The draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is December 1 from the Kremlin in Moscow. Soccer fans around the world will find out how the 32 nations that qualified for the most prestigious tournament in the sport will line up. Which nation has the easiest route to the knockout round? Which teams are in the dreaded “Group of Death”?
While those questions will be answered by the end of the draw, there is a litany of other storylines ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Portugal faces a ton of pressure to repeat its international success following its first major title at EURO 2016. Certainly no one has forgotten about Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s best player and finalist for the 2017 Ballon d’Or; he’s won three of the last four awards.
Should Portugal win and further establish its dominance on the world stage, A Selecção would be the first nation since neighboring Spain (who won the 2010 FIFA World Cup and EURO 2012) to win consecutive major titles.
Germany, the defending FIFA World Cup champion, is the odds-on favorite to retain its crown and hoist the trophy again. Die Mannschaft dominated qualification, going a perfect 10–0–0 (30 points) while outscoring opponents 43–4. Expectations are high for the Germans, led by Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos, and company, but if history is any indication, winning consecutive World Cup trophies is easier said than done. The feat has only been accomplished twice since the inaugural tournament in 1930: Italy (1934, 1938) and Brazil (1958, 1962).
Belgium continues to be one of the more puzzling teams in world soccer. The young-yet-experienced squad is littered with talent, including Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin De Bruyne, but the Belgians have yet to live up to expectations. The Red Devils lost 1–0 to 2014 World Cup runner-up Argentina in that summer’s quarterfinals and was upset by their 3–1 loss to Wales in the quarterfinals of EURO 2016. This will also be the nation’s first major tournament with former Wigan and Everton manager Roberto Martinez in charge.
Much has been made about the list of world-class nations and players who will miss out on the 2018 World Cup. The United States’ failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 has been deemed the biggest embarrassment in U.S. soccer history. Italy didn’t qualify for the tournament for the first time in 60 years, and there’s reports that the absence will cost the country in excess of €1 billion (£890 million). The wheels have been falling off for the Netherlands recently, failing to qualify for both EURO 2016 and 2018 World Cup. Led by Alexis Sánchez, Chile miss out on the tournament after a runner-up finish at the 2017 Confederations Cup and two consecutive wins at Copa América in 2015 and 2016.
Will fans from those proud nations be tuning in as neutral observers or be less interested without their own country involved? There’s also talk of U.S. Soccer wanting to start a tournament for those nations who didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
The Cinderella story of EURO 2016. Iceland, the smallest nation to ever qualify for a FIFA World Cup with a population of approximately 335,000, won over millions of viewers during its run at the European Championships. Iceland finished second in its group (based on goal differential) then beat England 2–1 in the Round of 16 before losing 5–2 to tournament host and runner-up France in the quarterfinals.
Iceland won its tricky FIFA World Cup qualifying group, finishing two points ahead of Croatia, who qualified via a playoff. Whether or not Iceland repeats or betters its run from last summer is yet to be seen, but the fans will be top notch as usual.
The largest storyline off the field involves the host nation. Already under intense scrutiny for bribery scandals, hooliganism, violence and racism, Russia is hoping the 2018 FIFA World Cup goes off without a hitch.
The lead up to the 2017 Confederations Cup wasn’t as smooth as the hosts would have hoped as the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg had problems ranging from worker deaths to fraud and rising cost. In an effort to prevent violence and hooliganism at World Cup matches, fans are required to register for and present FAN ID documentation to enter stadiums.