajax last season and has been linked to European clubs Liverpool, Everton and Roma on the transfer market. Ziyech should garner even more attention should he lead the Atlas Lions out of a particularly challenging group.
Reason to watch: Team Melli is composed of players who have proven their mettle in European club competition, though in some of its lesser leagues. This past season, Alireza Jahanbakhsh became the first player from what FIFA considers an Asian country to lead a top-level European league in goals with 21 for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, while Karim Ansarifard was second in the Greek Superleague with 17 goals and Saman Ghoddos was named 2017 attacker of the year in Sweden’s top flight. Now it’s up to Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s longtime coach, to shape those pieces into a team that can somehow knock off either Spain or Portugal and advance to the knockout round for the first time.
Reason to watch: Didier Deschamps has assembled one of the greener Les Bleus squads in recent memory, with its average age of 26 the youngest in 20 years. Its players also average just 24 caps. The most prominent of these youngsters is speedy 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe, who scored 13 goals this past season playing alongside Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. But Mbappe only has been playing with France’s senior national team since March 2017, leaving 27-year-old Antoine Griezman — the top scorer and MVP of Euro 2016 — as the team’s on-field leader.
Reason to watch: The Socceroos may have had the most laborious path to Russia, needing a two-leg playoff win over Syria to advance out of Asia and into another two-leg intercontinental playoff against Honduras for one of the final two World Cup berths. Two weeks later after that was secured, Ange Postecoglou resigned as coach. Bert van Marwijk, who led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, was named interim coach in January, but is that enough time to get Australia ready for the world stage?
Reason to watch: La Blanquirroja are back in the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, the longest drought of any team headed to Russia this year. In fact, they haven’t lost an international match since November 2016, and that run could very well continue now that captain Paolo Guerrero has been cleared to play by a Swiss court. Guerrero, the team’s all-time leading goal scorer, was slated to miss the tournament because of a positive test for cocaine, but he successfully appealed the ban in the nick of time. Jefferson Farfán, who has been playing for Peru since 2003, will be an added steadying presence in Russia, a place that will be familiar to the 33-year-old striker: He played last season for Lokomotiv Moscow.
Reason to watch: De Rod-Hvide sport many tall men, but Christian Eriksen stands above them all at just 6 feet tall. The attacking midfielder, who plies his trade for Tottenham Hotspur in England, scored 11 times in UEFA qualifying (ranking third) and created 41 chances (first), the only European player to rank in the top 5 in both categories. His most memorable moment came in the second leg of the playoff against Ireland, when his hat trick sent the Danes to Russia with a 5-1 thrashing in Dublin. The youngest player at the 2010 World Cup might be one of the best eight years later.
Reason to watch: Lionel Messi, the greatest star of his generation, will turn 31 three days after Argentina’s second group-stage match, and one has to think this will be his last true shot at glory after a runner-up finish four years ago in Brazil. The question, then, isn’t whether Messi will again dazzle this year, but whether Jorge Sampaoli — La Albiceleste’s ninth manager this century — can cobble together a proper cast to support him. Argentina’s chaotic South American qualifying campaign was saved only by a hat trick from Messi in the finale, and then it went out and suffered a demoralizing 6-1 loss to Spain without Messi in a March friendly. He can’t do it himself.
Reason to watch: If anything, Iceland and its supporters might be the most fun group to watch in Russia with their full-on embrace of viking culture, all that smiting and raining hellfire. The tiny island nation had a Nordic-tinged blast as it watched its lads advance to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, a jubilant shock for a nation that had not once qualified for that tournament. Iceland is again a first-timer at this World Cup, but things might be a little dicier this time around: attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson injured his knee playing for Everton and missed the last three months of the Premier League season, and there are questions about his fitness. He’s absolutely crucial for a team that doesn’t score a whole lot, netting four of the team’s 16 goals in 10 European qualifying games.
Reason to watch: Things got a bit dodgy in European qualifying — the Blazers fired their coach on the home stretch and then needed to win a two-leg playoff against Greece to advance to Russia — but Croatia is back at the World Cup for the fifth time in the last six tournaments. Its success this year almost certainly will revolve around its supremely talented midfield, with Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic (both Inter Milan) having proven their worth against top-flight European club competition and a number of similarly talented reserves waiting on the bench. It remains to be seen, however, if Coach Zlatko Dalic can wrangle cohesion out of an always-tempestuous group of egos in such a short time at the helm.
