ONE REASON EACH REMAINING WORLD CUP SQUAD CAN WIN IT ALL
By Stanley Kay
If the group stage of the 2018 World Cup taught us anything, it’s that prognostication is a fool’s errand. (Looking at you, Germany.) Sure, most of the top sides are through to the knockout stage, the defending champs notwithstanding, but the group stage was anything but predictable. With the tournament shifting to single-elimination mode, it’s only going to get crazier.
So instead of picking just one team to win the World Cup, here's a case for each of the remaining 16 teams—yes, even Russia—to go all the way.
Brazil: Brazil underwhelmed in its first two games, drawing Switzerland and beating Costa Rica in stoppage time. But the team’s performance in a 2–0 win over Serbia should assuage any doubts over the Seleçao’s status as a top contender. Finally, Brazil’s attack looked cohesive—the team’s passing in the final third was incisive, and the scoreline probably could have been more lopsided. Perhaps the best argument in favor of Brazil: Despite some uninspiring play early in the group stage, Tite’s side remains the most well-rounded of the major contenders, lacking any glaring weakness.
Spain: The 2010 champions haven’t looked their best, drawing two of their three group stage matches. But Spain received an incredibly favorable draw for the knockout stage, starting with Russia in the round of 16. Assuming Spain gets by the hosts, Croatia—which beat Spain at Euro 2016—looms in the quarterfinals. Still, considering the state of the bracket, Spain might be the best bet to win the tournament.
Belgium: Belgium hasn’t received quite as much attention other favorites like Brazil and Spain, but that’s because Roberto Martinez’s side has been relentless and nearly flawless, winning three games by an aggregate score of 9–2. Belgium’s attack, keyed by Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, is fluid and free-flowing, but the team’s defensive strength shouldn’t be ignored, particularly the back-line partnership of Tottenham teammates Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. This is Belgium's golden generation, and anything short of the title would disappoint.
Croatia: Croatia emerged from perhaps the tournament’s toughest group unscathed, topping Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland in succession, conceding just once. Croatia’s strong form and its world-class talent—Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic—makes for a contender, but Zlatko Dalic’s side also finds itself on the easier side of the draw. Round-of-16 opponent Denmark won’t be a pushover, but Croatia’s toughest game will be a quarterfinal meeting with Spain. If Croatia knocks out Spain, it will be favored to reach the final.
Uruguay: Yes, Uruguay qualified for the knockout stage by beating three of the weakest teams at the World Cup. But it’s worth noting the team kept a clean sheet in all three matches, capped by an emphatic victory over the host nation in a match to determine Group A supremacy. While other contenders—France, Spain, Brazil—have been shaky at times, Uruguay is in top form. Ignore them at your peril.
France: Les Bleus haven’t looked particularly worthy of winning the World Cup, but their depth gives them more margin for error than their opponents. The big question is whether France’s individual quality—Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, basically every player on the team—can translate to group cohesion. Expect manager Didier Deschamps to continue tinkering with the starting XI.
Portugal: Don’t ever bet against Cristiano Ronaldo in a knockout-style competition. Four Champions League titles the last five seasons with Real Madrid and Portugal’s stunning triumph at Euro 2016 underscore the challenge of beating Ronaldo. No, Portugal doesn’t have the quality of Real Madrid, but Ronaldo still has an unparalleled capacity to turn a match with one moment of brilliance. Expect more heroics in the knockout stage.
Argentina: Sure, Argentina was a complete disaster for most of the group stage and probably deserved elimination. But Lionel Messi’s stunning goal against Nigeria—he controlled a long pass on his thigh, took another touch with his dominant left foot and buried a shot with his right—leaves me even more convinced that Messi indeed possesses supernatural abilities. Also, a poor showing in the group stage doesn’t necessarily carry over to the knockouts. Remember Portugal at Euro 2016?
Colombia: A first-round meeting with England could prove difficult, but Colombia has momentum after consecutive clean-sheet victories to close out the group stage. José Pekerman’s side recovered nicely after a disastrous first few minutes of the tournament, in which a Carlos Sanchez received a red card for a handball and Japan converted the ensuing penalty.
Colombia responded by beating Poland and Senegal, both quality opponents, to seal a place in the knockout stage. The draw looks friendly, too: After England, Colombia would face either Sweden or Switzerland.
