How did they qualify? Automatically, as the host. Russia's form over the last two years, though, has been patchy: the occasional creditable result, like a draw ...
Best World Cup Fourth place, as the Soviet Union (1966); as Russia, it has never advanced out of the group stage in three tries
How did they qualify? Automatically, as the host. Russia’s form over the last two years, though, has been patchy: the occasional creditable result, like a draw against Spain, but sapping setbacks, too, including a heavy defeat against Ivory Coast and a disappointing display in the Confederations Cup.
What can we expect? There is a genuine fear in Russia that, whether or not the World Cup as a whole is a success, on the field it might become only the second host nation — joining South Africa in 2010 — to be eliminated in the group stage.
Who’s the star? Only Alan Dzagoev, a mercurial playmaker with CSKA Moscow, gives Russia any creativity, but much will depend on the form of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
What would success look like? On home soil, with so much financial and political capital invested in the tournament, the team has to make the knockout round.
Luis SuarezCreditChina Network/ReutersURUGUAY
Best World Cup Winner (1930, 1950)
How did they qualify? Óscar Tabárez’s team managed to avoid the worst of the mayhem in South American qualifying, securing a place with a game to spare, thanks largely to a formidable home record in Montevideo.
What can we expect? Uruguay’s inherent characteristics have not changed since it finished fourth in South Africa in 2010: a tough-as-teak defense; an energetic, aggressive midfield; and genuine class in attack, in the form of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. The issue is whether time is catching up with them all.
Who’s the star? Suárez will presumably be hoping for a rather happier ending in Russia than the ignominious ones he had in Brazil (where he was barred after biting an opponent) or South Africa (where a red card brought a win but also worldwide scorn).
What would success look like? The quarterfinals would be reasonable; if Suárez, Cavani and Godín are in form, a little further is not impossible.
Best World Cup Group stage (1990)
How did they qualify? In suitably dramatic fashion, given that Egypt — a serial African champion this century — had not qualified for a World Cup since 1990. Mohamed Salah’s injury-time penalty against Congo in Alexandria sent the nation into a frenzy.
What can we expect? Egypt’s coach, the Argentine Héctor Cúper, built his reputation with a safety-first style, but the team will be worth watching solely because of Salah, the star of Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final. The shoulder injury that forced him from that game early has his entire nation on edge.
Who’s the star? No question about that: Salah is a national hero in Egypt, his face a daily sight everywhere one goes in Cairo. A good World Cup and he could even win the Ballon D’Or.
What would success look like? A kind draw and an unstoppable Salah should mean Egypt makes the last 16.
Mohammed AlsahlawiCreditDavid Rogers/Getty ImagesSAUDI ARABIA
Best World Cup Round of 16 (1994)
How did they qualify? In a tight group, Saudi Arabia edged Australia on goal difference to qualify automatically. It came at a cost, however: Two managers, Bert van Marwijk and Edgardo Bauza, were fired during the campaign. Another Argentine, Juan Antonio Pizzi, has taken over.
What can we expect? Pizzi’s hire is something of a coup; he won the Copa América Centenario with Chile in 2016. But his resources are thin: the Saudi authorities had to arrange a host of loans with Spanish clubs to try to get some of their players European experience. It did not work.
Who’s the star? Mohammad al-Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualifying, making him the joint top scorer worldwide in the 2018 cycle. He now has 28 goals in 33 international appearances.
What would success look like? Returning to the tournament after a 12-year absence should, really, be enough.
Cristiano RonaldoCreditSalvatore Di Nolfi/EPA, via ShutterstockPORTUGAL
Best World Cup Third place (1966)
How did they qualify? The reigning European champion, Portugal somehow managed to win 9 of 10 qualifying games and only just squeeze into an automatic slot, slightly ahead of an equally efficient Switzerland.
What can we expect? A similar formula to the one that brought Fernando Santos’s team such success in Euro 2016: effective, rather than aesthetically pleasing; technically accomplished, if a little unexciting; and with one rather eye-catching superstar.