Reason to watch: The Super Eagles may be fun to watch in the attack but they’re equally concerning on defense, with goalkeeper a particular concern. Carl Ikeme sadly was forced off the field after his 2017 leukemia diagnosis, leaving Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Francis Uzoho to battle for the job. Ezenwa certainly doesn’t lack for confidence — he said in May that he could shut down Messi because he’s “carrying 180 million people on my shoulder and I have to stop him” — but Coach Gernot Rohr might have more faith in Uzoho, even though he’s only 19 and has only three national team caps (he’s only appeared twice for Spanish club Deportivo de La Coruña, as well). Uzoho kept fellow World Cup participant Poland off the board in a 1-0 friendly win in March but gave up three goals in two appearances since then.
Reason to watch: It’s hard to narrow down a sublimely talented team such as Brazil to just one player, but we’re going to talk about Neymar and his foot anyway. The 26-year-old standout has barely played since February, when he broke a bone in his right foot while playing for Paris Saint-Germain. He reportedly will be ready to go in Russia, which is certainly a good thing for the Selecao, but Brazil seemed to be less reliant on its star during a rousing South American qualifying campaign, which is even better for their hopes. This is the exact opposite of four years ago, when Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra in his spine during a quarterfinal win over Colombia and Brazil completely fell apart without him, losing 7-1 at home to Germany in a gob-smacking result that still haunts the country’s psyche.
Reason to watch: The Swiss advanced to the round of 16 in Brazil four years ago and at Euro 2016 with rosters that weren’t all that ethnically Swiss: The rosters were filled with players who either were born in places such as the Balkans and Africa or had parents who emigrated from those areas. This year’s roster is a similar melting pot, with players born in the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Cameroon and Yugoslavia and others of Chilean, Spanish, Nigerian, Albanian, Kosovar Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese, South Sudanese and Zairian descent taking the field in recent qualifying. Keep close tabs on Xherdan Shaqiri, who was born in Kosovo. He’s the most exciting scoring threat for a team that isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut.
Reason to watch: The Ticos made a stunning run in Brazil four years ago, winning their group and taking the Netherlands to a shootout before falling in the quarterfinals. Most of that team is back, stability that’s rarely seen in World Cup soccer: Yahoo says between seven and nine of the 11 players who took the field against Holland could start this year’s group-stage opener. Of course, that also means that Costa Rica will be one of the oldest teams to take the field in Russia. Among the elder statesmen is 31-year-old goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has been the defensive backbone of Real Madrid’s run to three consecutive Champions League titles.
Reason to watch: There’s a distinct possibility that the Orlovi could be a mess. They won their European qualifying group with relative ease … and then promptly fired Slavoljub Muslin as manager. His replacement, Mladen Krstajic, will have all of six friendlies of coaching experience when Serbia takes the field against Costa Rica in its World Cup opener (he spent his immediate post-playing career running a hotel and a distillery). Like hated rival Croatia, the Serbs are most potent in the midfield, though likely starter Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (one of the top players for Italian club Lazio) has only two caps for his national team and will have to adjust with his partners — namely Nemanja Matic of Chelsea/Manchester United fame — on the fly.
Reason to watch: The defending World Cup champions haven’t finished worse than third at either the World Cup or the European Championship since a group-stage flameout at Euro 2004. They’ve reached the knockout round of every World Cup since 1978. So what, if anything, could halt the Germans’ stride toward yet another title? Well, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, likely the world’s best at that position, hasn’t played since September after breaking a bone in his foot. He reportedly has recovered well enough to take the field in Russia, but who knows how rusty he’ll be?
Reason to watch: The question about El Tri, as it always seems to be when this tournament rolls around, is whether it can advance past the round of 16, something it hasn’t done since 1986, when it did so in a World Cup it hosted. It fact, the only two times Mexico advanced to the quarterfinals came when it was playing on home soil. If our neighbors to the south are to finally break through, it likely will be on the foot of 22-year-old Hirving Lozano, who created quite the stir by scoring 17 goals in his first season with PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Whether his presence will be enough to compensate for a number of players who have been battling injury remains to be seen.
Reason to watch: Just about everyone is saying that Sweden is better off without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and now the Blue-Yellow have to go out and prove that. They certainly will struggle to do worse than they did with Ibrahimovic at Euro 2016, where they finished last in their group. Sweden will miss his creativity and could find scoring elusive, with only Emil Forsberg providing much in the way of danger to opposing defenses, and Forsberg faltered this season with Leipzig in Germany, registering only two goals and two assists.