England: The Three Lions, led by golden boot candidate Harry Kane, are in excellent form. (Especially if you believe England attempted to lose its final game against Belgium to secure a better draw, in which case, mission accomplished!) England’s attack, for once, is legitimately dynamic: Kane, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling form a potent combination. Even John Stones is scoring goals. Traditional English tormentor Germany is out. England wouldn't have to face Belgium again until the final—same with Brazil, France, Portugal and Uruguay, all on the other side of the bracket.
English supporters are feeling optimistic. What could possibly go wrong?
Mexico: Mexico laid an egg in its final group stage match against Sweden, but round-of-16 opponent Brazil isn’t infallible. Recall that SI’s Grant Wahl picked Mexico to upset Brazil in the knockout stage before the tournament. While I’m not quite as convinced, I like Mexico’s chances better now after seeing both teams in the group stage. Mexico should relish the opportunity to face teams like Brazil, which will control possession but allow Juan Carlos Osorio’s side to counterattack, much as it did against Germany. And if you can beat Brazil, you can win the tournament.
Switzerland: Switzerland showed tremendous heart in the group stage, rallying from 1–0 deficits against Brazil and Serbia to draw and win, respectively. This team might not be the most scintillating, but Switzerland won every game but one in qualification, and it landed on the friendlier side of the knockout stage draw.
Sweden: We love you, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Sweden is better without you. That much is clear after Sweden qualified for the World Cup in a group featuring France and the Netherlands, and reached the knockout stage by finishing ahead of Germany and Mexico. Janne Andersson’s squad exhibits a sense of unity that so many other sides lack, both on and off the pitch: just look at how the team rallied together after winger Jimmy Durmaz was targeted by racial abuse. Tuesday’s game against Switzerland is very winnable.
Denmark: Denmark is a threat to win the World Cup as long as free-kick wizard Christian Eriksen gets at least one set-piece opportunity just outside the box every game.
Japan: A Colombia red card in the first game helped gift Japan three points, and the never-before-used fair play tiebreaker vaulted Japan into the knockout stage over Senegal. (Japan finished with a better disciplinary record.) The Samurai Blue, an underdog to come out of Group H, remain a substantial long shot to win the tournament, especially with a round-of-16 matchup against Belgium looming. But after beating Colombia—an impressive result even after the card—and coming back to draw a good Senegal side, this team shouldn’t be discounted.
Russia: Straightforward from here: Russia, which advanced after drawing the tournament’s easiest group, upsets Spain by sowing discontent among La Roja’s Barcelona and Real Madrid factions. The rest of Russia’s half—the weaker side of the bracket, by the way—proves easy to overcome. Vladimir Putin scores the winning goal in the final against Brazil on a free header in stoppage time.
• The suicide of Washington State QB Tyler Hilinski has left his family with more questions than answers. Greg Bishop chronicled the family's harrowing journey to try and honor their son and brother.
• Our latest documentary, Losing Tyler, documents the Hilinski family's search for answers in the aftermath of tragedy. Watch on SI TV (subscription required).
• Sammy Sosa goes deep on his contentious relationship with the Cubs, a magical 1998 season and life out of the public eye in our Where Are They Now issue.
• Remember those togas we made Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa wear? Yeah ... about that. Here's a brief oral history on a rather unforgettable photoshoot.
• The 1998 Vikings seemed destined for the Super Bowl. All they needed was a well-placed field goal. Conor Orr delivers the oral history of a legendary, heartbreaking team.
• NBA free agency may start and end with LeBron James's decision, but our free agent rankings do not. These are our top 50 available players.
BECAUSE YOU WERE WONDERING: WHO IS THE YOUNGEST PLAYER TO APPEAR IN THE WORLD CUP?
Egypt delivered a memorable moment against Saudi Arabia on Monday by starting 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary (offically 45 years and 161 days old), who became the oldest player to ever play in the World Cup. It's only natural, then, to wonder who is on the other end of the spectrum as the youngest player to appear on soccer's biggest stage.
Norman Whiteside holds the record as the World Cup's youngest-ever participant at 17 years and 41 days old. By suiting up for Northern Ireland in the 1982 tournament, he unseated Pelé as the recordholder. Remarkably, Whiteside played only two games at the club level (Manchester United) before being selected for Northern Ireland's national team as a teenager.
A slew of injuries forced Whiteside to retire at age 26, but his claim to fame still holds strong today.
