The #WorldCup For Dummies And Non-Soccer-Snobs
Haven't got a team yet? Or need a back-up when yours inevitably gets eliminated? Here's our team guide for the World Cup.
FINALLY! The wait is over. Four years of qualifying for five weeks of football, or soccer, or whatever you want to call the world's most popular sport.
Hardcore fans will need no help with what's about to unfold in Russia, but for those who tend to tune out during qualifying, here's everything you could possibly need to know (and a few things you possibly don't) about the 32 teams about to scrap over the world's most famous trophy.
Sit back, relax, and see you on the other side with bloodshot eyes and hoarse throats.
The host nation could make the second round, as beneficiaries of some home cooking with the easiest pool at the World Cup; but will be made into borscht by Spain or Portugal should they get there.
First showing in 12 years and with a new coach (because Australia pinched theirs). They went unbeaten for eight matches in qualifiers and only conceded four goals. Teams should double-check shin pads against the Green Falcons -- they aren't afraid to go in hard on tackles. Keep a watch on Mohammad Al-Sahlawi -- he scored 16 goals in qualifiers.
Two words -- Egyptian King. All eyes will be on Mo Salah, with the weight of a nation balancing on his slightly-dislocated shoulders. Egypt's number 10 has had the season of his life for Liverpool, and the Pharaohs will be relying on that form in their first World Cup showing in 28 years.
The world will be watching to see which player Luis Suarez takes a bite out of next. They'll also be watching Edinson Cavani, who was the top scorer in the South American qualifiers. Probably can't believe their luck in group opponents, they're almost certain to make knock-outs.
A combination of Cristiano Ronaldo and being current Euros champions means there is a lot of expectation. However, they struggled in qualifiers and don't have much depth outside of their starting side. CR7 has a lot of work to do, but history has shown he is the man to do it.
Tika taka MASTERS. Translation: death by a thousand passes. A young midfield with Koke and Isco, lead by national hero Andres Iniesta will run teams ragged for 90 minutes. Gerard Piqué and captain Sergio Ramos are solid at the back if they can put aside their political opinions and club alliances. Note: manager Julen Lopetegui was sacked the day before the World Cup started, TBA on how that works out for them.
It's been 20 years since Morocco last made a World Cup appearance. Veteran Mehdi Benatia will be leading from the back in a solid defensive wall. The Atlas Lions topped their qualifying group -- without conceding a single goal in six games.
Iran strolled through qualifications without conceding a goal in a record-breaking 11 matches. Contain Sardar Azmoun up front and they might struggle in attack, but their record shows they can be hard to crack in defence.
Oh mon Dieu. Keep an eye on Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe -- if you can -- up front, they're quick to get behind defensive lines and cause trouble. Paul Pogba has the potential to set up the front line (if he can leave the hairdressers for long enough). Stability in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umititi at the back frustrate opponents on the attack. These guys are one of the favourites, and after losing a home final at the 2016 Euros, they'll be out for revenge. The Socceroos face them in their first match. *Gulp*.
Took the long (very long) road to Russia. After a shaky start under Bert van Marwijk the Socceroos seem to understand his game plan better with confidence-boosting warm-up matches. If he gets game time, Daniel Arzani could be a surprise package in a true test of his skills. Midfielder Tom Rogic is one to watch -- he has been ON FIRE for Celtic this season. Throw in Aaron Mooy, Mile Jedinak and Mathew Leckie, who have top-flight European experience, and the Aussies could pull-off a magic run. ('Could' is the operative word but of course we really hope they do.)
Fast-paced and deadly in attack, it's been a 36-year wait to return to the World Cup. The other captains in the group rallied to have a drug-ban overturned so Paolo Guerrero could captain la Blanquirroja at the tournament. Since he was cleared they've been suspiciously silent -- a possible sportsmanship backfire for the other teams?
Stuttered in qualifiers but showed fine form in play-offs. Midfielder Christian Eriksen -- used to playing with the some of the world's best at club level -- will have to work extra hard for his national team. But it's Denmark, and you can't dislike the Danish. (The question remains, who will Australian-born Crown Princess Mary support when they face the Socceroos?)
Lionel Messi. The world will be watching the Little Magician, as he leads Argentina on a mission to heal the pain of losing the final in 2014. A backline with stalwarts Javier Mascherano and Nicolas Otamendi; Angel Di Maria controlling the midfield, and Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain up front -- there really isn't an excuse for failure to qualify.
Competing in their first World Cup, this is a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers. The Cinderella story from the 2016 Euros, Iceland won a legion of fans with their magic run of games and Viking Clap, and are the team to support when yours gets knocked out. 66,000 fans requested tickets -- or 20 percent of the population. All their names end in -son, so pick your favourite. We also want them to kick plenty of goals just for the crazy reaction of their commentators.