Who’s the star? Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously, and don’t you forget it.
What would success look like? After what happened at the Euros in France last year, Portugal’s durability should not be underestimated. They may not be pretty, but they can be very effective.
Best World Cup Winner (2010)
How did they qualify? In some style: Spain’s 3-0 win against Italy in qualifying was probably the most instructive result any of the major contenders recorded on the way to Russia. Under Julen Lopetegui, Spain seems to have rediscovered the panache that made it the best team in the world between 2008 and 2012.
What can we expect? The same bewitching blend of incisive passing, controlled tempo and technical ability that made Spain a world champion eight years ago, all arraigned behind the battering ram of Diego Costa.
Who’s the star? The old guard of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets will be crucial, but success will depend on the creative spark of the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Saúl Ñíguez.
What would success look like? Spain has the talent to regain its world title, but the true tests will come outside this group.
Sardar AzmounCreditORG XMIT: 696415983IRAN
Best World Cup Group stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
How did they qualify? Efficiently. Under Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese coach who was once in charge of Real Madrid, Iran played 10 games, scored 10 goals, did not concede any, and was one of the first nations to book its place in the finals.
What can we expect? Iran will be disciplined, intelligent and — given that so many of its players remain at home — might surprise new viewers with its technical ability. It seems a stretch, though, to suggest that Team Melli, as Iran’s squad is known, will be exciting.
Who’s the star? The striker Sardar Azmoun, now of Russia’s Rubin Kazan, is known (not entirely logically) as the Iranian Messi. He will be asked to carry the team’s scoring load, such as it is.
What would success look like? Scoring twice in one game would be welcome; picking up a win in the group stage would be even better.
Mehdi BenatiaCreditORG XMIT: 775094768MOROCCO
Best World Cup Round of 16 (1986)
How did they qualify? The Atlas Lions made the finals for the first time in 20 years in style, winning a group that included the Ivory Coast without losing a game or conceding a goal.
What can we expect? Morocco’s serene progress through qualifying will have bolstered the reputation of Hervé Renard, the team’s itinerant French coach. The squad is packed with creative midfield players, but its strength is its defense. Even illustrious opponents may find the Moroccans frustrating.
Who’s the star? Medhi Benatia, the Juventus central defender, is the team’s captain and linchpin.
What would success look like? The draw did not help Morocco’s cause, but catching Portugal cold could mean a place in the last 16.
Paul PogbaCreditFranck Fife/Agence France-PresseFRANCE
Best World Cup Winner (1998)
How did they qualify? In the end, quite serenely, though there were a couple blips along the way: a defeat in Sweden and, most notably, a scoreless tie at home against Luxembourg.
What can we expect? A surprisingly difficult question to answer. On paper, France is the equal of the main contenders to win the competition. On the field, Les Bleus have a habit of not quite appearing the sum of their parts, and so remain a rung below Germany, Spain and Brazil.
Who’s the star? This could be the tournament in which one, or both, of Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé establish themselves as truly global stars.
What would success look like? France could, and possibly should, win the World Cup, but doubts linger over the coach, Didier Deschamps, and his ability to get the most out of his considerable resources.
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (1970)
How did they qualify? Condemned to fifth place, and a playoff spot, on a dramatic final day of South American qualifying, Peru clinched a place at the World Cup finals for the first time in 36 years with a relatively straightforward victory against New Zealand.
What can we expect? It’s hard to say: No one on the roster has even seen Peru play in a World Cup. But the team was a surprise at the Copa América in both 2015 and 2016, so the only fear might be that it peaked a little early.
Who’s the star? The on-again, off-again status of Paolo Guerrero — barred for failing a drug test and then reinstated — consumed Peru. His return, while a joyous occasion, puts the attacking burden squarely on his shoulders.
What would success look like? Getting out of the group would be a cause for celebration.
