There is something intensely futile about picking a World Cup champion. Something silly. Something about the premise deeply flawed. Because not a soul knows what will happen over the next month. Not a soul knows how the 21st edition of the planet’s greatest sporting event will play out.
And yet history fools us into thinking otherwise. The men’s World Cup has existed for 88 years now, and only eight nations have won it. Only six have won it over the past half-century. Only five of them will be in Russia this summer: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France.
And very, very few people are picking anybody outside of those five to triumph in 2018. They are the top five at every single major bookmaker, and in almost every set of World Cup power rankings.
In fact, very few clued-in prognosticators are taking any team outside the top three of Brazil, Germany and Spain. Nor should they take anybody else – those three, in some order, are the most likely to lift a golden trophy in Moscow on July 15. They are, therefore, the rational picks.
But what their favourite statuses obscure is that, collectively, they have roughly a 50 per cent chance to win the World Cup – only a 50 per cent chance. The consensus top five has, at best, a 75 per cent chance. There is roughly a 20 or 25 per cent chance that the 2018 competition yields a first-time champion.
There is a tendency to assume that the World Cup is a tournament that caters to the elite, and whose latter stages are infertile for underdogs. But just because that’s been the case in the past does not mean it is the case. Twenty iterations, and only five in the current format, represent a still-tiny sample size. As Greece and Portugal have shown at two of the last four European championships, there is no reason an outsider can’t win a major international competition. It just takes one breakthrough on the global stage before the public collectively realizes.
All of which is to say that a ranking of 2018 World Cup contenders should not stop at No.6 or No.8. By our estimation, there are roughly 12 teams with a greater than 1 per cent chance to prevail. There are 21 with what we’d call a semi-realistic shot.
So we’ve ranked ’em all, and grouped them into tiers, as a way of answering the question: Who is most likely to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
TIER 1: THE FAVOURITES
1. Brazil — Since manager Tite took charge to steer Brazil away from high-profile failures, the Selecao have scored 47 goals and conceded five. They have the flair and the steel and the cohesion. They have a healthy, well-rested Neymar, but aren’t dependent on him. They’re the best team in the world.
2. Spain — Spain are popularly associated with dazzling possession-based football. What really makes this version of La Furia Roja formidable, however, is their defence. Even when the attack stalls – which is does, at times – four world-class defenders and the sport’s best goalkeeper make the 2010 champs very difficult to beat. The only question is will their coach dramas unsettle the team?
3. Germany — Never doubt Germany. Never doubt Jogi Low. Never doubt his system, or his teams’ preparedness. But Die Mannschaft‘s top-end talent level this time around is a notch below those of Brazil and Spain.
TIER 2: THE WILD CARD
4. France — France, as individuals, belong in the top tier. France, as a collective, belong with their slightly disjointed brethren, Belgium and Argentina. Their many shiny puzzle pieces, when jammed together, fray around the edges. They’re restricted by the lack of a coherent system, and without a coherent identity – in contrast to the three teams above them.
TIER 3: THE OTHER CONTENDERS
5. Belgium — The Red Devils are a (very) rich man’s version of Roberto Martinez’s Everton teams. Which makes sense, of course, because Martinez is the manager. If that comparison does nothing for you, here’s the deal: Martinez has chosen a formation and tweaked his system to get as many stars on the field as possible. It’s going to result in a lot of goals, but at both ends, because it leaves Belgium vulnerable at the back.
6. Argentina — I want to believe. I really do. I like manager Jorge Sampaoli. I think Messi is far and away the GOAT. But dysfunction and misfortune – warm-up friendlies cancelled, injuries to multiple starters – are getting more and more insurmountable by the day. Messi might not be able to overcome the many shortcomings around him.
7. England — Finally, an England team with an aesthetic style, a defined system, and energising young players that fit into it. There’s no need to buy the lower expectations, pressure off, better performance narrative. This group is just flat-out good.
8. Uruguay — A new-look midfield will ensure La Celeste can boss around inferior teams. The vets will still have to carry Uruguay through the knockout rounds, but they’re very capable of doing that.
