Although it seems like soccer is at an all-time high in terms of popularity in the United States, the fandom couldn’t help the US Men’s National Team in the World Cup Qualifiers this year. The USMNT finished 5th out of 6 teams in the Hexagonal round of the CONCACAF 2018 World Cup Qualifiers, a finish that failed to qualify them for the 2018 World Cup. However difficult it may be to stomach, 32 other national teams will travel to Russia. But, who’s jersey should you wear as you watch for hours on end? What colors should you paint your face? Which team do you think will hoist the 2018 FIFA World Cup Trophy in Moscow?
Home Field Advantage
Russia is the host country for the 2018 World Cup. In the past, the World Cup has been won six times by the host country. The last host country winner was the French national team led by Zinedine Zidane in 1998. Since then, every host except South Africa in 2010, has made it to the semi-finals of that World Cup. Although Russia might not be the obvious pick, having home field advantage at every single game does mean a lot in soccer. Could it will the Russians to winning their first World Cup championship?
Mo Salah Effect
Mohamed Salah had a breakout season this year with Liverpool FC. He broke the record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season scoring 34 goals. In addition, he took Liverpool to their first UEFA Champions League final in 11 years. Furthermore, Mo Salah is one of the only reasons Egypt are even in the 2018 World Cup. In their final qualifier match, it was win or go home for Egypt. Salah scored a brace, including a match-winning penalty in the 90+4 minute. It’s safe to say Salah is a hero in the eyes of the Egyptian people. This season Salah has proven he can play at the level of the best in the business like Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo. It’d be irresponsible not to consider his team a threat in the 2018 World Cup.
With 7-2 odds to win the tournament. It would be safest to bet on Brazil. Brazil have everything to prove in the 2018 World Cup. Everyone remembers when Brazil got thumped at home 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals by Germany. Every member of that squad who is also traveling to Russia wants to erase that with a 2018 World Cup championship. With a more developed, experienced, and healthy team, Brazil certainly have what it takes to complete this goal. A seemingly healthy Neymar partnered with Phillipe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, and Roberto Firmino, Brazil may have the deadliest attack in the tournament.
Germany are the reigning champions coming into the 2018 World Cup. There is no lack of confidence in the German locker room either. Forward Thomas Muller claims that the 2018 team is “certainly better” than the 2014 team. The biggest difference in this year’s roster is the absence of recent retiree and German soccer legend, Phillip Lahm. Not everyone will know his name but everyone remembers his firecracker goal to open the 2006 World Cup. Although it’s unfortunate to know Lahm will not be playing in this year’s World Cup, it’s reassuring to know he has a great replacement, 23-year old Joshua Kimmich. Kimmich is coming off a great 2017-2018 season; he notched a team-high nine assists in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. So, with the new youth wave, Muller may be right—the 2018 team might be better.
Messi Deserves it
Lionel Messi will turn 31 during the 2018 World Cup. Messi still has not won a trophy for his home country Argentina. He has been runner-up three times in the Copa America and once in the World Cup.
This very well might be Messi’s years. He certainly has the most help he has ever had up front this time around. It seems like prodigy Paulo Dybala has finally blossomed into a reliable striker. Dybala scored 22 goals in the Serie A for Juventus this season. Argentinian faithful will hope Messi and Dybala can create something special in Russia this year.
Everyone Loves the Underdog(s)
There are many unfamiliar names in this year’s World Cup including Senegal, Tunisia, and Panama. Soccer fans know upsets and Cinderella stories are certainly possible in soccer. Just ask members of the 2016 Leicester City team. Don’t count these underdogs out of the World Cup. All of these teams are coming in with nothing to lose.