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (1998)
How did they qualify? Beaten into second place in their UEFA group by Poland, Denmark trounced Ireland by 5-1 in Dublin to secure a pass to Russia.
What can we expect? That depends, to a large extent, on how Christian Eriksen — the scorer of a wonderful hat trick against the Irish and his country’s only genuine star — plays. There is plenty of up-and-coming talent around him, notably Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen, but it is up to Eriksen to make it shine.
Who’s the star? Eriksen, vastly experienced at just 26, and finally being recognized as one of Europe’s finest playmakers.
What would success look like? Beating Peru and Australia to a place in the last 16 will be the target.
Aaron MooyCreditMark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesAUSTRALIA
Best World Cup Round of 16 (2006)
How did they qualify? A series of disappointing draws effectively ended Australia’s hopes of automatic qualification, and a place in Russia was secured only after playoff victories against Syria and Honduras.
What can we expect? The appointment of Bert van Marwijk, who guided the Netherlands to the 2010 final, speaks volumes: Australia does not have a rich pool of talented players, so it will rely instead on organization, industriousness and Tim Cahill’s head.
Who’s the star? This team lacks the star quality of previous incarnations, but Aaron Mooy, central to Huddersfield’s Premier League survival, is bright and inventive, while the uncapped Daniel Arzani is the country’s great hope.
What would success look like? Expectations are low, but the draw means they might yet get out of the group, and with any luck recreate Cahill’s screamer of a goal in Brazil. That would qualify as a good tournament.
Lionel MessiCreditAlfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesARGENTINA
Best World Cup Winner (1978, 1986)
How did they qualify? Nervously. There was a very real prospect that Lionel Messi — who briefly retired from international soccer last year — would miss the World Cup, until the last qualifying game when his hat trick at Ecuador ensured Argentina’s place.
What can we expect? Melodrama and disappointment, if qualifying is any guide; a wonderful attack and a porous defense, from a glance at the squad; and a genuine contender to win the tournament, if Coach Jorge Sampaoli can mold the team in his image.
Who’s the star? Everyone, apart from the nation of Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo, would have been a little sadder if Messi had missed out.
What would success look like? The presence of Messi alone will encourage Argentina to believe it could win the title, but Germany, Spain and Brazil all have a greater claim.
Best World Cup Third place (1998)
How did they qualify? Narrowly beaten to an automatic slot by Iceland, Croatia was a comfortable victor against Greece in a European playoff.
What can we expect? Croatia will be a popular selection when people are asked for their dark horses to win the tournament, based on the undoubted individual talent in the squad. The question, as ever, is whether Coach Zlatko Dalic is of the same quality as his players.
Who’s the star? Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is the heartbeat and the brain of this team; if he is on, Croatia will be a threat to beat anyone.
What would success look like? Croatia will expect to get out of the group, though it will not be easy, and would pose most teams problems in the last 16.
Best World Cup This is Iceland’s first World Cup.
How did they qualify? As if becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the European Championship was not enough, Iceland now can claim to be the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup. If anything, the latter was more impressive, since winning a group that contained Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey was no mean feat.
What can we expect? Indomitable team spirit and the thunderclap. The challenge for Iceland, now, is that no one will underestimate its team this time.
Who’s the star? Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is Iceland’s most recognizable face, but the team’s run in Euro 2016 proved that its strength is in the collective.
What would success look like? Iceland will see no reason at all to believe it cannot make the knockout rounds, as it did in Euro 2016.
Wilfred NdidiCreditMatt Dunham/Associated Press
Best World Cup Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
How did they qualify? The first African team to seal a place in Russia, the Super Eagles, the continent’s unpredictable powerhouse, are in one of their sporadic good moments under the experienced (and well-traveled) German coach Gernot Rohr.
What can we expect? A victory against Argentina in November will have highlighted that Nigeria has the firepower in attack and the strength in midfield to pose a problem even for the favorites.
Who’s the star? Nigeria’s team will be built around the experienced John Obi Mikel, but Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi could make a substantial impact.
