After 32 months and 872 games contested by 210 nations across six continents—not to mention Chile filing a protest that ultimately led to its elimination, some last-gasp hat-trick magic from Lionel Messi, Italy’s historic impotence in Milan, terrible tactics by the USA and, on Wednesday evening, the end of Peru’s long wait—we have our 2018 World Cup field. Thirty-two teams have booked their place in Russia next summer. They now await the draw on December 1 in Moscow.
There will be two debutants, Panama and Iceland, and Italy is the only former champion that failed to qualify. Peru’s 36-year drought is the longest, followed by Egypt’s wait of 28 years. Four of the six reigning continental champs—USA, Chile, Cameroon and New Zealand—will miss out. So will the Netherlands, the 2010 silver and 2014 bronze medalists.
The survivors will be placed into four pots based on their FIFA ranking. They’ll be drawn into eight groups of four teams, comprising one nation from each pot. Only European sides can be drawn with a confederation rival.
Russia is seeded because it’s the host, and that knocks 2010 winner Spain down to pot 2. There’s a 50/50 chance we’ll see Spain play Germany, France, Argentina or Brazil in the first round, and something close to a zero percent chance the other two teams in that potential quartet will be staying in Russia beyond the group stage.
The permutations obviously are almost endless, but it’s fun to pick through a few of the possibilities. Here are several.
The FIFA ranking group of death
At first glance it looks like the toughest potential group based only on the FIFA ranking would include No. 2 Brazil and No. 8 Spain, and then either No. 19 Denmark and No. 41 Nigeria or No. 22 Costa Rica and No. 38 Serbia, which ranks above only Russia among European participants.
Brazil and Spain met in the 2013 Confederations Cup final—a 3-0 win for the Seleção—and have played each other at five World Cups. The most recent meeting was back in 1986. The group-stage opener ended 1-0 in favor of Brazil.
A real group of death
Argentina is a talented and flawed team. We saw both sides during its qualification run. A genuine group of death needs big names, but no certainties. Argentina fits the bill as the top seed.
Joining them are the top teams in each of the next two spots, Spain and Denmark. Spain, as we’ve seen over the past seven years, can win it all or be the first team eliminated. Denmark’s potential was on display in this week’s demolition of Ireland. Rounding it out is Nigeria, which has players at many of the top European leagues and just beat Argentina on Tuesday.
This is a real group of death. Any team could advance, and any team could stumble and go home.
The bottom of the barrel group
And here’s the worst possible foursome according to the rankings. Russia is the seed everyone else will hope to draw. The hosts are ranked No. 65 in the world. They conceivably could be joined by No. 18 Croatia, No. 32 Senegal and No. 63 Saudi Arabia in a group that won’t excite many neutrals (and that Croatia would win in a walk).
The continental crown group
Germany has won the European Championship a record-tying three times and has appeared in a tournament-high six finals. Pot 2 teams Uruguay (15) and Mexico (10) lead the all-time title race on their respective continents. Egypt has won the most African Cup of Nations crowns (seven) and Japan leads Asia with four championships.
Uruguay edges Mexico on the tiebreaker, so this Confederations Cup tribute group comprises Die Mannschaft, La Celeste, the Pharaohs and the Samurai Blue.
The golden boot group
Robert Lewandowski (16), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (16), Edinson Cavani (10) and Mohamed Salah (5) each led their respective continents in World Cup qualifying goals (Salah and Al-Sahlawi tied for top spot). And they could lead their teams into the same group next summer.
The golden boot group features Lewandowski’s Poland, Cavani’s Uruguay, Salah’s Egypt and Al-Sahlawi’s Saudi Arabia.
It’s worth noting that none of the top 10 CONCACAF scorers will play in the World Cup. That unfortunate list includes Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. No one on Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama scored more than four goals in qualifying.
The drought's over group
A group comprising teams that have had the longest combined wait to play in a World Cup would be topped by Poland, which hasn’t qualified since 2006 and is the only seeded team ending a long wait. They’d be joined by Peru (first since 1982), Iceland and Panama. The latter two are making their maiden appearances.
The Real Madrid group
Members of the current club world champs (and they’ll be favored to repeat in December and hold the crown next summer) can reunite at a World Cup in Russia. It starts, obviously, with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric’s Croatia, Keylor Navas’s Costa Rica and defender Achraf Hakimi’s Morocco round out the foursome.
The Seattle Sounders group
We have to cheat a bit, but a group representing the current (and possible repeat) MLS champs is possible as well. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro, Sweden’s Gustav Svensson and Panama’s Román Torres all should see time in Russia. Toss in Germany—the native land of former coach Sigi Schmid and the ancestral homeland of current manager Brian Schmetzer—and you have an entertaining Cascadian quartet.
The build on Brazil group
Here’s a group featuring the team in each pot that had the best World Cup performance four years ago. They’ll be hoping for similar next summer. There’s the champion, Germany (pot 1), followed by quarterfinalist Colombia (pot 2), Cinderella quarterfinalist Costa Rica (pot 3) and round-of-16 loser Nigeria (pot 4).
The demographic overachievers group
It’s not about population. The top five most crowded countries in the world have a total of one World Cup semifinal appearance combined, and that was the USA’s run back in 1930 (Brazil ranks sixth, and they’ve done quite well. But the point stands).
Here’s a group with four smaller nations punching above their weight. It starts with Portugal, the European champion, two-time World Cup semifinalist and home to the reigning world player of the year that’s accomplished all that despite having just over 10 million people. Uruguay has won two World Cups and is a consistent producer of top talent with only 3.5 million. Iceland, with just 350,000 inhabitants, now is the least populous team to qualify for a World Cup. And Panama which has made great strides in recent years and become a CONCACAF contender, is the smallest pot 4 nation at around 4 million.
Memorable World Cup hosts group
Twelve countries traveling to Russia will have had the privilege of hosting a previous World Cup, and there are a bunch of ways those 12 could form a group next summer. So to narrow it down, we’ll go with tournaments that are remembered for transcendent individual performances and personalities.
Despite its industrial-strength talent production, France has won only one World Cup. And that title was inspired by the great Zinedine Zidane and came on home soil in 1998. Twelve years earlier, Diego Maradona staked his claim as the sport’s top player with his mesmerizing play in Mexico.
Sweden ’58 served as the planet’s introduction to Pelé. The 17-year-old scored six goals, including two in the final outside Stockholm. And although Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002, it was in Yokohama that Ronaldo escaped the shadow of his 1998 failure and struck twice to lift Brazil to a record fifth title.
American rivals group
The USA won’t be at the World Cup, but there still be rivals to root against if you’re so inclined. The hosts are an obvious choice as the seeded team. Joining the Russians are Mexico—the USA’s great soccer rival—as well long-time geopolitical nemesis and 1998 World Cup foe Iran, and 2026 World Cup bid counterpart Morocco.