The Maneater

Digest: All the biggest storylines heading into the 2018 World Cup

Germany is set to defend its 2014 international championship but will be met by a cast of 31 eager challengers, including the redemption-hungry Brazil, rising European stars and several other sleepers.

The 2018 World Cup is set to kick off in just under a week in Moscow, Russia and millions of people across the globe will be watching, enthralled, as 32 nations fight it out to become the champions of the quadrennial competition.

The contenders come in all shapes and sizes, from historical soccer powerhouses Brazil and Germany – who have combined to win nine of the 20 total World Cups – to debutants like Iceland – who, with a population of around 335,000 people, will become the smallest country to ever have taken part in the tournament.

Not everyone will be attending this month long party, however. The road to Russia contained many stumbling blocks and this World Cup will see multiple big-name absentees, with countries like Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and, of course, the United States all failing to navigate their way through qualification.

Nevertheless, the excitement is building for the 64 matches, culminating with the final on July 15, that will make up the 2018 version of the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Here are some of the biggest storylines to pay attention to throughout the tournament:

Brazil aiming for redemption

You can’t talk about soccer without mentioning Brazil. The five-time world champions are famous for their rich culture involving the sport, although it has been 16 years since the Seleção last won the World Cup.

Four years ago, the Brazilian team was humiliated on home soil when it lost 7-1 against Germany in the semifinals, leading to a nationwide depression surrounding the sport not seen since 1950, the last time Brazil hosted a World Cup and lost.

Captain Thiago Silva was suspended for the match against the Germans and star player Neymar was sidelined with a back injury suffered in the quarterfinals, but the world was shocked to see how soundly the South American team was defeated without its leaders on the pitch.

Brazil was still reeling from the result two years later, when it got knocked out of the 2016 Copa América Centenario in the Group Stages and was languishing in sixth place of the South American World Cup qualification table.

This all changed when Tite took over as head coach following the disastrous Copa and the upgrade was felt immediately. Brazil went on to win their next nine games in qualifying en route to topping the group by 10 points, as well as becoming the second team to make it into this summer’s tournament – only behind the host, Russia, who qualified automatically.

Now that Brazil has regained its swagger, it will enter the competition as one of the favorites to lift the trophy and the squad has the attacking talent – in the form of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus – as well as the defensive solidity – provided by Silva, Casemiro and Fernandinho – to win a record sixth World Cup.

The question is whether this team can keep its composure in the big games, especially if Neymar – who scored 28 goals in 30 appearances with club Paris Saint-Germain this season – does not recover in time from a foot injury he suffered in February.

Can Brazil prove that it is better and more balanced than it was four years ago, or will it repeat its mistakes from 2014, crashing out because of overreliance on its 26-year-old star?

Old guard prove they have more left in the tank

Germany and Spain have been the two best countries in international soccer for the past decade and have won the last two World Cup trophies to show for it. This tournament will be all about putting a stamp on their dominance and showing that they have been able to sustain it for a long period of time.

The Spanish teams that won two consecutive European Championships – 2008 and 2012 – along with the World Cup sandwiched between them have been labeled as some of the greatest of all time. But it seemed like the end of an era when La Roja lost 5-1 against the Netherlands in its opening game at the 2014 World Cup and the team was subsequently eliminated in the group stage.

But, as an emphatic 3-0 victory against Italy in September proved, Spain has been able to maintain its status as an elite soccer team by combining the aging previous generation with a new one just as talented.

2010 remnants including Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Sergio Ramos have linked up with exciting newcomers such as Isco, Marco Asensio and David de Gea, forming the perfect blend of youth and experience that will give Spain a good chance to extend its dynasty this summer.

Germany has reached at least the semifinals of each of the last three World Cups and of the last three European Championships. It has done so by combining generations in a similar way. However, none of those teams were as successful as the one which lifted the World Cup trophy in Brazil.

Germany’s transition between its winning and current rosters will be smooth, as Die Mannschaft will return nine players from that 2014 team, seven of whom were starters in the opening match. But as these players like Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil close in on their 30’s, they too will want to seize this opportunity to continue their supremacy.

