The draw for World Cup 2018 took place on Friday, and there’s plenty to talk about. Here are my 10 thoughts on the event, starting with the shadow hanging over it all in these parts of the world, where it was yet another gut punch for USA fans given the painful reminder that their team won't be participating.
If the night of October 10 was the worst night for fans of the United States—that, after all, was the night the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986—then Friday was the second-worst feeling. Seeing all 32 World Cup teams learn their group opponents reminded everyone that the U.S. somehow couldn’t advance from one of the world’s easiest qualifying regions and somehow couldn’t advance from a group that provided an enormous margin for error. It’s still a surreal feeling that the U.S. won’t be in Russia next year, but as Friday showed, it’s very much real, indeed.
As for the nations that will be participating:
There is no true Group of Death, and that’s a good thing
FIFA changed the rules for this World Cup draw and for the first time seeded all 32 teams (according to the FIFA rankings) instead of just the top eight. For the first time in recorded history, I find myself writing: Good idea, FIFA! Instead of using a format that produced wildly imbalanced groups over the years, this FIFA draw created much more balanced groups that are in the interest of sporting equality and good soccer. Yes, there are some difficult groups (like Group D with Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria), and there are some easier ones (like Group A with Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), but nobody truly got screwed, and nobody got a truly gift draw. Except for …
Well, yes, Russia did get a gift draw
You can start up the conspiracy theory machine for FIFA and the Russian hosts, who boast the lowest-ranked team in the entire 32-nation field. Of the 24 teams that Russia could have drawn for its opening-game opponent, it just so happened to get Saudi Arabia—the next-to-lowest-ranked team in the 32-nation field. If Russia can bag three points in its first game with the whole world watching, its chances of advancing will increase dramatically. Nor is it inconceivable that the Russians could follow that up with another couple of points against Group A opponents Uruguay and Egypt. World Cups are always more fun when the host country does well, and the chances of the host country to survive group play increased dramatically on Friday.
Mexico faces a big challenge in search of the elusive Fifth Game
El Tri has gone out in its fourth game of the last six World Cups, and so its quest for El Quinto Partido has taken on a mythical significance. Friday’s draw didn’t help, however. I think Mexico will advance from a group that includes Germany, Sweden and South Korea—although Sweden could improve dramatically if Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes out of international retirement—but the problem for Mexico is who stands in its way. It will be awfully hard to take first place in its group ahead of defending champion Germany, and if Mexico finishes second it will likely have to face Brazil in the round of 16. If Mexico fulfills its quest for the Fifth Game, it will have to earn it.
The opening days of the World Cup have some terrific games
Forget the stinker on the very first day between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The three days after that each have some mouth-watering matchups. Day Two features Portugal against Spain, which will pit Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions against my pick to win the tournament. Let’s just say there will be plenty of familiarity between the Spanish club-based players in this game. Day Three brings us Argentina-Iceland, which will have Lionel Messi (going after his elusive World Cup triumph) coming up against the tournament’s most popular underdog. Day Four gives us Germany-Mexico, an opportunity for El Tri to measure itself up against the defending champs.
African teams are set up for a resurgence
Back in the 1990s, everyone said it wouldn’t be long before an African team won the World Cup. We’re still waiting for it, and in fact African teams have greatly underperformed in recent World Cups (and have yet to put a team in the semifinals). That could change this time around. I have Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal emerging from their groups, and I would be stunned if one or more of them doesn’t make the quarterfinals. (Morocco, which didn’t give up a goal in six final-round qualifying games, could also make a run.) In fact, this tournament could see Egypt’s Mohamed Salah break out into becoming a legit global superstar. The Egyptians should be one of the happiest teams from Friday’s draw after being put in a group with Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.
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Can Belgium break its quarterfinal curse?
Based on talent alone, this glorious Belgium team is one of the top four nations in the tournament. But will it become one of the top four teams by making the semifinals? Belgium went out in the quarterfinals of both World Cup 2014 (to Argentina) and Euro 2016 (to Wales), and if it fails to make a deep run this time around, there will be plenty of questions about whether this amazing generation has run out of chances. Perhaps the biggest problem in the last two major tournaments was coach Marc Wilmots, who was hopelessly out of his depth. Roberto Martínez is an upgrade. Belgium drew a relatively easy group (England, Tunisia, Panama), and even the second round shouldn’t be a killer, but a potential quarterfinal game against Brazil would be a real measuring stick of whether Belgium can win the World Cup.
A few groups are remarkably balanced
Consider Group H, with Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan. Nobody in the group will be seen as a real threat to win the tournament, but you could envision scenarios in which any of the four advance to the knockout rounds. It’s not a Group of Death, but rather a Group of Extreme Parity. That should make things fun for neutrals, who simply want to see as much entertaining soccer as possible. The same type of parity can be seen in Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria). The only team that most would think has a chance to win the World Cup is Argentina—and even that point is debatable—but all four are good teams. Why it took so long for FIFA to seed all 32 teams at the draw is beyond me, but I’m glad it finally happened.
One challenge at this World Cup will be for international soccer to get its mojo back
With more balanced groups, one hopes that the international game will begin to have a resurgence in comparison to the club game. One unfortunate development in recent times has been the suffering in quality of international soccer, which has fallen significantly below that of club soccer. The measuring stick for quality these days is the UEFA Champions League, not the World Cup, and that’s a shame. We could use a World Cup that excites the masses around the world with the style of its play, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will happen.
Asia is the new Africa
I don’t have a single team from Asia advancing from its group. The current editions of Australia, Japan and South Korea just aren’t as good as the predecessors from their countries, and Saudi Arabia’s goal should be simply not to be as awful as the 2002 Saudi World Cup team was. One potential ray of hope for Asia is Iran, which was dominant in World Cup qualifying and could throw a scare into Portugal (just as Morocco could, too). But don’t look for the days of South Korea making the 2002 World Cup semifinals to repeat themselves in 2018.