What would success look like? The quarterfinals looked like a stretch from the start, but now just getting out of the group stage could be tough.
NeymarCreditCelso Junior/Getty ImagesBRAZIL
Best World Cup Winner (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
How did they qualify? With ease, eventually: Brazil was languishing in sixth place in South American qualifying when it fired Dunga, its previous coach, and replaced him with Tite. The turnaround was astonishing. Brazil went unbeaten after the change, and finished 10 points clear of a late fight for the continent’s other places.
What can we expect? In theory, a team that strikes a balance between South American style and European tactical understanding, topped off by an electric attacking trio. A friendly win in Germany in March suggested this is a team that can take on the European elite.
Who’s the star? Tite might have removed the burden of the captaincy from him — a bid to emphasize the importance of a team ethic — but, come on, it’s Neymar.
What would success look like? A World Cup is not successful for Brazil unless it ends in a parade through Rio de Janeiro.
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
How did they qualify? Unfortunate not to earn an automatic place — Switzerland finished tied with Portugal but fell into a playoff on goal difference — the Swiss were extremely fortunate to be given a controversial penalty in their subsequent playoff against Northern Ireland.
What can we expect? Switzerland has developed a habit of qualifying for major tournaments, emerging from the group stage, and then being knocked out in a mind-numbingly dull game.
Who’s the star? Ricardo Rodríguez, A.C. Milan’s buccaneering, free-kick-scoring left back.
What would success look like? Reaching the round of 16 would be considered par, and anything beyond that an excellent campaign.
Keylor NavasCreditLee Smith/Reuters
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (2014)
How did they qualify? The Ticos secured a place in Russia with a game to spare, having beaten the United States home and away.
What can we expect? An increasingly professionalized and confident team, with more than a dozen players now employed by clubs abroad.
Who’s the star? Keylor Navas, the Real Madrid goalkeeper, is the most high-profile member of the squad and arguably its only truly world-class performer.
What would success look like? Reaching the quarterfinals seems impossible, but then that was the case in 2014, too.
Best World Cup Semifinals, as Yugoslavia (1930, 1962); as Serbia, it reached the group stage in 2010
How did they qualify? By escaping a delicately poised qualification group that included Wales, Austria and Ireland. Despite that success, Serbia fired its manager, Slavoljub Muslin, soon afterward anyway.
What can we expect? Serbia has an abundance of gritty defenders, experienced midfielders and a bright young generation coming through, but a shortage of high-caliber attacking players may blunt its edge. Much will depend on the fiery Aleksandar Mitrovic and the journeyman Aleksandar Prijovic.
Who’s the star? The Premier League veterans Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic provide the backbone of the team, but Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, 22, adds an otherwise absent dash of style.
What would success look like? Serbia was the best of the Pot 4 teams at the draw, and this group could make the knockout rounds a possibility.
Tony KroosCreditPatrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesGERMANY
Best World Cup Winner (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
How did they qualify? As always, with such ease that it almost renders the whole process pointless: 10 games, 10 wins.
What can we expect? It’s not just the number of high-caliber players that Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, can call on that’s fearsome; it is also the flexibility they offer. Löw has experimented with a three-man defense, as well as a system with no recognized striker, in recent games.
Who’s the star? Unlike Brazil or Argentina, there is no irreplaceable individual — Germany has too many options to be reliant on any one player — but Toni Kroos comes close.
What would success look like? Löw and his team are well aware that Germany is expected to become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
Hector MorenoCreditRichard Rodriguez/Getty ImagesMEXICO
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
How did they qualify? El Tri only lost once, in its final game. The result helped eliminate the United States.
What can we expect? A vibrant attacking team and a body-on-the-line defensive one that will, however they do, probably fail to live up to the standards demanded by the insatiable Mexican news media.
Who’s the star? With Javier Hernández toiling at struggling West Ham, Real Sociedad’s experienced defender Héctor Moreno probably has surpassed him as Mexico’s most accomplished performer.
