- Now that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is over, it's time to size up the field. Here's a first look at how the contenders in Russia stack up ahead of the Dec. 1 draw in Moscow, when we'll learn each team's path to the trophy.
With the field of the 32 nations who will compete at the World Cup in Russia next summer completed by Peru's success in Lima Wednesday night, there's little time to waste in ranking the sides headed to the showcase event by making an initial assessment of their form.
Sure, there is plenty left to be decided. Which nations have managerial issues to resolve? Who knows what their starting lineup is likely to be? Who is praying for their key center forward to stay fit? Everything, of course, could change with the answers to those questions and the fallout from the group draw on Dec. 1, but, with all else being equal, who are the likely winners and who's just glad to going to Russia? Here's how we see the World Cup field stacking up:
Six games into qualifying, Brazil had won only twice and looked in serious danger of failing to qualify. Going out of the Copa America Centenario in the group stage confirmed the moribund state of the Brazilian game. But then Tite replaced Dunga as manager, and the whole set-up changed. This Brazil plays modern, aggressive football, is far less reliant on Neymar and won 10 and drew two of its final 12 games to qualify, a full 10 points clear at the top of the CONMEBOL table.
Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Eliminated in the group stage in the last World Cup and then beaten by Italy in the last 16 of Euro 2016, the curtain seemed to have come down on the golden age of Spanish football. But after replacing Vicente Del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui has rejuvenated the side. Its 3-0 win over Italy in qualifying offered a clear warning that Spain is back.
Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Germany disappointed at Euro 2016, never really hitting top form and being well-beaten by France in the semifinal. Since then, though, it has qualified for the World Cup with a perfect 10-0-0 record and won the Confederations Cup with what was, in effect, a reserve side. Manager Jogi Low has used 36 players over the past two years, which for another manager might be a sign of chaos; for him it’s an indicator of strength.
Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
This is a ridiculously gifted generation of French players who really should have won the Euros on home soil last summer. The sense, though, is that Didier Deschamps is not necessarily the man to get the best out if them, and the 4-4-2 he has adopted of late seems a weirdly blockish solution that leads to predictability.
Best Finish: Champions (1998)
Now that it has been relieved of the handicap of Marc Wilmots, can Belgium’s golden generation make good on its promise? Under Roberto Martinez, Belgium qualified with ease, dropping only two points. Kevin De Bruyne has thrived in a slightly deeper role, but the question, as ever with Martinez, is whether the side will be able to cope defensively against better opposition. De Bruyne has already questioned Martinez's tactics.
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualification was traumatic, but with the dust settled, Argentina remains in a strong position. For all the doubts about players coming through, this remains a strong squad, overloaded with gifted forwards and, by appointing Jorge Sampaoli, it did, at the third attempt, get the right manager. Lionel Messi’s (probable) final chance at a World Cup may be the one he takes.
Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
Portugal is the European champion and breezed through qualification by winning nine games in a row after losing the opener in Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo gives the goal-scoring edge, but its real strength is in the solidity of the midfield.
Best Finish: Third Place (1966)
The stereotype of Uruguay is of defensive resolve, stifling tactics and a pragmatism that can tip into cynicism. This side, though, had the second-best scoring record in South American World Cup qualifying and looks to take full advantage of the abilities of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)
A mood of persistent frustration hangs over England, so much so that the general reaction to its unbeaten qualification was a collective yawn about the way the Three Lions had trudged through a less-than-testing group. Harry Kane and a highly gifted emerging generation, though, offer some hope.
Best Finish: Champions (1966)
If football were just about players, Croatia would never have needed a playoff to qualify. It may lack a defensive midfielder but has a great wealth of creators. But with hardcore fans at war with the federation, which belatedly replaced their manager Ante Cacic, Croatia was underachieving desperately until Zlatko Dalic took over. He secured the win Croatia needed against Ukraine in the final qualifier, and the side then cruised through its playoff against Greece, winning 4-1.
Best Finish: Third Place (1998)
James Rodriguez was the breakout star of the last World Cup, and there is a sense that he has perhaps stagnated thanks to the glut of talent at Real Madrid. If he can rediscover his form at Bayern Munich, though, and with Radamel Falcao enjoying a late-career renaissance, Jose Pekerman’s side could be a threat.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
The Swiss qualified thanks to a very dodgy penalty in the playoff against Northern Ireland, and struggled to impose themselves in that series, but Vladimir Petkovic’s well-balanced side won all of its first nine qualifiers and has, in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner, a pair of excellent attacking fullbacks.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Poland is ranked sixth in the world, which is evidence of just how much impact the trick of not playing friendlies can be. This, after all, is a side that in September lost 4-0 to Denmark. But it is generally solid and has, in Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world.
Best Finish: Third Place (1974, 1982)
Only one host nation has ever failed to make it through the group stage of a World Cup, but Russia could be the second. The gifted generation that reached the semifinal of Euro 2008 grew old together and Stanislav Cherchesov has struggled to rejuvenate a squad that is heavily reliant on Alan Dzagoev for creativity.