TIER 4: THE LONG SHOTS
9. Colombia — Los Cafeteros have a tendency to play both up to and down to their competition. For World Cup title odds purposes, that’s a good thing. But their occasional struggles against lesser foes are a window into some flaws that should keep them several steps away from a World Cup final.
10. Portugal — Don’t let Euro 2016 fool you! It was a legitimate and legitimately impressive accomplishment, but it’s not reason to believe Portugal are on an ascent that will climax at the World Cup.
11. Croatia — This is probably the most talented and deepest squad Croatia has ever had. But there is no convincing evidence they have overcome tactical and psychological problems that have plagued past editions.
12. Mexico — Manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s maniacal tinkering with formations and tactics has some fans calling for his head. Others think he’s a misunderstood genius. Let’s just pretend, for one second, that he’s the latter … couldn’t Mexico go on a run? Heck yeah they could, especially if they upset Germany in their opener.
TIER 5: EUROPEAN MEDIOCRITY (PLUS PERU AND MOROCCO)
13. Poland — Lumping Poland in with ‘mediocrity’ is probably a bit unfair. But they lack depth, and will, in all likelihood, be without their second or third-best player, starting centre back Kamil Glik.
14. Peru — You’re going to fall in love with this team. They head to Russia unbeaten in 15 games since the start of 2017, and having lost only two of its last 27. And if the streak carries into the World Cup, La Blanquiroja are going to ride an emotional wave that will sweep up fans around the world.
15. Denmark — Denmark is in the top five of the ‘do they have a clear, functional plan?’ rankings. They also have Christian Eriksen, which makes them a threat.
16. Serbia — Size? Check. Strength? Check. Talent? Check. Blend of youth and experience? Check. Established system or identity? Um…
17. Morocco — The draw was unkind, but the gap between Morocco and Portugal in Group B is far slimmer than you might think.
18. Switzerland — This Swiss generation is the epitome of ‘European mediocrity’.
TIER 6: HIGH CEILINGS, LOW FLOOR
19. Senegal — There were fleeting moments in Senegal’s penultimate warmup friendly that suggested the Lions of Teranga had figured themselves out. But I’m not sold.
20. Nigeria — Nigeria quadrennially attracts the ‘dark horse’ label, and rarely makes good on it. There’s reason to think this year could be different. But there’s more reason to think it’ll be more of the same.
TIER 7: LOW CEILINGS, LOW FLOORS
21. Russia — They are not good. Should they be significantly higher in these rankings simply because they’re playing at home? Maybe, but there’s not a lot of confidence around.
22. Sweden — Excruciatingly dull, which could get them out of the group but no further.
23. Iceland — A staunch defense and opportunistic attacking – much of it via set pieces – are Iceland’s best hopes. But regarding the former … the minnows have conceded 11 goals in their four most recent friendlies. Fighting spirit and togetherness can only carry them so far.
24. Iran — A less glamorous Iceland. Better than they were in 2014, but probably not quite good enough to hang in a tough group.
25. Egypt — Mohamed Salah and … uh … not much else. Oh, and Salah is racing against the clock to recover from a shoulder injury. Oh, and he likely won’t be as good with Egypt as he was this past season with Liverpool anyway.
26. Australia — Experienced Dutch boss Bert van Marwijk will have to work some magic, but there’s talent to work with in the attacking third.
27. Tunisia — The Eagles of Carthage – great nickname, by the way – have shown well in recent friendlies, and could give England fits.
28. Costa Rica — Not the same team they were four years ago. Er, actually, they are more or less the same team, but with four years of football on their legs, and probably with less good fortune this time around. So their sameness is precisely the problem.
29. Japan — Pretty enigmatic, but recent performances haven’t been promising.
TIER 9: THE BASEMENT
30. Saudi Arabia — This is probably the highest you’ll see the Saudis in any World Cup power rankings. They may very well go up in flames – in double-digit goals conceded, to be more precise – but they’re going to have a proper go at their Group A foes, and could beat one or two.
31. South Korea — The Koreans’ World Cup stock is low and falling.
32. Panama — Los Canaleros are probably going to get ripped apart. But they’re going to enjoy the heck out of the World Cup experience.