What would success look like? Certainly escaping the group. The chances of breaking the hoodoo of being eliminated in the round of 16, though, will depend on the opponent. The bad news is that opponent might be Brazil.
Emil ForsbergCreditNils Petter Nilsson/Getty ImagesSWEDEN
Best World Cup Second place (1958)
How did they qualify? As the creators and beneficiaries of an Italian national crisis. Sweden’s 1-0 win in Stockholm, and a tortuous scoreless draw in Milan — both the products of organization, grit and determination — ensured Italy missed out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
What can we expect? It does not matter, because Zlatan Ibrahimovic has already made it clear that any tournament that he is not in is not worth watching. He’s decided against coming out of retirement to go to Russia, so we may as well cancel the whole thing.
Who’s the star? Now that there definitely won’t be any Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s best player is the creative midfielder Emil Forsberg, of Germany’s RB Leipzig.
What would success look like? Doing well enough that even Ibrahimovic is tempted to switch on the television.
Son Heung-MinCreditKacper Pempel/ReutersSOUTH KOREA
Best World Cup Semifinals (2002)
How did they qualify? South Korea has been to every World Cup since 1986 and tends to be Asia’s most consistent entrant, but it stumbled to Russia. Coach Uli Stielike was fired midway through qualifying after the team lost to Qatar, and South Korea only narrowly beat back competition from Syria with ties in its last two games.
What can we expect? Should the Koreans find a little form — recent friendlies, despite a 2-1 win against Colombia, have been inconclusive — they are a neat, attractive side, with just enough stardust to prove decisive.
Who’s the star? Son Heung-min, the multipurpose Tottenham forward, is the man most fans will know.
What would success look like? Given the way South Korea qualified, a respectable showing in the group stage may be the ceiling.
Best World Cup Semifinals (1986)
How did they qualify? One of the first European nations to book its place in Russia, Belgium was handed a comparatively kind qualifying group and promptly sailed through it, dropping only 2 points.
What can we expect? On paper, Belgium has everything it might need to succeed: a tight defense, a talented midfield, prolific strikers and, in Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens, the sort of players who can win games on their own. The issue is whether Roberto Martínez, the team’s Spanish coach, can bring his rich resources together.
Who’s the star? Kevin De Bruyne has quietly become one of the best players in Europe, but Belgium is at its best when Hazard is at his best.
What would success look like? In 2014, the feeling was that a place in the quarterfinals would be acceptable. Now, it might be a bit of a disappointment.
Harry KaneCreditClive Rose/Getty ImagesENGLAND
Best World Cup Winner (1966)
How did they qualify? Despite losing its manager, Sam Allardyce, in a newspaper sting early on in qualifying, England regrouped under the more understated Gareth Southgate and qualified easily from a straightforward group, without ever really convincing.
What can we expect? Nobody is quite sure, which has made the whole thing feel somewhat fresher than in recent years. Southgate has named a young, relatively inexperienced squad, with an emphasis on calling up players capable of playing in different systems and styles.
Who’s the star? Harry Kane has scored 30 Premier League goals in each of the last three seasons. He is England’s irreplaceable player.
What would success look like? A reasonable nation, looking at the bigger picture, would say the quarterfinals. England may not fit that description.
Wahbi KhazriCreditGetty ImagesTUNISIA
Best World Cup Group stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
How did they qualify? Tunisia finished the final stage of African qualification unbeaten.
What can we expect? Tunisia is the least familiar of all of the African qualifiers — the majority of its squad plays domestically or for second-tier clubs in Europe — and it is recovering after a difficult decade. Still, midfielder Wahbi Khazri, one of a handful of Tunisians who play in Europe, has suggested the team should not be going to Russia simply as cannon fodder, and surviving a tight qualification campaign should infuse the Tunisians with confidence.
Who’s the star? In a squad light on European experience, Marseille defender Aymen Abdennour is the most seasoned pro.
What would success look like? Tunisia needed a fortunate draw to make the knockout stages for the first time. This isn’t it.