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1966)
Juan Carlos Osorio is a controversial figure, with many feeling he rotates too often and question his hard-pressing. His players, though, seem generally enthused, and Mexico finished top of CONCACAF qualifying as well as getting out of their group at the Confederations Cup. After eliminations at the round of 16 in the last six World Cups, Osorio's first target must be set on reaching the quarterfinals.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
After eliminating England to reach the quarterfinal of the Euros last summer, Iceland kicked on to become, by some distance, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, finishing top of an awkward group that also included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the highest-profile player, but no side will have such a ferocious team spirit.
Best Finish: N/A
Denmark may have required a playoff to qualify, but that was because of results early in qualifying. More recently, the Danes put four past Poland and Montenegro and five past Ireland. Their Norwegian coach, Age Hareide, favors a direct approach and has made them defensively solid, but they also have the technical quality to unpick sides.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1998)
Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Iran for six years now. His side qualified unbeaten, letting in just two goals in 10 games in the final group, and can be relied upon to play in the characteristic Quieroz way, full of neat, technical, risk-averse football.
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Inconsistency and underachievement have characterized Nigerian football over the past decade. The Super Eagles have failed to qualify for three of the last four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments but won the one they did get to. Under Gernot Rohr, though, there is a sense of renewal, and they ended up topping a brutally tough qualifying group with relative comfort. A 4-2 friendly victory over a (Messi-less) Argentina this week was hugely impressive.
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
The Swedes dug deep and held firm to beat Italy over two legs and seem to have improved as a team since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Memories of their dismal Euro 2016 lurk in the background, and there is a lack of obvious creativity, but this is a side that also beat France in qualifying.
Best Finish: Runner-up (1958)
Herve Renard’s record as an international coach is remarkable. He’s the only man to win the Cup of Nations with two different sides (Zambia, Ivory Coast) and he’s now taken Morocco to its first World Cup since 1998, coming out on top of a group that included Ivory Coast–without conceding a goal.
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
There is an awkward sense about Japanese football that it has plateaued. The Samurai Blue finished top of their qualifying group and have an experienced coach in Vahid Halilhodzic, but, having been knocked out of the 2015 Asian Cup in the quarterfinals, there’s no reason to believe they’ll improve on their habit of alternating between group stage and last 16 exits.
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
No side that finished top of its group in European qualifying collected fewer points than Serbia. This is a talented group, particularly in midfield, but the specter of past disintegrations at tournaments haunts them, and the chances of another potential collapse were only increased when Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach after qualifying essentially because his football had been insufficiently exciting.
Best Finish: Group Stage (2010)
This is Egypt’s first World Cup since 1990, but it won a hat trick of Cups of Nations between 2006 and 2010. Having failed to make the following three Cups of Nations, the Pharaohs returned to the tournament this year and showed all the familiar defensive qualities, augmented by the pace of Mohamed Salah on the break, to reach the final.
Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)
Senegal qualified unbeaten at the top of an awkward group that included Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa. The Lions of Teranga have pace and attacking flair on the flanks with Sadio Mane and Keita Balde and solidity in midfield with Idrissa Gueye. They disappointed at the Cup of Nations, though, eliminated in the quarterfinal by Cameroon.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2002)
26. SOUTH KOREA
South Korea struggled to second in its qualifying group, behind Iran, losing three of its 10 games. The squad should be better than that, though, as it features the likes of Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Lee Chung-yong (Crystal Palace) and Ji Dong-won (Augsburg).
Best Finish: Fourth Place (2002)
Peru is ranked 10th in the world, which is another lesson about the benefit of not playing friendlies. Ricardo Gareca’s side is well-organized and has impressed in recent tournaments, reaching the semifinal of the Copa America in 2015 and losing on penalties in the quarterfinal of the Copa America Centenario a year later. If Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban is confirmed and extended through the summer, though, it will be desperately short of firepower.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970)
28. COSTA RICA
Reaching the last eight four years ago looks like being the summit for a generation. Costa Rica has regressed since then, as a number of key players have aged. The Ticos finished second behind Mexico but managed just two wins away from home in the hexagonal.
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
A 2-1 win over DR Congo in September effectively sealed Tunisia’s place in Russia, but it will go there with limited ambition after a hugely disappointing Cup of Nations in which it was eliminated by Burkina Faso in the quarterfinal. That led–eventually–to the departure of manager Henryk Kasperczak and his replacement, Nabil Maaloul.
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Ange Postecoglu’s side eventually qualified via a playoff, beating Honduras 3-1 over two legs, but the big concern must be that the Socceroos haven’t won any of their last nine games outside of Australia.
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
31. SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia scraped to an automatic World Cup berth on goal difference ahead of Australia, but lost three of their five away games, beating only Thailand and Iraq on the road. The manager who guided the side through qualifying, Bert van Marwijk, failed to agree to a new contract and was replaced by former Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza.
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
Hernan Dario Gomez’s side qualified in third place in CONCACAF, but averaged less than a goal a game and won only one game away from home in the hexagonal. It's a just reward for a veteran core, but there'll be a hill to climb in Russia.
Best Finish: N/A