WRITER RECALL: REFLECTING ON TYLER HILINSKI AND HIS FAMILY'S SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
By Greg Bishop
Editor's note: After writing about the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, SI Senior Writer Greg Bishop recalls his time spent learning about the Hilinski family's search for answers and thanks them. [Click here to read the story]
I still remember standing outside of the Hilinskis' house in Irvine, Calif., introducing myself to Mary Agnant, a video producer for SI. We had never met before, and we were about to introduce ourselves in person to the family, and I can recall thinking at the time: what am I going to ask them? My son was eight months old then. That was going through my mind; what it might be like, what they could be feeling. Mary was on her first day back from maternity leave. This was after I had roughly 10 email or phone exchanges with Mark Hilinski, and we're arriving with a camera crew and a photographer (the excellent Robert Beck). It felt like we were setting ourselves up for disaster.
Luckily, the family was more than gracious. We met with them for three days in California and for two more in Pullman, Wash., on Washington State's campus. I was struck mostly by how open they were. They provided me with the reports—like the one from the Mayo Clinic that showed he had CTE—home movies, old photographs, even text messages from Kym Hilinski to her son Tyler that she sent after he had killed himself in mid January. There was one detail they didn't want me to include in the story—what the note he left behind said—but otherwise they hid nothing, answered everything and generally made a process that could have been impossible as comfortable as possible. The story and the video that resulted were a direct result of their courage and cooperation, although I'd be lying if I didn't say that I bit my lip so hard during the four-hour initial interview that it bled intermittently for more than a week.
I'd like to thank the Hilinskis for that—for everything, really. Mark, Kym, Kelly, Ryan ... the story you entrusted us with will make a difference. My hope, sincerely, is that it will save lives. I'm not going to take any credit for that. The depths to which you told your story—Tyler's story—will lead to conversations and initiatives and programs that will help anyone who is suffering like Tyler had been suffering. Of the 1,000-plus bylines I've had in my career, this is the most memorable one.
BEST OF THE REST
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list was curated by Stanley Kay.
• Vinson Cunningham of The New Yorkerprofiled ESPN's Stephen A. Smith. My favorite Smith quote in the piece: "I used to think the almond milk was best, but then somebody told me—a trainer told me—there’s too much estrogen up in there. In the almond milk. That’s right.”
• A New York Times investigation by Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg revealed pregnancy discrimination at some of America’s largest companies.
• The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen caught up with some of the kids who attended “The Decision” eight years ago.
• Via The New York Times: Sarah Lyall wrote about the legacy of Joseph Stalin hanging over World Cup games in Volgograd.
• POLITICO’s Michael Kruse wrote a fascinating piece about the strong support for President Trump in a Florida retirement community.
• In Texas Monthly, Christian Wallace profiled Myrtis Dightman, the "Jackie Robinson of rodeo."
• New York Magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti asks: Where is Barack Obama?
• From SCOTUSblog: Eric Citron explores how Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement could affect the trajectory of the Roberts court.
FROM THE VAULT: SAMMY SOSA AND MARK MCGWIRE SPORT TOGAS
By Connor Grossman
In one of the more infamous covers in SI's history, sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa donned togas for the 1998 Sportsmen of the Year issue. There's so much to unpack within the single photo, we ran an oral history on it this week. It's been 20 years since the duo invigorated baseball with a home run race throughout the 1998 season.
Both McGwire and Sosa, of course, have since been heavily connected with performance-enhancing drug use during their careers. Hindsight always paints a clearer picture. Yet there's no doubting the much-needed lift they gave baseball in the summer of '98. Both players captured the attention of sports fans everywhere. Both players surpassed Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61. Both players shared SI's Sportsman of the Year honors.
• Click here to read Tom Verducci's 1998 feature on McGwire, and enjoy the excerpt below
Among scouts Vaughn has become a legend, all because of an evaluation he made 16 years ago as an assistant coach to Dedeaux. Vaughn hit the mother lode. At the conclusion of the 1982 college season he decided that an 18-year-old freshman pitcher, a baby-faced righthander who had batted .200 that year, should go to the Alaska summer league and devote all his attention to hitting. Vaughn prophesied that the future of Mark McGwire, a good pitching prospect, would be even brighter if he were converted to a hitter. With that assessment and his mentoring of McGwire that summer as an assistant coach for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Vaughn launched the career of the most prolific single-season home run hitter.
"I can guarantee you that if Mark had stayed a pitcher, he wouldn't have had anything close to the success he's had," says San Diego State baseball coach Jim Dietz, who was skipper of the Glacier Pilots during the summer of 1982. "He'd probably be out of baseball right now. Because he had someone like Ron who championed him early on, Mark was really blessed."