Roman TorresCreditFabrice Coffrini/Agence France-PressePANAMA
Best World Cup This is Panama’s first World Cup.
How did they qualify? Few teams had such a dramatic, emotional road to Russia. Panama qualified on a tense final day in Concacaf; Roman Torres’s winning goal against Costa Rica was rewarded with a national holiday as celebration.
What can we expect? No team will be as unfamiliar to a worldwide audience as Panama, with a squad largely drawn from its own league as well as Major League Soccer. Panama’s qualification was painted as a collective success for a team devoid of individual stars; that, combined with the sheer delight at being in Russia, could make Panama dangerous.
Who’s the star? It’s hard to single one out, but Torres, the linebacker-sized Seattle Sounders defender, has the potential to be a cult hero.
What would success look like? Merely having a place in Russia already counts as a noteworthy success.
Robert LewandowskiCreditJanek Skarzynski/Agence France-PressePOLAND
Best World Cup Third place (1974, 1982)
How did they qualify? Thanks in no small part to the endless supply of goals from Robert Lewandowski, Poland eased through a group containing Denmark, Montenegro and Romania.
What can we expect? Russia aside, Poland has the look of the weakest top seed. It should not, however, be underestimated: Coach Adam Nawalka has no shortage of proven talent at his disposal, though there is, perhaps, a sense that this generation is now a little past its peak.
Who’s the star? Poland has an abundance of good-but-unspectacular professionals, but it is Lewandowski that sets the team alight.
What would success look like? Having spent so long gaming FIFA’s rankings system to ensure a top seeding, it would be a waste if Poland did not make the quarterfinals.
Radamel FalcaoCreditTim Ireland/Associated PressCOLOMBIA
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (2014)
How did they qualify? José Pékerman’s team sneaked in to South America’s fourth and final qualification slot in the general chaos of the last round of games in October.
What can we expect? The team that was adopted by so many neutrals for its flamboyance in 2014 seems a little paler now, not quite as captivating. Pékerman’s job has been in doubt at times; James Rodríguez, the symbol of the last World Cup, has lost his way a little. There is still more than enough talent, though; Pékerman, likely coaching in his last tournament, must find a way to harness it.
Who’s the star? Radamel Falcao’s toils with injury dominated the buildup to 2014, and despite a frantic attempt to recover from an A.C.L. tear, he eventually missed the tournament. Rejuvenated at Monaco, he will see this as a chance to make amends.
What would success look like? A repeat of the quarterfinal performance of 2014 may be the best that Colombia can realistically achieve.
Sadio ManeCreditCharly Triballeau/Agence France-PresseSENEGAL
Best World Cup Quarterfinals (2002)
How did they qualify? Unbeaten, but not without controversy: Senegal’s defeat against South Africa was overturned after the match’s referee, Joseph Lamptey, was barred for life for “match manipulation.” Senegal won the replay, and eventually reached Russia comfortably.
What can we expect? Possibly the strongest of the African qualifiers. In Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal has one of Europe’s best defenders; in Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate, a combative midfield; and in Sadio Mané and Keita Balde, two gifted match-winners.
Who’s the star? At his best, Mané would pose a threat to pretty much any team in the tournament.
What would success look like? If results break right, a place in the final 16 is within reach.
Shinji KagawaCreditORG XMIT: 159315656JAPAN
Best World Cup Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
How did they qualify? Japan’s presence at the World Cup is now almost a given: by winning a group that contained Australia and Saudi Arabia, the team secured a place at its sixth successive finals.
What can we expect? Sadly for Japan, all too many of those appearances have followed the same pattern: creditable performances, but a slight lack of quality that tends to mean an exit at the group stage. Dropping Manager Vahid Halilhodzic after qualification is hardly the perfect start for breaking that cycle.
Who’s the star? In a team with plenty of experience in Europe’s top leagues, Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa is the most proven performer.
What would success look like? As ever, Japan will be hoping to get out of the group stage.
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