Reason to watch: Only Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain have qualified for more consecutive World Cups than South Korea, which is making its ninth straight appearance. But the road to Russia this year wasn’t exactly pretty: South Korea won just four times in its 10 final-round Asian qualifiers, with all of those wins coming at home, and scored only one more goal than opponents that included the likes of powerhouses Syria, Uzbekistan, Qatar and China. On the bright side, there’s Son Heung-Min, who’s scored 30 goals for Tottenham Hotspur over the past three seasons. On the non-bright side, there’s just about everything else.
Reason to watch: They’re calling this the golden generation of Belgian soccer, this from a squad coming off a quarterfinal finish four years ago in Brazil. Hopes this year might be even higher for the Red Devils, who possess a bounty of riches with world-class stars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Jan Vertonghen. Now it’s up to Coach Roberto Martinez to meld all that talent into a cohesive unit, which might be more difficult than it sounds.
Reason to watch: History is not on the side of Los Canaleros: Of the seven CONCACAF teams to make their World Cup debuts since 1970, only one advanced out of the group stage (Costa Rica in 1990). Pair that with the two European powers and a not-horrible African side awaiting in group play, and Panama’s time in Russia is likely to be brief. With little in the way of offensive firepower, Panama prefers a rough physical game, running you over with the bus before parking it in front of the goal. That’s probably not going to cut it. Just witness the 6-0 and 1-0 losses to Switzerland and Denmark, respectively, in March friendlies.
Reason to watch: The Eagles of Carthage’s chances would have been decidedly less slim had Youssef Msakni been around to provide some scoring punch. But the team’s top goal threat tore knee ligaments while playing for his Qatari professional team in April and, well, that’ll be that. Wahbi Khazri, who spent last season with Rennes in France after a disappointing year with Sunderland in the Premier League, is now Tunisia’s best hopes for much of anything besides a win over Panama, which would be just the second World Cup victory in the team’s history.
Reason to watch: For whatever reason you want to throw out there — its players care more about the Premier League, their club seasons are too draining, etc. — England and its fans are more or less conditioned for World Cup disappointment these days. Four years ago, the Three Lions played only two meaningful group-stage games before they were eliminated from contention, and it’s been 28 years since they last got past the quarterfinals. But expectations might actually be too low this year, as England’s youthful athleticism combined with a somewhat beneficial draw — it doesn’t meet Belgium until the group-stage finale, so that game might not matter, and then would face a team from a not-scary Group H in the round of 16 — could lead to good if not great things.
Reason to watch: Of Poland’s 28 goals in its relative cake walk through European qualifying, a UEFA-high 16 came from striker Robert Lewandowski. For that reason and a few others, the Eagles may be harboring dreams of a return to the glory they found in 1974 and 1982, when they finished in third place. An aging defense is a concern, however: Poland gave up 14 goals, tying for 31st in Europe, in a qualifying group that, besides Denmark, featured some of the continents lesser lights (Montenegro, Romania, Armenia, Kazakhstan). Four of those goals came in a humbling 4-0 loss to the Danes in September.
Reason to watch: Aliou Cisse captained the Lions of Teranga to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals in their first-ever appearance in the tournament, shocking the world with a 1-0 win over defending champion France in their group-stage opener. Cisse is back again 16 years later, this time as coach of Senegal’s second-ever World Cup team, and he has a ton of Europe-proven talent at his disposal: Sadio Mane (coming off two standout seasons at Liverpool), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Keita Balde (Monaco). Whether Cisse can figure out the right combination of such players will be the main challenge.
Reason to watch: Even though Los Cafeteros were halted in the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil, James Rodriguez won the tournament’s Golden Boot award as its top goal scorer, finishing with six. Now Rodriguez, still only 26 years old, might be a good bet to win the award again after four years of elite-level seasoning at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. This time he’ll have Radamel Falcao on the field with him. Colombia’s all-time leading goal scorer missed the 2014 World Cup after tearing his ACL.
Reason to watch: The Blue Samurai are an aging team — it will be the third World Cup for a number of players on the roster — roiled by managerial turmoil, which is never a good combination. After a draw with Mali and a loss to Ukraine in March friendlies, Japan fired Manager Vahid Halilhodzic and replaced him with Akira Nishino, whose lone international experience is the 1996 Olympics (he did lead the team to an upset of Brazil). Early returns were not encouraging: Japan suffered a 2-0 loss to Ghana in Nishino’s first game at the helm on May 30.