The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is finally here! But since October you have been sitting at home crying into your Christian Pulisic jersey and muttering "I believe that we will win" every time someone brings up world football's biggest stage. Never fear! Though it is a real shame that the USMNT won't be featuring at this summer's tournament, there are plenty of other equally dysfunctional teams to get behind.
Led by arguably the best player in the world in 2018 Mohamed Salah, Egypt will be many neutral's bandwagon team at this summer's tournament. Alongside Salah up front, they have a couple of other exciting talents-- mercurial striker Ahmed Hassan "Kouka" who had a terrific season for Braga in the Portuguese league, and Mahmoud Hassan "Trezequet" a 22 year old winger who's performances at Anderlecht this season have attracted the attention of some of Europe's top clubs. In addition to their young and prodigious front line, Egypt also have goalkeeper Essam El-Hadard who at the age of 45 will be the oldest player to ever feature at a World Cup tournament. The Egyptians are in a relatively kind group alongside hosts Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia, and if Salah is fit and firing they could certainly qualify for the second round.
As the smallest nation to ever qualify for the tournament, Iceland make their first ever World Cup appearance this summer in Russia. Under the guidance of former Dentist/U12 coach (not a typo) Heimir Hallgrímsson, Iceland have grown into one of Europe's most exciting teams to follow in the last 4 years. Their squad is stocked with seasoned internationals who ply their trade in some of Europe's top leagues, and they will be hoping to better their first every major tournament appearance from 2 years ago when they reached the Quarterfinals of Euro 2016. Much weight will be placed on the shoulders of Star Man Gylfi Sigurdsson who fans of the Premier League will know as a set piece specialist with an eye for a spectacular long-range strike. Keep an eye out also for Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson, a hardworking and technical wide man who's form this season is one of the main reasons why his club team Burnley surprised many by clinching a Europa League place.
Is there a better central midfield pairing in international football right now than Modric, Rakitic, and Kovacic? Croatia are without a doubt a dark horse for this summer's World Cup. They are solid from back to front-- Mandzukic will score goals, the midfield 3 will dominate possession, and if Lovren can perform like he did in the back half of last season for Liverpool, Croatia will be a very difficult team to beat. Croatia are in a deceptively tricky group with Iceland, Nigeria, and Argentina but they should get past the group stage, and with their quality could certainly go deep into the knockout stages of the tournament.
If the saying always the bridesmaid never the bride was a football team, it would be England. The perennial underachievers come into this tournament on the back of two woeful showings at their last two tournaments: they were the first team eliminated from the World Cup after 2 losses in their first 2 group games in 2014, and then suffered a humiliating exit at the hands of Iceland in the Euro 2016 Quarterfinals. This England team though is full of youthful exuberance, and the players (as of yet) don't seem quite as weighed down by their jerseys as previous generations have. Unlike many of his predecessors, manager Gareth Southgate seems to have a system and style of play in mind, and he is picking the team on form and not on reputation. With the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Dele Alli in the squad, England will no doubt be a threat going forward, but it's their defense that leaves a little to be desired, and will struggle against top caliber opposition should they progress in the tournament.
Messi. Messi. Messi. That's all you really need to know about Argentina. This may be the nearly 31-year old's last ever World Cup, and wouldn't it just be great to see him shut up all those who deny him being called the GOAT because he hasn't won a World Cup (yet). From top to bottom, this is one of the weakest Argentinian squads in recent history, but they can take solace in the fact that their strike force of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala scored 79 goals between them for their clubs this past season. This really is all about Messi though. Can the world's best drag his country to a first World Cup victory since 1986 (when an equally depleted Argentina rallied behind the brilliant Maradona)? It would be unwise to bet against the GOAT.
After a 36 year absence, Peru are back in the big time. The final team to clinch a place at this summer's tournament via a dreaded World Cup playoff against New Zealand, Peru declared the day after the match a national holiday such was the excitement in the aftermath of their qualification. The build-up to this summer's tournament has been far from easy for Peru. It was widely expected that captain and all-time top scorer Paolo Guerrero would miss the World Cup after he tested positive for benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine) last fall. However, recently a Swiss court agreed to lift his 14-month ban while his appeal is considered, clearing him to play for his country this summer. In addition to Guerrero, Peru have Jefferson Farfan-- another veteran forward who Bundesliga fans may remember from the 7 years he spent at Schalke. The Peruvians find themselves in a tough group with France, Australia, and Denmark, but every match will be treated like a final back home, and if they progress beyond the group stage, who knows where that momentum and support could take them.