Two of the best midfielders in the game, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and big man Mario Mandzukic up front, the Croatians' disparity in skill is their biggest flaw. They have potential, and are a possible dark horse if they can finally click as a team.
A dynamic squad with an even better kit. Young Gunner Alex Iwobi will be looking to put a stuttered season behind him and lead the attack with Victor Moses. Veteran captain John Obi Mikel will be key in the midfield to direct play. Even if they don't advance far, they'll still look cooler than we ever could.
Favourites. First team to qualify for Russia. The five-time winners will be out for revenge after their World Cup dreams were painfully destroyed when they hosted the tournament four years ago. The world's most expensive player, Neymar Jr., is back from a broken foot -- great for advertisers, not great for every other team. They have three or four top-class options for every position. Game plan advice for opponents: just play in a 8-1-1 formation.
Should last longer in the competition than their jerseys did at the Euros. Granit Xhaka will be key in connecting the defence and attack in the midfield if he can avoid being carded (unlikely).
Central American football at its best -- lightning fast and a hunger to attack. If opponents do get the ball they have to get it past goal-keeper Keylor Navas, who is still celebrating three consecutive Champions League titles with Real Madrid. They have a pretty good record against European teams, and will back themselves after a quarter-finals appearance in 2014.
The ice-cold stare of captain Aleksandar Kolarov is enough to put fear into anybody. Avoid at all costs.
Be afraid. The best way to judge a team is to look at who didn't get a call-up, and even that list is terrifying. The current World Cup holders are solid all-round and scarily clinical. Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Toni Kroos, Julian Brandt... oh boy. Just pray when up against these guys. Also on the favourites list.
Keep a watch on the dos Santos brothers, Jonathan and Giovani, directing the midfield. National hero Javier 'Chicarito' Hernandez will be the Mexican's best chance at unlocking oppositions' defence. Rumours have U.S. adopting El Tri for the tournament, especially after the FIFA announcement the two countries will be joint-hosting the 2026 World Cup with Canada.
Zlatan Ibrahimović isn't playing, so why are they bothering? Zlatan agrees.
They were expected to cruise through qualifiers but it didn't pan out that way. A lucky numbers game got them to Russia, but they have enough players with European playing experience to cause problems in this group. It's hard to go past Son Heung-Min as one to watch, his vision and ability to string a tight pass through is remarkable, and he's not too bad in front of the goals either.
Dark horse (if they don't choke...again). With names like Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku up front, and Kevin de Bruyne directing the midfield, opponents should be very wary. A brick wall at the back with Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen will be hard to penetrate -- if the other teams can get the ball.
Also at their first World Cup. Quick with the ball and aren't afraid of going studs-first in defence. Darlings of the world after they 'stole' the U.S. team's spot on the last day of qualifiers. That's all you need to know.
The Eagles of Carthage are looking to make history in Russia by winning their first World Cup game since 1978. Wahbi Khazri will be their main man in driving their attack from the middle. They're just really happy to be here after a 12-year absence.
This new generation of players will be going in with little expectation -- a sense of doom permanently clouds the Three Lions after years of dismal international showings. Harry Kane is in blistering form, while Marcus Rashford has shown he is deserving of a starting role with dominant performances. Dele Alli will be looking to live up to the hype that has surrounded him for years and avoid the red cards he is known to receive. But their pilot has possibly left the engine running to take them home.
A team built around Robert Lewandowski -- which is also the only name that is pronounceable. With names like Jakub Błaszczykowski, Artur Jędrzejczyk and Wojciech Szczęsny, please keep the commentators in your thoughts.
Only their third appearance at a World Cup, and they could cause a few headaches in their group. Sadio Mane has had a brilliant season for his club and the Teranga Lions will be relying on his vision and super speed.
This side will dance their way into your hearts, lead by talisman James Rodriguez (pronounced Ha-mez, people!). The 2014 Golden Boot winner has found the form this season that made him a global superstar four years ago, and that's worrying for his opponents. When James is playing well -- everyone else is too. Veteran captain Ramadel Falcao is deadly in front of the goals, and Juan Cuadrado is a dream wing-back with his pace. (Did we mention be aware of James?)
Finished top of their qualifiers group, the Samurai Blue are clinical and efficient. They'll be looking at Shinji Kagawa to lead their attack from the middle with the help of veteran Keisuke Honda. They choked in 2014 and will be eager to avoid the same fate in Russia.
Should go far with their skill and... oh wait, nevermind.