In 14 days, the greatest sporting event in the world will kick off … literally. The 2018 FIFA World Cup will be the 21st edition of the quadrennial cup and will be hosted in Russia. The hosts will open the tournament with the first game on Thursday, June 14th against Saudi Arabia. It’s not too dramatic to say that the United States’ absence from the tournament is tragic and a bit depressing but hopefully it doesn’t mean that we tune out—it’s still the greatest show on earth.
Trying to predict things in a World Cup is about as easy as predicting the outcome of March Madness, but just for fun, I’ve gone ahead and done just that. There are the obvious favorites to win the tournament: Brazil, Germany, Spain, France and Argentina are the top five teams tipped to lift the trophy so I’ve suggested four dark horses who could crash the party and make some countries cry the dreaded tears of an early exit.
Uruguay has the talent, the experience and the outright class to really shake things up. They possess two world-class goal scorers in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. An experienced anchor and captain in Diego Godín, and a youthful, energetic, creative midfield with names that will soon be household like Rodrigo Betancur, Nahitan Nández, and Federico Valverde. At the very least, Uruguay will score goals. Guaranteed.
Croatia has a real squad with real expectations this time around. With experienced midfielders Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovacić and Ivan Rakitić they should be able to dictate the tempo of their group games. Up top, Andrej Kramarić and Mario Mandzukić are capable of scoring goals on the biggest stage and at the back they should be staunch with names like Šime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren and up-and-comer Duje Ćaleta-Car.
I’m really going out on a limb on this one but if they get big performances and strong leadership from the players who have experience on Europe’s bigger stages they have a chance of turning heads. Players like Christian Eriksen, Simon Kjaer and younger players with great maturity like Andreas Christensen and Yussuf Poulsen could lead them out of Group C, which includes France, Peru and Australia. France should advance but the second spot will be up for grabs and backing Denmark to go to the knockout stages seems like the right move.
I would bet my house on Germany going through Group F with relative ease but after that, it is up in the air who else will advance between Sweden, South Korea and Mexico. I’m going to put my chips on the red white and green of Mexico. They possess real class and character in players like Hector Herrera, Miguel Layún and Andrés Guardado and their pace in the wide areas should trouble Sweden and South Korea. Exciting strikers Hirving Lozano and Jesús Manuel Corona might just make a name for themselves at this tournament if things go as planned.
Those are my four picks for teams who may surprise, now on to the players who could do the same. I have picked four players who have been stealthily increasing their stock and who may just use the World’s biggest stage to launch themselves to the top of the shopping list of one of Europe’s big clubs.
Sergej Milinković-Savić, Midfield, Serbia
Okay I might be cheating just a bit on this one since the 23-year-old has already received praise and interest from some big teams. He currently plays his club soccer for S.S. Lazio in Italy and had a breakout season in 2017/18. It has since been rumored that he’s caught the eye of Manchester United. A big money move could be on the cards after the World Cup and his price may rise if he has a good showing. He is a physically gifted, powerful and skillful midfielder who adds an attacking threat as well as creativity and confidence in spades. One way or another, you’ll be hearing this name for years to come.
Emil Forsberg, Midfield, Sweden
If Sweden has any chance of making some noise in the competition they are going to need a big contribution from arguably their best player. The 26-year-old winger had an exceptional 2016/17 season in Germany with Red Bull Leipzig where he recorded 20 assists, just one less than the single-season record of 21. This last season he had a few injury problems and wasn’t nearly as effective but his class isn’t up for debate; he’s a very good player. After his breakout season in 16/17, a strong World Cup could put him on the radar of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Aleksandr Golovin, Midfield, Russia
It’s only right that I include someone from the host country but to be honest, this kid would be in my top four even if the tournament were being played in Zimbabwe. At 22 years old, the midfielder is tenacious, fearless, can run forever and has a lethal shot from distance. He graduated from the youth system of CSKA Moscow and has gone on to be an important player for them since the 2014 season. It should only be a matter of time before he pulls on the shirt of a major team in Germany or England.
Alisson Becker, Goalkeeper, Brazil
In a country where flare players have been produced in record numbers, Brazil has actually produced a few keepers who have come to be regarded as some of the best in the business. Having had huge success at AS Roma, Alisson is already the subject of transfer speculation all over Europe. Roma is already a big club, but he could very well be set to sign for an even bigger one after the tournament. He was a crucial part of Roma’s Champions League success this season. Ederson, Alisson’s “back-up” was one of the best keepers in the Premier League this past season with Manchester City and it speaks volumes of Alisson’s ability if he keeps such an impressive keeper on the bench.