New kids on the block look to make a statement

Belgium has never won a World Cup. In fact, the country didn’t even qualify for any major tournaments from 2004-2012.

But the years since have seen the emergence of a “golden generation” containing some of the best players the country has ever seen, led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

But only eight countries have ever won a World Cup, and it is difficult to break into that group. Belgium lost in the quarterfinals of both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship and some experts say that The Red Devils’ lack of historical success is a major contributor to the team’s disappointing results.

France boasts a similarly talented but young squad, headlined by Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé. Although Les Bleus have previously won the World Cup, the current team also faces criticism surrounding its inexperience.

As the host of the 2016 European Championship, France was the favorite to lift the trophy on home soil. However, the team was upset by Portugal in the final, a result which becomes even more surprising when realizing that Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted only eight minutes into the match due to a knee injury.

The French team’s rocky road in qualifying for Russia has only added fuel to the doubters who claim that the players are too young and lack the sufficient chemistry and experience to win the upcoming World Cup.

For both of these countries, this tournament is about proving their worth and finally living up to their potential.

The biggest stars shine on the biggest stage

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two biggest names in soccer – and by some distance too. The pair have combined to win every Ballon d’Or – the golden ball given to the world’s player of the year – since 2008, an unprecedented duopoly never before seen in the sport.

But their reign will not last forever – Ronaldo is 33 and Messi will be 31 by the tournament’s end – and Russia might be the last chance for either of them to win their first World Cup.

Despite having a plethora of attacking options – Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala, to name a few – Messi is not only the unquestioned star of this Argentina team, but he sometimes seems to be their only player as the forward had to carry his underperforming teammates through qualifying. La Albiceleste had six wins in 10 games with Messi on the field and only one win in eight games without him.

A 6-1 loss against Spain in March also shined a light on the country’s fragile defense, which only got weaker when it was revealed that goalkeeper Sergio Romero would miss the tournament through injury.

Portugal might be even more reliant on its all-time leading scorer, Ronaldo. Besides Bernardo Silva, no other Portuguese international plays for an elite club team. The rest of the squad will struggle to provide chances for Ronaldo, who has been increasingly forced to rely on his teammates due to his age.

Sure they won the European Championship in 2016 without Ronaldo in the final, but that was a very big upset and is unlikely to happen again.

The fates of Argentina and Portugal will depend on how well Messi and Ronaldo perform. But seeing how they still are the two best soccer players on earth – the pair led Europe by scoring 45 and 44 goals for their respective clubs this season – they are very capable of leading their teams to the trophy in Russia.

Minnows try to crash the party

Outside of the major contenders, there are still 25 other countries vying for a shot at the trophy, and one of them could very well make a surprise run all the way to the finish.

Uruguay is the team that will pose the biggest challenge to the big dogs. It boasts the fearsome strike force of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, as well as major tournament experience after reaching the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and winning the 2011 Copa América.

Croatia is another team that has a wealth of individual talent, led by Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. But internal conflicts between the fans and the country’s soccer federation have led to a team that in recent years has played much worse than the sum of its parts.

Egypt will have the support of a lot of neutral fans in Russia once Liverpool phenom Mohamed Salah recovers from injury. The Premier League Player of the Year took the world by storm this season as he scored 44 goals in 52 games for the Reds. Salah has entered the discussion of elite players who could finally pry the Ballon d’Or away from Messi and Ronaldo. He doesn’t have the best supporting cast, but Salah’s talent will make Egypt a force to be reckoned with in Russia.

Colombia’s James Rodríguez became a superstar after his sensational World Cup in Brazil, where he scored six goals to win the golden ball as the tournament’s highest scorer. He will be hoping to replicate that form to help Colombia improve on its quarter-finals appearance four years ago.

Or maybe none of this will happen and a new country will take the world by storm this summer, much like Iceland did in the 2016 European Championship. The World Cup only comes around every four years, so every team will be desperate to make this one count.

The tournament kicks off on June 14 when Russia takes on Saudi Arabia and ends on July 15 with the final in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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